Self-Care When Life is Messy

Self-Care When Life is Messy

Think you don’t need self-care? Are you doused with guilt every time you think about taking a moment or two for yourself in the midst of a crazy schedule? Jane McGrath, Senior Manager of Digital Fundraising and Engagement for American Bible Society and chair of 4word: Philadelphia, learned the vital importance of embracing self-care in the midst of a “messy life” and shares her story of finding life-giving energy in prioritizing self-care.

Tell us a little about yourself! 

Jane: I am a wife, a mom twice over, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend and a child of The King. I love that I’m a born-and-raised Pennsylvanian, blessed by four seasons, lush rolling landscape, and rich cultural and historical heritage. 

I serve American Bible Society as the Senior Manager of Digital Fundraising and Engagement. I’m blessed with a beautiful church family at Calvary Chapel Chester Springs, PA, and I have a long history of ministry leadership with MOPS, Upward Basketball, and now 4word where I chair 4word: Philadelphia. 

My family is an incredible collection of awesomeness and complexity. My amazing husband is hero to our two sons, now young men. What a better way to grow in the Fruits of the Spirit than to be a wife and mom. I’d like to think I’ve impacted their lives, but the truth is far more the other way around. Blessings galore! 

Part of the family complexity comes from an accident my husband had over 20 years ago which paralyzed him from the mid-chest down, essentially stealing the life-balance we had been desperately trying to establish as a young couple parenting two adorable kiddos who were 4 years old and 10 months old at the time. We had arranged our lives just two years prior so that I could be a stay-at-home mom with a small part time job and serve in Christian leadership with MOPS. Now, 20 years later, our lives are no less complex although we are better at it all and we definitely laugh more than cry. 

How has your husband’s injury affected the balance of your life, in terms of mothering, working, and serving? 

Jane: Phil’s accident completely flipped our idea of where we were going in life as a couple. In the blink of an eye, all our dreams and hopes and plans turned totally upside-down without our permission or foresight. Have you ever read the poem by Emily Perl Kingsley called Welcome to Holland? It’s beautiful. In the poem, a woman is on a trip to Italy and the plane lands in Holland instead. She wrestles with the grief of missing what she was supposed to see and experience in Italy. She’s confused and upset that she’s not experiencing what she had planned, all to find that when she opens her eyes and heart to Holland, she realizes the absolute beauty and majesty of Holland. When Phil fell, I experienced all of this and more, and eventually, came to love my Holland.

In terms of balance, there were three phases I went through. First, I became the best full-time spinal cord injury caregiver I could, all while maintaining the Super Woman status in parenting and serving in MOPS as best I could. I desperately tried to keep everything ‘normal’ for my family, aka controlling every circumstance to the very best of my ability. This is where self-care for me went out the door for a long time. I was not able to work or take care of household needs given the heroic responsibilities of caregiving and parenting solo (a shout out to caregivers; you are truly special souls!). I remember feeling as though we were on an unhealthy autopilot, yet I knew, without a doubt, that God was sustaining us. God’s hourly presence and faithful provision was tangible.

The unhealthy autopilot looked a little like this. On the day of Phil’s accident, I went into total control mode. I was going to own the outcome of a new life, I was going to make sure that I was prepared if anything life-changing like this were to ever happen again, and I was going to do it all with grace. Sadly, it was very difficult to not allow my life circumstances to control every part of my life, from trying to make life perfect for my sons, family, and friends to trying to be ‘on’ at all times, taking time for myself only after everyone was take care of, because I was The Mom, right? All this yet there was a calmness that was so very present; the Holy Spirit was clearly present in my every minute. 

During the second phase, I just got good at the facade. Phil became more independent yet continued to need assistance often. With his independence came a bit of freedom for me to get a part time job to maintain our home. I also started running for exercise. In my mind, this was part of taking care of myself, but in my heart, I was running to keep myself in optimal shape so I could be there for my husband and children. I was doing everything for everyone else even when it looked like I was taking care of me; I really wasn’t. As time passed, I got really good at this, or so I thought. This ‘I can do this, they need me’ perspective was hurting me and not helping my family. Trials ebbed and flowed over these years and when they ebbed, I ramped up. 

I also began pursuing a career realizing that I would hold the fiscal responsibility for my family going forward. I went back to school to earn a Masters of Science degree in Organizational Leadership and an MBA all while pursuing advancing professional opportunities. 

It took me well over 15 years to morph toward phase three. I can now see how avoiding self-care can steal the breathtaking beauty of what God has for our lives. I don’t want to paint a grim picture. During these years, I was totally and completely enjoying the good and dealing with the bad of life, however looking back, I now realize my health and effectiveness suffered because I was not taking care of me.

Self-care honors our Creator and gives us space to experience joy and fullness in life in a way I hadn’t really understood. Self-care removes blinders so we can see the adventure and beauty in how God is leading and guiding our lives without the heavy weigh that we impose on ourselves. It also teaches our children and families a healthy balance over striving alone. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, perfectly created for His perfect will. Taking care of the precious child we are, I believe, honors and delights Him. Simply put, it’s called surrender. 

In a nutshell, my progression looked like this: 

As a wife, mom, professional, and Local Group leader, what does self-care look like in your life? How do you find time for you?

