‘Wellness’ Can Be a Trap for Moms. Here’s How to Avoid It.

A few weeks ago, both my daughters had eczema flare-ups. This is common for my younger daughter, who will get red, itchy patches on the backs of her knees and elbows throughout the year. My older daughter hadn’t had it since she was a baby, yet there it was, an angry stripe on the inner curve of her neck. The usual remedies of diligent moisturizing and lukewarm baths were not working.

It was just a flash of feeling, but my first reaction was that this was somehow my fault. Had I was fed them something new that was particularly inflammatory? Was I using a detergent with too many fragrances or additives? Is it because I didn’t breastfeed them long enough? My lizard brain went directly to self-blame and assumed my purchasing or personal habits were the problem.

Sound familiar?

Because I’ve been thinking critically about — indeed, occasionally side-eyeing — wellness culture, motherhood and shame for about a decade, I was quickly able to squelch this internal narrative: “Uh, no, my kids have eczema because they’ve been in and out of pools all summer and sweating a ton and it runs in the family. Not everything is your fault.”

I was reminded of this episode, though, while reading a new book by the journalist Rina Raphael called “The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop and the False Promise of Self-Care,” which is out this month. Her aim isn’t to demonize wellness. True wellness, which she describes as “the choices we make to feel better physically, mentally, socially and spiritually,” is a worthwhile pursuit and something that should be available to everyone.

What she does is unmask the way that the wellness industryhas “taken good ideas about nutrition and fitness and made it into this individualist mandate that’s filled with fear and productivity pressure.” As she explains, the industry particularly targets women, and middle- and upper-middle-class white mothers — like me — may be especially susceptible. We are all being marketed to “in ways that are really fear based, exploiting vulnerability,” Raphael told me.

Over roughly the past century, Raphael argues, corporations have used tactics that overstate the dangers of nearly everything a child could eat or touch, either implying or outright saying that if we aren’t shopping carefully, the stakes could be life or death, and this exaggeration has caused many mothers unnecessary anxiety. In her book she cites an icebox ad from the 1920s that implored mothers, “When a baby’s health hangs in the balance, the intelligent mother will see to it that the ice supply never runs too low.”

She explains further:

As Raphael points out, “It’s neither cheap nor easy to carry the safety burden,” and throughout the book she notes that being in a position to fret about which chicken to buy is a luxury problem. Many American moms are stressing about survival, not analyzing every ingredient in their detergent, and pushing consumer choices and personal responsibility can take you only so far.

One just needs to read recent stories about Jackson, Miss., a majority-Black city where 150,000 people lost safe drinking water, to know that health and well-being can be more elemental and are frequently out of reach for too many families, based on unequal access to basic resources that most Americans take for granted. When you can’t even find enough bottled water to go around, that has absolutely nothing to do with individual choices at the supermarket.

The point isn’t that the public health and infrastructure debacle in Jackson is the same kind of problem as whether to buy organic milk. Rather, it’s about distinguishing between health and the commercialized notion of wellness — and the psychic weight that mothers, especially, wind up carrying when it comes to our children’s well-being.

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and the author of the forthcoming book “Real Self-Care,” told me that “many of the moms that I work with in my practice don’t even question whether this internalization of responsibility is real or true; they just accept it. Because it’s so deeply entrenched in our culture that everything bad or good that happens to your child is somehow tied back to your ability as a mother.”

Dr. Lakshmin also wondered if some of this internalization of responsibility is a defense mechanism. “It’s easier to believe that if I work really, really hard, I can make sure that my children will be safe, as opposed to acknowledging just how utterly dysfunctional our entire social structure is.”

It can be so soothing to think that any health problem can be solved by something you can buy on the internet, in a pretty package, one that smells like bergamot. Anyone can fall into that trap. But, says Dr. Lakshmin, true wellness “doesn’t look the same for anybody, and that it is an internal process. It’s not something you can easily buy off the shelf.”

Sometimes it looks like just patience. Of course, I wanted to soothe my daughters’ discomfort and allay my concerns, so I called our pediatrician about the eczema. She said to continue to moisturize and use Aquaphor when the moisturizer was stinging my little one. After a few days, it went away, no further purchases or dietary alterations necessary. Maybe next time, I can skip the flash of self-blame, too. For me, that would be a true sign of wellness.

P.S.: I want to talk to parents who’ve left traditional public schools for charter schools, private schools or home-schooling. I also want to know whether your feelings about schools have affected any of your voting preferences for the 2022 midterm elections. If you’d like to be interviewed for a future newsletter, please drop me a line here.

Want More?

  • In June, I talked to the New York Times Magazine contributor Linda Villarosa about her book “Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation.” In it she notes the limits to self-help when it comes to personal health. She writes, “I’m chagrined to think I believed that the impact of insidious discrimination associated with the lived experience of being Black in America can be washed away in a bubble bath or calmed with journaling or meditation or me time.”

  • In her book “Who Is Wellness For?” the author and artist Fariha Róisín recommends a radical deconstruction of the concept and industry, through her harrowing personal story. “I have often felt like self-care should come with instructions, because I didn’t quite know where to begin the process myself. The nature of self-care’s commodification has meant that we’ve lost track of how personal this journey is,” she writes.

  • In 2019, Dr. Lakshmin wrote a story for The Times called “Saying ‘No’ Is Self-Care for Parents.”

  • “My daughter’s body, I now understood, was feedback about my parenting”: Last year I interviewed the sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh about her book, “How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America,” and why mothers feel so judged about the way they feed their children.

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