Mamas, we need to reclaim self care

The current boom in wellness is one that suits me. I can now buy the foods I need to manage my allergies and people get it when I tell them I try to manage my health in non medical ways. I’m definitely perceived as less of an odd bird for doing so now than I was 5 years ago. What I do find difficult though is the hyper commercialisation of the wellness industry. Sure, I shouldn’t be critical of the trends that are making my life easier but to me, the materialism and new sense of pressure (on women especially) to feel well by increasing their consumption of wellness products is not quite in the original spirit of looking after yourself.

The instagrammers that have a blow dry before they arrange their perfect breakfast on the table to do 10 takes of a photo that will eventually be edited before being posted to me totally misses the point. It also brings the issues of affordability and exclusivity to the fore, based on how much spare money and time you have to follow their example. To compare your own health and life to this representation, to what the members of the wellness community put out there on behalf of brands especially is far from ideal – because let’s be clear: for many the aim is to raise their profile to make money.

For mamas, the message is obvious and rarely subtle. You need to make space for yourself to practice self care. Eat gluten free and have less sugar – you’ll feel better! Mediate in front of these crystals when your kids nap! Buy these amazing leggings for yoga – you deserve them! You should do all these things, it’s self care.

This all sits very uneasily with me, because for me, wellness is defined differently. Let me explain.

For me wellness is an intimate knowledge of yourself and what makes you well, totally unrelated to anything a company can advertise to you. It’s honouring your body and mind with the time and respect that allows you to know what works best for you. It’s having the confidence and knowledge to be clear about what your boundaries are and not pushing yourself too hard. It’s about understanding that you are the guardian of your own health.

One thing that strikes me, when I think about it like this, is that I’ve had this before. I haven’t always been able to pay this level of attention but someone else has: my own mama. I also think the parallel is spot on because caring in this way, with this level of depth is something that can only be learned by practice. Your own mother will have been the first person to set the example of how it should be done.

I’m the first to confess that I used to look after my children in a much more caring way than I looked after myself. I know that gingerbread before bed will mean she won’t sleep; I keep her gluten intake low as she gets a bloated tummy if I don’t; I brush her hair so it doesn’t get dreadlocks. I had this intimate knowledge of her that far surpassed what I used to know about myself and what I would allow myself time for. I would give more attention to her than I would to myself.

I know that many mothers would say this is appropriate, that it’s not only part of the job description, it also happens because of the direct to lack of time in a day. How can you spend what you don’t even have on yourself? I also hear the flip side – that it’s your duty to do it, because time for yourself will make you a better mother.

For me though, this quickly has become that commercial message we’re so used to hearing. Money spent on wellness products are worth it because they will make you healthier and happier. The subconscious implication is that you’re a better person if you can do those things.

I’ve had to learn to reject this in my own life and not feel bad about myself for meeting the community standards. Of course I don’t have time to spend on a yoga mat each day (in my new clothes). Of course I don’t have time for that matcha tea ritual that will give me loads more energy (with all my new tea accessories). I might have time for apply some essential oils to my wrists instead of relaxing in a bath (ok, so I might choose some of your essential oil products). I choose to reject the guidance and influence.

To me it was adding a whole load of pressure to the situation. Financial, because all these new purchases add up to a lot. Physical, because there is time pressure in your day forces you to choose what you do. You could do some yoga but that might then prevent you from doing other things that could also look after your wellbeing – like connecting to your present, cooking a healthy meal, sleeping, sitting down for a bit.

For me, the type of wellness that we need as mothers is something we can create for ourselves and is certainly something we should be passing on to our kids – especially our daughters, these future mothers.

I used to get up at 5.55am, head to the park to run 10k, shower with lovely calming products, get ready so my hair looked great, be at my desk by 8.30am ready to work and then choose the healthiest fast food I could find because I had no time to shop or prepare food for myself as I was busy fulfilling the standard I had set for myself. Wellness and work. I wanted to do it all.

Now, through my mother’s eyes, I can see this was too much for me. If someone had prescribed this regime for my daughter, I would try to stop her from doing it. I’d ask her why she felt she needed to push herself so hard. Sadly though, I had no alternative way of operating, no-one had outlined a different path for me. I couldn’t see that a gentler option might have better overall for my holistic health. I didn’t need to spend on running gear or top quality, trendy new health foods to be well – I could have done so much of this for myself.

