We live in an age in which "being a woman" is no longer synonymous with being someone’s wife or mother. We can be founders, employees, radical activists, mothers, and wives all at the same time—or none of the above.
Still, though, the patriarchy remains alive and well. As a startup co-founder, I feel especially lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had as a woman in tech—but for the same reason, I'm hyper-aware of the obstacles women face in the startup world. If you are an empathetic and caring manager, men peg you as weak. But if you try to act like an alpha, they see you as aggressive.
But there’s widespread confusion between assertiveness and aggression. Many people (men and women alike) think that in order to be more assertive, you need to be more aggressive—when in reality, you can be sensitive, empathetic, and assertive.
In my journey as an entrepreneur, a mother, and a woman, I’ve learned that the most essential foundation of mental health is self-care, a term that is definitely having a moment in the zeitgeist. But what does it even mean, anyway?
Self-care is more than bubble baths and cucumber slices (though there’s nothing wrong with a good spa day). Yes, we deeply care about our kids, our work, our husbands, our family members. But seeing your needs as the last priority doesn’t translate to being a "good" person, a "good" mom and wife, or a "good" boss.
It’s time to start defining self-care in a new way. Here’s what I wish more women understood about mental health and self-care:
1. Know that self-care is your responsibility—and only yours.
Self-care might mean choosing to stay at home to relax instead of going out to dinner with friends. It can mean telling your partner you need alone time. It can mean exercise. It can mean whatever you need to make yourself feel better at any given moment.
As women, we’re conditioned to place everyone else’s needs above our own—our kids, our boss, our colleagues, our partners, even our friends. It’s as if societal norms have hard-wired these behaviors into us. Parents and teachers probably taught us that our role is to take care of others. And traditionally, we’re supposed to focus on childbearing and nesting.
Yet neglecting your needs as a woman perpetuates different and more dangerous stereotypes. A woman who neglects herself to take care of her husband, kids, friends, and work above her mental health most likely will be unable to function as her highest and best self in the world. Who else among us has been labeled "weak" or "unstable" because of unaddressed anxiety? We alone can help destigmatize mental health by learning to prioritize ourselves. And if you don’t make room for self-care, you’re putting your mental health at risk.
2. Recognize that every action (or lack thereof) stems from a choice.
If you want to focus on work as well as parenting, get in touch with that desire by taking a risk. Experiment. Test out different choices against your value system. Understanding how you want to live your life is a huge step, and it takes trial and error. Society makes it easy to play the victim, to say, "I don’t have a choice" when it comes to life decisions and goals around our professional and personal identities. Try to quiet the voices of others, and make room to listen to yourself.
Being in a victim role is, itself, a choice, and will only breed resentment and guilt that keep us from recognizing the clear truth of our needs in a given moment. That confusion and conflict masquerade as anxiety—and if unaddressed, that anxiety can spiral into more serious mental health (or other health) issues.
3. Acknowledge that your choices have a cost (and benefit).
With each choice, you’ll be gaining something unique—so get in touch with that. Having a fulfilling career is a form of self-expression, empowerment, intellectual stimulation, and ultimately, meaning.
It’s also important to be realistic. Consider what you’re willing to sacrifice to gain what you want. Ask, "What is the cost I am willing to pay?" If you want to work full-time and have a career, you may want to ask, "Will I be able to tolerate being away from my kids?" If you want to be a stay-at-home mom, consider, "Will I be able to tolerate not working?"
4. Ditch the idea of "having it all."
My husband and I started Talkspace, an online therapy company, with the mission of expanding affordable and convenient access to therapy. Why? For one, I believe therapy to be the most efficient tool for connecting to our needs and locating clarity in our thoughts. All too often, fears, prejudices, and assumptions cloud our perception and keep us at a distance from what we really think and need. Clarity is a basic foundation of good mental health.
The sad truth is that all of us want more than we can actually have. Many neoliberal feminists have been criticized for promoting the idea of "having it all"—motherhood, professional success, and beyond. And for good reason: Most of the people promoting this idea are privileged enough to pay for full-time nannies, professional cooks, and extracurricular classes for our kids. Yes, we can have more with more resources. But most of us need to make sacrifices.
I recommend declaring, "I can’t have it all" because the more we acknowledge the inevitability of making some choices over others, the more empowered we feel.
5. Practice speaking up.
When I was younger, I used to assume my partner and close family members could read my mind. And when I realized they couldn’t, I found myself disappointed and angry and blaming myself as a result.
More often than not, failing to communicate stems from fear of conflict. It feels easier to avoid doing what we want (meeting with a friend for coffee, for example) than communicating what we want to (and potentially pissing off) the people around us. It all comes back to anxiety about setting boundaries.
No one will make things happen for you. Once again, therapy was the tool that helped me recognize the beliefs and assumptions holding me back from being authentic, discovering my own strength, and embracing my weaknesses. There is something very powerful about saying, "This is who I am and what I need" even if you need to pay a price.
You can do all of this alongside bubble baths and spa treatments, but self-care is about so much more than that. The core is understanding your needs, the cost of meeting them, and learning to like yourself in a state of strength.
Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your love horoscope, then find out why holding on to past relationships is the worst thing you can do for yourself.