How we think about concepts determines how they are shaped in our experience. With that in mind, how do we think about care? What is care? This article is one of three in a collaboration detailing ideas of care from Regina Gee, Sayr Motz, & Shivangi Tiwari. Continue reading to learn how Sayr Motz thinks of care and what it looks like in their life.

Sayr Motz (they/them) grew up in West Milton, Ohio, is the oldest sibling in a family of six, and has always loved turtles. They attended the University of Pittsburgh, graduating with a bachelor’s in Physics in 2020, and are currently in the Netherlands pursuing a master’s in Applied Physics and researching quantum technology at Delft University of Technology. In addition to their professional scientific interests, Sayr is passionate about building community in different areas of their life and has been gaining experience with organizing for their local LGBTAIQ+  association. They also enjoy MMA, playing piano, and painting. At this moment in their life, they are a creator, a scientist, and a student of collective care–their future work will intersect all of these identities.

What is care?

To me, care is about meeting needs. Everyone has needs. Some are more visible than others, like our need to be well fed, hydrated, rested, and sheltered. Others are harder to identify, especially emotional needs. My emotional needs look like security in relationships, affirmation as I move towards my goals, and gentleness in times of struggle. These needs can be met by myself and others, and my negative feelings are often symptoms of unmet needs. These feelings are often more visceral than cerebral, and it takes practice to find out where they live in your body and what a certain sensation means. To me, the process of identifying my need, sharing my need, and collaborating with others to get that need met is care. There are some needs that you can meet on your own, and I think of that as self-care, but there will always be some needs that can only be met through a collaboration with others. That’s not shameful or dependent, it’s normal. We’re built for connection.

As you build connections, I think it’s important to be aware of how you practice care with others. In the show Feel Good, the characters talk about having a bonsai-gardener dynamic in their relationship. Being a bonsai means that you are someone who needs a lot of care, attention, and nurturing, and being a gardener means you are someone who provides that. Ideally, both people can play bonsais and gardeners and switch between these roles as one another’s needs evolve. In my past relationships and friendships, I’ve realized that I’ve been a bonsai most of the time, and I’m striving to be a better, more frequent gardener in my current ones.

As we move through life, sometimes we’re pulled away from, never discover, or suppress the identities that make us feel the most joyful and seen. Someone recently told me about the idea of “existing close to your center”, which means you live in complete understanding and alignment to who you are. Self-care is anything that brings you close to your center. It can be small, like honoring my identity as an athlete when I go to kickboxing class, or it can be significant, like honoring my identity as a nonbinary person when I correct people misusing my pronouns. This idea of living in proximity to your center is what I think people mean by ‘wholeness’.

What does care look like in your life?

In my life, care looks like intentional, radically honest, and communicative connection to myself and others. I experience care the most with people who remain in my life by choice, not by circumstance because it’s the intention of ‘you are someone important to me who brings pleasure and meaning to my life’ that moves me to participate in care. Since a mandatory step of care is communication to others what you need, that participation requires vulnerability, self-awareness, and honesty.

Example 1: Friendships 

Last fall I was dealing with gender dysphoria, untreated ADHD, and a lot of anxiety about starting in a new research lab. When I’m overwhelmed like that, my executive functioning sucks. I miss meetings, deadlines, and meals, my house becomes a literal dumpster, and it becomes really hard for me to start simple tasks like going to the grocery. Finally, I told two close friends that I needed help resetting my space, and they came over and helped me clean up my house and get groceries. I initially felt embarrassed for them to see my mess, but they didn’t judge me or act any differently. Their care was a massive relief, and it also really wasn’t a big deal. Both things can be true at the same time if you get comfortable with vulnerability.

Example 2: Romantic Relationships

When I’m not feeling secure in my partnership, the most common symptom of that is anxiety, which generates this physically desensitized and heavy feeling in my body because when I’m anxious it’s hard for me to feel like I exist outside of my own mind. When I sense this feeling, I tell my partner, and we work together to meet my need for emotional security in our connection. This looks like spending extra time together, discussing what happened to trigger my anxious feeling and finding a solution to prevent it in the future, and cuddling. If the trigger is something that is going to happen repeatedly in the future, then bookending those events with quality time also helps build emotional security.