Now I can look back and see that fundamental compassion for myself was lacking, somehow, and this attitude had been passed on, from someone. How was it, that I hadn’t learnt that self compassion was what was required? Why was I willing to put myself through all of that without one hint of worry that I was pushing myself too hard or potentially even causing more harm than good, even though I technically could be proud of my fitness and healthy eating.

For me it comes down to values that are passed from mother to child. Children are so impressionable, it’s easy to see how they will interpret how their mother cares for them and herself then draw a sense of worth from it. It’s obvious that this will affect their self esteem and then how this will have a knock on effect to how they then learn to look after themselves as a grown up.

How would you know how to look after yourself in an appropriate way if you were never told it was worth doing? Or if you never had anyone to lead by example?

 

During my twenties and early thirties, I spent some time in therapy. There were lots of reasons for it and I can see so many benefits to my having been there. I paid for it myself so we were able to continue until both my therapist and I felt I was ready to leave.

Our main goal: for me to be able to mother and care for myself appropriately, so I no longer needed my therapist’s emotional support to make it through the day to day. Our secondary goal: understand how I could best mother my daughter to help me from subconsciously setting up the less than useful patterns I had been following myself.

When I finally left, when we both agreed I was ready, she reminded me that now I could look after myself. We had in effect taught me how to be my own parents. I could mother myself in the way that I needed. I could be my own father when that type of role was required. Both my parents are still alive, close by and we’re in touch. What I hadn’t internalised ye though, was a crucial part of growing up in a healthy way – how I could know myself well enough to make the right decisions, to be respectful of myself and keep myself well in body and spirit.

To me, this knowledge, this intimate level of care, is the true definition of wellness. The best part is that we can all strive for it and, as parents, we can decide to pass this ability on. Instead of looking externally for ways to keep yourself well and then trying to shift our day around to accommodate these material things, focusing on yourself and what you need to do for your mind and body to feel well is something we can all achieve. It takes care, attention, self respect, awareness and love – things that all parents know a lot about.

We unequivocally give this to our children, but as they grow up and need us less, this special understanding, this way of staying well ebbs away. Instead of handing the baton over to them, leading by example and making sure they understand the importance of learning to do this for themselves, this idea of self care evaporates only to be replaced by external concepts that fill the gaps and pose a solution for what we crave: the intimate love and empathy of a mother. Anyone can learn how to mother themselves and this, for an overstretched, overtired mother is great news.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Don’t leave your birth plans to chance

Lately in the UK (or in the group of parents to be and parents that I know anyway), there has been a shift away from planning your birth experience. A lot of mums-to-be especially have said to me that there’s “No point planning for what you can’t control” or that “If I don’t make a plan, I can’t be disappointed”. I should mention a deeper interest here: I teach parents to be about birth for a living – but I’m also a parent and even before I had learnt more about care during labour, I still felt strongly that being engaged in the process would lead to a better outcome.

I would urge any expectant parents to plan for their birth as carefully as possible. After all, many parents spend a lot of time choosing items for their baby’s nursery or their pushchair. I would argue that birth plans are just as good a use of that time.

Whatever you choose to call this plan, it’s worth it

When I teach, I have to be realistic. Not every mother is the same, not every baby will behave as expected, not every birth will follow a particular path. We’re all individuals with different medical backgrounds, different hopes and different bodies. That’s fine. Wonderful even. Conformity is not the point.

I try very much to help parents reach a point where they understand that the birth experience they have, as long as they feel like they understand what happened and why certain choices were made, will absolutely be the right one for them. I would argue that engaging with your caregivers and the information they are giving you so that you can make decisions from a position of focus and knowledge is much more likely to help you feel happy with your birth.

It’s absolutely correct to not be overly attached to your original wishes. They can add an extra layer of stress and tension to what can already feel like a fairly pressurised situation. This shouldn’t stop us from trying for what we hoped for though so use the words that feel right. Birth plan, birth preferences, birth proposal – what really matters is that you’re expressing your wishes.

Making plans together is critical

One of the major benefits of couples taking antenatal classes together and then reflecting on the information afterwards, is that they do it together. This might sound obvious but it’s often not that straightforward. For a birth partner to defer to his partner’s wishes might sound like the ideal but actually, this birth partner might need to be able to explain these choices, to advocate for them and to protect the mum’s birth space. To do this well, it’s essential that both of the couple are as equally well informed and know how the other feels about the choices made.

