I’m a New (Plant) Father, and It’s Teaching Me a Valuable Lesson About Self-Care

Caring about something else makes us aware of when we’re not taking care of ourselves

Like any good millennial, I do my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. It’s a weekly trip I take, and I usually leave with the same things in my basket. Until a few weekends ago when my partner convinced me to buy a succulent.

“It’ll liven up your room,” she said. I live in a two-bedroom apartment, and mine is probably less than 100-square-feet. I also stupidly bought a queen-sized bed when I moved in last year, so you could say it’s a pretty cramped space. I definitely would.

Still, the succulent was small, and they’re easy enough to take care of. I bought it, and I found a pleasant home for it on my desk so that I could look at it while I worked.

A few weeks later we were at IKEA, like any good millennials would be. I was buying a new desk and office chair, but as we were heading to the warehouse, a thought occurred to me:

I should buy another plant.

I bought two. Then I found a small Japanese fern at a coffee shop and bought that. Then I forgot I needed something else at Trader Joe’s, and I bought a hanging plant that they’d just put out for display. So now I have five plants in my room, all within ten feet of each other.

Friends, I am breathing the cleanest air.

Millennial Houseplant Obsession—Oh No, I’m a Cliché

A college friend of mine has an Instagram account for her houseplants. It’s aesthetic as f***. When my partner moved into her new apartment, her mom bought her a small tree as a housewarming gift. Now, with all of her other plants and books, her living room looks like a miniature forest library. My old roommate kept a potted tree in our living room, and when you opened the front door you’d get smacked in the face with branches.

Actually, most of my friends have plants in their homes. But it’s not just a strange trend among my friends in the gray land of Pittsburgh, PA — it’s a trend among everyone in my generation.

Social media likely has a large role to play in houseplants’ sudden popularity — after all, we live in a heavily curated world that relies on self-branding and personal aesthetic to gain attention and popularity. But unlike most social media-influenced trends, this one isn’t actually bad.

It’s pretty widely known that social media can negatively affect your mental health, but if you’re experiencing “Houseplant FOMO,” there’s an easy enough solution: buy yourself some houseplants. In fact, the widespread popularity of gratuitous foliage might also result from another large trend among millennials: an increased awareness of mental health and self-care.

Sure, fake plants can give you the same aesthetic benefit as real houseplants. They’ll liven up your social media posts, but they don’t provide the same benefits to your mental health as real plants. And that’s an important distinction to millennials.

“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” — Henry David Thoreau

Nature’s value to our mental health is undeniable — from boosting creativity to reducing stress and symptoms of depression — but decorating your room with a few plants can provide some of the same benefits from the comfort of your own home.

Yeah, I might be a bit more of a millennial cliché than I’d like — I’m obsessed with high-quality coffee, I have a collection of vinyl records, and I’ll probably never use my degree — but is being a part of the “wellness generation” really such a bad thing?

The Tortoise and The Hare: The Benefits of Slowing Down

I’m a people-pleaser. I’ve stuck around in jobs I’ve hated because I worried that leaving would upset people, I’ve stayed with exes for too long because I didn’t want to “abandon” them, and I used to shirk my responsibilities because friends wanted to see me.

I could go entire months without having a day to myself, and when I finally did, I would be so tired I’d spend the day doing nothing.

It’s taken a lot of mental gymnastics to convince myself that saying, “No,” is a positive thing. Everything in life moves by so quickly that one second you’re tossing your cap in the air at college graduation and the next it’s three years later and you’re stuck doing the same job you did at sixteen feeling like you haven’t moved forward at all in life. Just a, uh, hypothetical example.

There’s benefit to be had from slowing down; it’s why we’re obsessed with the things that make us do so. Yes, putting on a 17-hour-long Spotify playlist requires only one button click, but there’s something nice about taking a physical record, feeling the grooves and ridges, putting it on a turntable and lowering the needle to hear the initial pop as they come into contact and the music starts.

Because we’re slowing down and actually enjoying it, the music feels more alive. Just like making coffee with a pour-over feels more intimate (and tastes better) than using a K-cup or taking a few minutes to water your plants allows you to detach, slow down, and experience the process of living.

Neil Gaiman famously writes his first drafts with a fountain pen. While it might be quicker to sit down at a computer and type without thinking, it’s the tactile physicality that allows him to see genuine forward progress. Doing something slowly also allows your mind to wander more, and daydreaming benefits our creativity, problem-solving, and idea generation.

Taking time away from work, social media, and technology also allows us to check in with ourselves and ask, “How am I feeling today?” Taking care of something else serves as a reminder to take care of ourselves. If you’ve been neglecting to water your plants, for example, it’s also likely you’ve been neglecting to take care of yourself.

Plants, Betta Fish, and Other Things to Care About

When I was in college, the girl I was dating bought me a betta fish for Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t expressed a desire for a betta fish, but eventually I fell in love with him. His name was Gilbert.

At times of serious change in my life, I tend to dissociate and suffer bouts of depersonalization, and so much of my first year of college felt this way: I was floating through life, unattached from my body and watching it from a distance.

I was living in a single dorm I’d somehow lucked into on a floor inhabited exclusively by female dancers and male baseball players. I got along with them all well enough, but I definitely didn’t fit in. Whenever I experienced bouts of depression and could barely get out of bed, I’d have the thought, I need to feed the fish.

The simple act of needing to care for something else compelled me to get out of bed. If I had to clean out his tank because the grime had built up, it forced me to leave my room so I could wash his bowl in the communal bathroom. If I was leaving my room, I didn’t want to walk past a bunch of dancers looking like a mess, so I had to get dressed and look presentable.

Taking care of Gilbert forced me to take care of myself.

I don’t have a betta fish anymore. Instead, I have five plants. They aren’t things in water that eat, poop, and need to be cleaned, but they are living things that, without me, will die. There’s some power in saying, “I’m responsible for this thing’s life.”

It makes me realize that I’m responsible for my own life as well.

Nature is Nurture

I’m still new to the houseplant craze, but I can finally say that I see the appeal. It’s taken me twenty-four years to grow up, to finally take some responsibility in my life, but that’s what “new adulthood” is, isn’t it? Our twenties are a time for us to experiment, learn, and grow.

When I was given a betta fish, I was annoyed. I didn’t want to take care of something else—I could barely take care of myself. Buying five houseplants has been the antithesis of that feeling.

Here are the things I’ve realized in the past year:

  1. Life is too short to work a job you hate, spend time with people who don’t care about you, and worry about things you can’t control.
  2. Happiness isn’t a coordinate with longitude and latitude, it’s an ongoing expedition that comes in waves, and we need to accept that the lows will help us reach the highs.
  3. We are not plants. We can’t rely on other people to give us the things we need.

“Things will go as they will; and there is no need to hurry to meet them.” — Treebeard/JRR Tolkien, ‘Lord of the Rings’

Writer, musician, rock climber, and human trying his best. Get in touch: www.austinharveywrites.com

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