Adults have to take care of themselves before they can take care of anyone else. In fact, adults who push themselves excessively — depriving themselves of sleep, relaxation, and creativity — hurt not only themselves, but their loved ones as well. Irritability, poor health, and frayed nerves are the predictable consequences of an unbalanced life. None of this is pretty.

So we must all endorse self-care. What we can’t endorse, however, is selfish care.

“I understand that my husband needs to ‘chill’ after a hard week, so I don’t begrudge him hanging around with his buddies after shul on Shabbos and enjoying a few drinks. But often he goes to kiddush after kiddush and comes home very late. The kids are starving and kvetchy and I go out of my mind watching them. When he finally shows up, he’s already stuffed to the hilt with kugel and cholent and cake — and he’s tipsy on top of it! All he wants to do is go to sleep. If I ‘force’ him to join us at the table for the children’s sake, he’s basically dysfunctional. Forget divrei Torah or even normal conversation, and of course, I can never invite guests. I’m glad he has his downtime, but I and the kids are the ones paying for it.”

Me First

There are many ways to care for oneself selfishly.

“I respect my wife’s need to take care of herself. She’s up at night with the baby and she’s on call all day long. She’d go crazy if she weren’t able to do some things for herself. But I think she goes too far. She’s so busy with all her classes and activities that she’s too ‘wiped out,’ as she puts it, to make us dinner. It’s always takeout or cold cereal. She tells me that dinner isn’t her priority. This is a huge disappointment for me. When I was growing up, dinner was a huge priority, and that’s what I’m used to. Now if I want homemade food, I’ve got to make it myself after a long day at work.”

Although this husband understands his wife’s need for outside activities while she undertakes the exhausting job of raising babies, toddlers, and a houseful of older kids, he doesn’t understand her priorities. His life is negatively affected by her choice of how to use her time. “I wouldn’t mind if she did her favorite activities every day as long as she found time to fulfill her responsibilities to the kids and me,” the husband says.

No Private Life

The problem is that the personal choices of a married person always affect his or her family. Very often, this means that there can be conflict between doing what is best for oneself and what is best for one’s spouse and/or children.

Imagine a person whose whole life revolves around travel. Let’s say this person marries a homebody. The travel fan has a strong need to get on a plane a few times a year and “go somewhere.” If the spouse doesn’t come, that’s okay for this person — as long as he or she gets to go.

But the homebody may feel abandoned as each trip rolls around. “If he had to go on business or if it was one trip alone a year, fine,” says one begrudging wife. “But I can’t handle this repeated abandoning of the ship!”

The urge to take care of oneself can be very powerful — so powerful that it can lead to sacrificing one’s own children.

What Else Can I Do?

“I’m just not happy in this marriage and I can’t see myself living like this for the rest of my life,” says one miserable spouse. “I know the kids will suffer if I leave, but what else can I do?”

It’s never simple. In fact, it’s often excruciatingly painful and hard. Married adults can’t just take care of themselves and their own needs without considering how their actions will impact their families. Self-sacrifice is no longer a popular notion, and the act of fulfilling one’s responsibility may not warm every individual’s heart. Nowadays people’s investment in themselves and their personal happiness often trumps their sense of duty — that old-fashioned notion that, invigorating and sustaining only a couple of generations ago, is now associated with depression, entrapment, and burdensome obligation.

The truth, however, hasn’t changed: The rewards of family life come at a cost. Take care of yourself with your family in mind, or expect to pay a price. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 569)