Mum might want to make sure that not too many people are in the room; the birth partner might not want to cut the umbilical cord. To get a chance to know this about each other, they will need to talk about making a plan and potentially consider the options available. Again, this sounds obvious but it’s a weight off mum’s shoulders to know that the choices are understood then can be protected by someone else and hopefully the birth partner will feel empowered to take a more active role in the birth.

Your caregivers will know what you want

This sounds so simple when I say it but it’s true. If you don’t make a plan and let people know what you’d like to happen, how will they know?

Birth professionals like midwives and obstetrics doctors meet a lot of parents and deliver a lot of babies. Although it would be great if they remembered all of us individually, it’s not likely even if you were definitely going to see the same carers the whole way through. By not making your plans clear, you’re leaving a lot to chance. And why would you want to do that?

Step off the standard pathway

All medical institutions have what are known as standard pathways of care. They are planned out by the heads of the obstetrics and midwifery departments and they follow the principles of defensive medicine. Defensive medicine is exactly what you imagine it to be – assuming the worst case scenario and planning to mitigate that. While there is merit in this approach when something is actually going wrong, if you’re a mum who isn’t likely to need any medical interventions or assistance, the care you are offered can contradict your own plans.

If you don’t express your wishes, you’ll receive standard care and a much more negative approach. In fact, put the bits that matter most to you at the top of your plan, especially if they deviate from the norm.

Consider that you might need a back up plan

Having said all I have, as much as I believe in positivity and an open minded approach to care, I also believe in being informed.

Despite the fact that I was hoping for a home birth in a pool using hypnobirthing, my little girl was running late. She was also in a fairly unusual position for a baby who was looking like they wanted to make a break for it in the near future. By the time I was 9 days over, we were talking about c-sections – probably my very worst nightmare (although as Amy Poehler says “Good for her! Not for me!”) – and I was updating my birth plan to include my preference for a gentle c-section.

As much as I hoped for and visualised my ideal scenario, I found it easier to put aside my fear knowing that I’d covered all eventualities. It calmed me.

Our bodies are amazing and the power of our minds over them can have a profound effect. If you can take the time to plan, be true to your heart and set your worrying 4am mind at ease, you can write the kind of birth plan that any caregiver will be delighted to receive. After all, they’re in their job to support parents at this most incredible time. Make the most of your chance to have things your way – it literally is your moment of magic.

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This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.

Sue

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Photo credit: Tim Wright

Sue and I spent 7 years talking. I was allocated to her randomly, but as I’ve always believed, life has a way of bringing you the people you need.

We spoke by arrangement, every week at least, in a room that was cosy and dim in the winter, sticky and dim in the summer.

At first, I didn’t lie on the couch. I could only sit on the chair, avoiding eye contact as much as possible, trying to not let my foot jiggle, trying to to not flick my hair, touch my face constantly.

Together we unpicked the knots I held on to and found the dark spaces I hid in. Sometimes we said almost nothing. Other weeks conversation flowed freely. Over time she came to know my habits, remember the names of my sisters, notice the things I omitted. I noticed when she’d had her hair cut or was wearing a new pair of shoes but never said anything. It wasn’t really like that.

Patiently and lovingly, she sat with me, came to find me when I needed her to and pointed out the flaws in my thinking.

She had tears in her eyes the first time I visited the room after getting out of hospital. Things had been looking up. We’d thought the work was almost done. Instead, it just got more intense.

I told her when we began to try for a baby and I think we both knew it was the beginning of the end for our arrangement. She was wise enough to say it; I was too afraid to admit it. She laughed a kind of ironic laugh just three weeks later when I told her I was pregnant. Typically, it happened the first month we tried.

Our sessions finished by mutual agreement when I was 36 weeks pregnant and my feet were too swollen for me to travel anymore. I tried not to cry all the way home, wondering if I really could think for myself, in the way she had taught me, when there was no straightforward answer.

We had set just one goal for me, for once I became a mother. It’s simple to say, much harder to do. Most of all, I hoped to be able to hold on to reality. To be able to see and know what was true and what wasn’t.