Recently I had a couple of rough weeks. You know the kind where you feel like you are slogging through mud. It seemed like, even though I was working really hard, I ended each day further behind than where I started. So on a Friday, at the end of a week where I had a series of problems with several of my large appliances, I had had enough and decided to take a mental health day. I only did tasks I wanted to do rather than needed to do, like baking banana bread instead of putting clothes away. I took the afternoon off, enjoying a glass of wine at 4 o’clock, and fed my family fast food for dinner.
Most people I talked with about my mental health day and the reason for it, told me I was perfectly justified, even deserving. In other words, I was given permission by my social group to practice some self care. Taking some time to take a break from whatever problem is looming and treat oneself, allows a person to recharge and approach the problem or just a hectic life schedule with renewed energy and stamina. Let’s face it, who among us hasn’t needed a day to regroup. One might argue that occasional mental health days are necessary for one to be a productive member of society or a group.
But what about the person living poverty, who faces stressful situations at every turn? You know the person I am talking about. The guy whose car that won’t start, but he needs to get to work to keep that job. Or the caregiver with a chronically sick family member, whose care drains her energy as well as the household savings account. How about the single mom whose stagnant or shrinking paycheck must somehow cover the increasing costs of rent, utilities, and food? Does society commiserate with these people and afford them understanding when they practice self care? My experience is that society often judges those who are struggling in poverty severely for doing some of the same things it deems acceptable for me to do after a couple bad days.
Why is that? Why as a society are we willing to condone my actions when I take a mental health day, yet condemn similar actions taken by a person living in poverty who faces soul crushing hardships on a daily basis? I recently read an article in which a woman, who had lived for a time in poverty, decided to publicly reveal her situation. In the article, she discusses the shame and the stigma she felt due to her situation. She said, “I felt like what most people considered self care was, for me, indulgent and even selfish.” As I read this article, I was reminded of Simcha Fisher’s moving article, The Day I Bought Steak with My Food Stamps. Both of these women evocatively write about the shame and judgement society placed on them when they dared to take some small action to make their desperate situations a little better.
To counter the shame that society asks people living in poverty to carry around, and to help brighten their bleak situations, is the reason we at the food pantry try and provide little treats whenever we can. We regularly try to tuck special donated items, like Little Debbie snacks or lotions or Halloween napkins into the food boxes of those who are struggling with a particularly difficult time. Similarly, this is the reason I have chosen the items I have–sweet treats and warm beverages like coffee, tea, and hot chocolate–for my special food drives. Everyone who is dealing with a stressful situation deserves a treat or a pick me up without judgement. Everyone needs to know that it is okay to take care of oneself, whether that means taking a few minutes to savor a cup of coffee, enjoying the smile on their child’s face when given a snack cake, or buying a steak for dinner.