How You Put Yourself on the Back Burner…and How to Avoid It

Watching my aging mother, I realized how important it is to avoid putting yourself on the back burner.

Photo by Alberto Frías on Unsplash

As mentioned in a previous post, I recently had to make an unexpected trip to Seoul to help my parents. The Independent just published my personal essay on what it was like to quarantine at my parents home and how the government helped me secure assistive care for them. I hope you will check it out.

There were many details I couldn’t include in the essay. One of them was how I discovered why my mother became so thin.

After my husband and children returned to the US, my parents and I had quieter meals together. I noticed that my mother would take from her plate the best slices of meat or best-looking vegetables and put it on my father’s. And at other times, she would try to give her food to me.

This wasn’t new behavior. She had always tried to put more on our plates. She learned this from her own mother. My mother once recalled her shock when she learned my grandmother never liked fish heads. She had only claimed it was her favorite part of the fish so that my aunts and mother would not feel guilty eating up all the fleshier parts she wouldn’t touch.

What was new about my Mother’s behavior is that she was giving away too much of her food and forgetting to feed herself.

Examples of being unaware

Something similar happens to loving women who put their families’ needs before their own. Because talented women are capable of doing a lot, they take on responsibilities easily and often. Since they also caring, they don’t see how their caregiving comes at an expense to themselves. As their behavior becomes more habitual, they can’t imagine doing things any other way.

I often find myself posing the following types of questions to my clients:

  • Why not just skip one PTA meeting?
  • What would happen if you didn’t answer your mother-in-law’s 3rd call while you were driving?
  • How could you maybe skip one weekend of traveling to your mother’s and give yourself a well-deserved break?
  • What if you passed on this new project assignment?

There are, of course, times when we cannot ease up on our caregiving. There are moments in our lives when caregiving must take over. I know all too well how a serious illness can take over your life. Or, how caring for chronic conditions can be all-consuming.

But more often than not, high-achieving women don’t even consider giving themselves even a little bit of wiggle room, let alone finding something of their own outside of career and family.

I wish my mother had kept up with her own interests, instead of neglecting them to care for us. I believe if she had, perhaps Alzheimer’s wouldn’t have such a stronghold on her.

How to avoid putting yourself on the back burner

Women are often told they need to take better care of themselves. I, of course, don’t want to add to your plate. You probably are already well aware that you need something of your own.

Perhaps you’re like many high-performing women, and can’t even begin to imagine what that might look like for yourself. We’re not exposed to practical bite-size examples. Women often tell me, “I don’t have time for a spa day let alone a spa weekend.” Their vision has been limited to what advertisers have defined as “self-care.” Or, they might say, “I don’t have time for hobbies” as social media only showcases camera-ready, perfectly-curated pursuits.

Here are my suggestions:

First, notice your own back-burner behavior. This isn’t easy. So, try asking yourself…

  • When getting take-out, do you alter your order to “share” with others or supplement what your children will eat?
  • If everyone is working and schooling from home, did you set up your workspace as you did for others in your family?
  • When you plan family trips, do you voice where you would like to go?
  • Do you schedule your doctor appointments only after you schedule your children’s?

You don’t need to alter what you’re doing, simply take the next week to watch yourself and be on the look out for what is happening.

Second, after about a week or so, ask yourself this question:

When I put myself on the back-burner, what am I giving up?

Sometimes, what you give up is ok. And, in that case, feel good that you are making an important sacrifice.

But, if what you’re giving up pains you or makes you feel resentful, that’s a good indicator that you need to adjust somehow.

And, if that’s the case, see if you can start with a small tweak. Again, not everything needs a makeover or overhaul.

How might you avoid putting yourself on the back burner? Feel free to let me know how things are going for you.

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