Example 3: In the Workplace

The past few months I haven’t made as much progress on my research project as I had hoped because my energy levels and mood have been fluctuating due to testing out ADHD medications. My diminished productivity makes me feel insecure about my working relationship with my colleague, which also generates anxiety in my body accompanied by self-deprecating thoughts. My anxious mind assumes that he’s probably thinking that he wishes he had a different, more competent collaborator. I communicated my need for emotional security to him, and now he periodically shares with me how he feels about me and our joint progress so I don’t fill in the blanks and get anxious. Expressing my needs to my boss can also look something like: “Due to my neurodivergence, when we have technical discussions my mind often drifts off somewhere else and I miss a lot of content–please be patient with me if I often ask you to repeat yourself, and can I record this talk for later?”

Need identification, communication, and collaboration—that’s care, baby!

How might ideas of care help to build a better world?

Collective care is something that I’ve become very interested in recently and want to pursue in multiple areas of my life in future projects. I became a student of collective care after restarting my life after my oil-based cooking accident caused a severe apartment fire. At the time, I was pursuing an applied physics master’s degree in a foreign country and had just come out professionally as trans. After the fire happened, I needed so much help. I made a list of everything that I needed that others could help me with and shared it publicly. Friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors–local and abroad–quickly and generously equipped me with everything I asked for. The only thing I had to do myself was invest time in my psychological healing. Because I was completely supported in all other areas, I was able to go from unable to boil a pot of water without post-traumatic stress back to cooking normally within a month. 

I’m privileged to have a wide, accessible, and financially secure support network that could meet my needs in my time of crisis. I think many don’t have the same. But even if you do have a good support network, most people only show up like this for others when their needs are very visible during an emergency. Can you imagine if we care for each other with that level of intention, coordination, and generosity outside times of tragedy too? I started visualizing and practicing what that would look like with my closest friends. The more I learn about how a community can care for itself, the more I believe it’s the key to our survival. 

Collective care is the scaffolding to our wellbeing that allows us to recover from crisis. Our bodies are vessels of trauma, and everyone will experience trauma at some point in their life. Imagine that your body is a bucket and the trauma that you carry with you is water in the bucket. Your relationships are strings that connect your trauma bucket to other trauma buckets. If we were to suspend the network of buckets in air, more connectedness would mean more stability, under the assumption that everyone’s bucket had the same amount of water inside.

But that’s not realistic; we all bear different amounts of trauma. The goal of collective care isn’t to empty all the buckets. As we grow older, we keep accumulating trauma—the buckets will always be filling with water. Practicing collective care is like bailing some water out of fuller buckets so that all the entire network of buckets can stay suspended and stable. The goal of practicing collective care is to meet each other’s needs so that we can adapt and survive when bad things happen and figure out how to live with the trauma afterwards.

I think the best place to start practicing collective care is in a small group of people that you love and trust. Help each other learn to identify your own needs by reorienting yourself towards your center. Be radically honest when confiding those needs in one another and have these conversations often—needs are dynamic. And then bail each other’s water out of your group’s trauma buckets by meeting each other’s needs in a balanced bonsai-gardener way. When you’re ready, expand your collective.

Where do you turn to learn more about care?

I was first introduced to the principles of collective care in the summer of 2020 when mutual aid groups started springing up around the US after the George Floyd murder. In short, mutual aid is about providing/receiving care from your local community (not the state) to meet the specific needs of that community. It aims to redistribute surplus to curb deficit in an act of solidarity, not charity. As a white person from a middle-class family, myself and my family members wield enough privilege to thrive in this world on our own, and I think that’s true for many white people. But it’s not true for those who have been systematically oppressed—collective care has been practiced in black and indigenous communities as a strategy to survive and build power outside the state. Although my first exposure to collective care was only two years ago with the renewed establishment of mutual aid networks in the US, it’s not a new concept and these are not my ideas—I am a student of this topic. To learn more about it, start at the source: black and indigenous communities.

I highly recommend the book Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. It outlines the foundations for developing a collective care network and serves as a guide to using collective care while organizing movements towards liberation. (And read the sequel book Pleasure Activism, it changed my life!) 

I also turn to queer community for guidance on collective care and as a testing ground for emergent strategy because it’s also a group that’s had to band together for survival. But the varying levels of white and able-bodied privilege within the queer community also demands that intersectionality be accounted for in our care practice, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom and perspective to be gained from that. And when I feel like I’m asking for too much, it’s usually coming from internalized ableism. Paying attention to disabled people’s voices helps guide me in that unlearning process.

Thank you for reading, and good luck with your care practice!