I was once a young woman, a mother with a houseful of noisy children. Today, I am going to tell you what I wish someone had told me all those years ago:

Take care of yourself.

It is that simple, really. We women are like canteens. One child has an ear infection while another is throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of Target, and a few drops of water are poured from that canteen. We work all day, listen to the guy next to us groan about his wife’s pregnancy, and more water is gone. We arrive home, wipe noses, listen to a long list of frequently nonsensical stories, then try not to scream as one or more of our children announces a bone-deep hatred for whatever it is we managed to put on the dinner table. We feel our canteen draining and wonder how we’re going to find the energy to get through the evening.

Oh, and when we do finally crawl into bed our significant other is pretty sure that all we want to do is make mad, passionate love.

If we are like canteens, then life is like a desert. We need that water in order to survive. And yet, without thinking, we give it away – one drop at a time. And, you want to know a secret I’ve picked up through the decades of my life? Those who know that we are giving away the contents of our canteen will gladly lap it up. Yep. Not only will family and friends use up our reserves before dipping into their own, but we become a magnet for leaches everywhere.

If you don’t hear one other thing I’m saying, please hear this: It is up to you to preserve the contents of your canteen. Do I love my family and friends? You bet I do -- with every cell in my body. But while I was busy thinking what a wonderful, self-sacrificing mother, wife, and friend I was, I was actually robbing the people I love of the opportunity to be generous, to feel good about their ability to give and take.

Because nature abhors a void, as our canteens are emptied of one thing, they are filled with another: stress. According to Mayo Clinic, stress can affect our thoughts, feelings, behavior, and health. Left unchecked, stress contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. It also leads to physical symptoms, like headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, upset stomach, loss of libido, and sleep disturbances. Add to that the fact that stress can make us anxious, sad, depressed, angry, and unmotivated, and it makes you wonder why we ever allowed our canteens to be drained in the first place, why we allowed room in our lives for stress to take over.

And we did allow it. Even if we have sick relatives, challenging jobs, financial troubles, sometimes-bratty kids, and often-thoughtless partners, we made a conscious decision to ignore our own needs. ­­I have often thought that females should be tattooed shortly after birth and it should read, “Take care of yourself because you are precious.” We should be taught from birth to carve out time to nurture ourselves and nourish our souls.

Look, I get it. We’re all busy. I don’t imagine each of us taking an hour or two a day away from our schedules to focus on ourselves. What we can do is take slivers of time, just enough to begin to refill that canteen. It may be a quiet cup of tea before the kids are up in the morning, 15 minutes in the middle of the day to meditate, 30 minutes after dinner to walk, or a call to a good friend after the kids are in bed.
Yesterday was a “refill” day for me. I saw my hairdresser (and one of the gentlest souls I know) for a color and cut. I followed it with an hour massage. That’s right, smack dab in the middle of the day I took time away from work to do something that was strictly about me. I also called my husband and said, “Oh yeah, I’m not going to have time to make dinner. We’ll order in.”

There was a time not so long ago when I would have felt like a spoiled brat for doing those things, but that was before I began having panic attacks and so much anxiety that I could barely get to my office. I allowed my canteen to be emptied by so many different people and situations that I did not have a reserve to pull from when the going got tough.

Feel free to consider me your nosy neighbor if you would like, but please learn from my experience. Go ahead and schedule that pedicure (and take a friend you can confide in), get a trim (even when everyone in your house – including the dog -- needs a trim, too), take an exercise class on Saturdays, just because you want to. In short, fasten your own emotional seatbelt before you start fastening everyone else’s.

You deserve to have your canteen refilled, but only you can do it.

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