Jane: For me, there are two types of self-care. Those that do not take any extra time and those that take time but give it back. 

First, my key self-care items that don’t really take more time, and actually may increase the time you have available in your day by increasing health and effectiveness. 

  1. I’ve learned that self-care has much to do with my perspective in dealing with relationships and expectations. I’ve learned to avoid situations and people that bring me down when I can. I’ve found that boundaries in this area leave more room for time with people and activities that encourage my soul and contribute positively. This is so freeing. It doesn’t mean avoiding tough situations and people, just toxic ones. 
  2. I’ve worked hard on consistently eating healthy. It doesn’t take more time, just better choices. 
  3. Another mindset adjustment I continue to work on is to avoid thinking that I am the one who needs to do everything. God recently gave me a godly mentor who, through wise, candid words, pointed out how often in a short conversation I said, “I need to ____ (get better at, take care of, or make sure that xyz happens).” Then she asked, “Why do YOU need to? What would happen if you don’t?” The truth is, I don’t need to, and this has been transforming, when I catch myself. 
  4. And so critical, I never miss my short morning devotion. I leave the house super early and it’s a 2- minute no-brainer when you have Diane Paddison’s devotional, Be Refreshed.
  5. Finally, I have seasonal best practices. For example, now that it’s summer, I don’t do dishes. I find adorable stars and stripes paper plates and treat myself often to an easy dinner clean up. I’m sure you can think of a few simple feel-good things like this too!

Next, the items that take some time. And, I can confidently say that I’ve experienced time saving benefits from this list too. All these items add clarity to my body, mind and spirit, and in the end, I believe they add productivity to my days, especially #3. 

  1. I get good regular exercise. Physical activity has become a true self-care activity. Although I aim for 3-5 workouts each week, I’ve learned to chill-out if I only get 1-3 runs in. Self-care shouldn’t add stress. 
  2. In the last 6 months, that same wise mentor coached me on the value of a silent retreat, a Spirit-filled long weekend that I plan to schedule every year. Sitting quietly for days, expecting nothing and not being expected of. Seeking what God has for me, being still and knowing He is there. Rest.
  3. Only recently have I intentionally added sleep to my list, getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, every night. Discovering the phenomenal impact of sleeping 7-8 hours straight on a regular basis has been amazing. This discipline is of utmost importance. Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution, shares strong research and gives numerous examples of how crucial sleep is and gives insight into how to intentionally make sleep a key self-care strategy. The physical, emotional and cognitive transformation has been striking. This is one thing that has saved me as much time as I’ve lost in hours sleeping. The clarity of my mind, effectiveness of my work, present-ness with my loved ones, have all been noticeably different, better. I highly recommend making sleep your first priority when it comes to self-care. 

Have you ever dealt with guilt about wanting to or making time for yourself in your life? 

Jane: I’d say that guilt and control together have been my nemesis. As I’ve released control over the years, I’ve felt less guilty about taking care of myself because I’ve seen the amazing results it’s had on my family, work and self. 

For me, feeling guilty is coupled with control. And once I started doing just one self-care thing, I saw results quickly and that made me hungry for more, not more guilty. 

What advice would you give to someone who feels like they couldn’t possibly make room for self-care in their busy life? 

Jane: Simple. You can’t afford to not take care of yourself and not feel guilty about it if your goal is to be great for God and take great care of the people and responsibilities that He has entrusted to you. Seek God to order your hours and to give you insight and direction.   

Anything else you’d like to share? 

Jane: God is Good. His tender mercies and grace shower us every day and even when I consider all the failures of not caring for me over the years, I can confidently say that my sons turned out amazingly well, and my marriage remains solid. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12:9). Don’t regret what you haven’t done; act on what you can now. As I reflect on God’s goodness and faithfulness, I know he never left me nor forsook me. His promises are for all. 

The last thing I might add is to be careful to look at self-care from a biblical lens and not the world’s lens. There are boatloads of self-care ideas online yet without a keen biblical lens, we can become out of alignment from Christ’s example. Our lives are messy because we live in a world laced with sin. The world’s definition of self-care is sometimes a way to avoid the messiness and it’s in the messiness that we grow closer to our Heavenly Father. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (II Cor 4:17)

You can do this! 

God bless you and keep you! 

Jane McGrath joined American Bible Society in 2009 after years of serving in leadership roles across Christian nonprofit, private Christian education, retail and hospitality sectors. As Senior Manager of Digital Fundraising and Engagement for American Bible Society, Jane leads the digital direct response program, as part of the multi-channel efforts, providing strategic direction, analysis and day-to-day management advancing digital direct response efforts across giving levels related to website, email, social, digital media and emerging digital channels. She’s a Penn State graduate and holds an MBA and Masters Certificate of Organizational Leadership from Cairn University as well as a Certificate in Women’s Ministry from the AACC, Light University. 

Jane serves as the Chairwoman for 4word: Philadelphia and is a member of Calvary Chapel Church in Chester Springs, PA. She resides in the countryside of Southeastern PA with her precious family. She loves running, reading, and family activities (like Cape May beach vacations and meals on the back porch). And most of all, serving a big God, loving Jesus and others to bits.