On Self-Care, Skin Care, and the Changes of Motherhood

I like to keep up with Stephen Alain Ko’s Beauty Recap each week (especially now that he has made it easier by posting swipe-up links in his Instagram Stories). And the other day, he linked a great article in Verily Magazine about the distinction between self-care and skin care. I’ve already been thinking a lot about beauty standards, skin care, and how capitalist colonial ideals inform our standards of beauty, but this was a fresh look at the fine line between encouragement and marketing when discussing self/skin care. Of course, skin care can be immensely powerful, as evidenced by my introduction to Korean beauty, Jude Chao’s seminal work on skin care and depression, so I thought a little about how skin care has fit into my ideas of self care and how that is distinct from buying product.

I happen to be undergoing a period of rapid change and, often, stress in my life. I had my first child and have been working to rebuild the shaken foundations of my self image while also existing on not much sleep and even less free time. Oh, and I’m now back at work full-time, too. So it’s been difficult sometimes to find time just for myself. I always have my tea and I’ve been making time for crafts, but both of those things are often things I do while I’m with Elliot and Dan, so beauty has become my true private time during the day.

When we met with our doula, her most important postpartum recovery tip was to have a morning routine and an evening routine that is simple enough that you can do it every day. She wasn’t talking about skin care; she literally meant that you should have something to separate day from night during those first few weeks when you’re awake basically around the clock. Because I’d had a c-section, I was supposed to limit my time walking up and down the stairs, so my main morning and evening routines were transitioning from upstairs to downstairs, and vice versa, but my skin care routine added an important element of reconnecting with myself. Each morning, Dan would give me at least five minutes to wash my face and put on moisturizer, and then in the evening, he would take Elliot for an hour or so, which gave me time to do a full skin care routine and take a nap before he brought Elliot up.

In the early days, when I could barely stand long enough to shower, this often involved a lot of shortcuts, like cleansing water and toner pads, and has evolved nearly back to my full, complicated routine. Contrary to the consumerist ideal of shelfie skin care, I’ve discovered a profound comfort in stripping my skin care routine to its core and using the same products over and over again. It does not make for good Instagram photos, but when I never know what my life will look like on a given day, it’s nice to know that my cleanser is an old standby. I haven’t felt nearly as much need to experiment with products, despite the importance of my skin care routine in maintaining my sense of normalcy postpartum.

But the one thing I have added to my routine is a nightly facial massage with my stone gua sha. I use this video tutorial from Sandra Lanshin Chiu to inform my routine. Each night, after I’ve fed Elliot and put him in his crib, I sit at my vanity and perform this nightly ritual. With most of the lights in the bedroom off to allow Elliot to sleep, I often do my massage by the light of a lavender-scented candle. I start with a few sprays of pure rosewater for some hydration, and then press in a generous amount of rose hip oil, but it’s not about product. You can use whatever you fancy and have on hand. I don’t use anything particularly expensive for this because I use a lot and apply it to my face, neck, and shoulders. Then, I begin smoothing my gua sha tool over my skin, feeling the coolness of the stone, and the pressure when it encounters a knot in my muscles. I can feel it help relax my neck, shoulder, and face muscles, relieve mild headaches, relax stress and worry that I’m holding in my face and neck, and stimulate blood flow.

Usually, Elliot is sleeping while I do this, but every once in a while, he doesn’t fall asleep during his feeding, and he will stay awake in his crib, watching me from across the room. I like the idea that he will grow up with memories of his mother caring for herself, although at this point it must be pretty boring because he is usually asleep by the time I finish. Other than an occasional silent observer, I am alone for this ritual while Dan finishes the washing up. There are no demands on my attention other than what I am paying to myself. And when I finish my massage, I apply my moisturizing lotion and get into bed.

I have other forms of self care, but so much has changed since becoming a mother. I can no longer make as much time to go to the gym or do theater. But my skin care routine is still there, even without any shiny new products, and it has helped me maintain a connection to my sense of self, as well as take time to center as I enter motherhood.