Even wonder women need support

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I’ve spent the last 4 or so years of my life training to become a Naturopathic Nutritionist – in other words, someone who uses nutrition, herbs and lifestyle changes to support greater wellbeing.

Whilst I was doing this, I held down a 4 day a week job, tended a marriage, stayed connected to my family and friends and raised my baby. But I’m not saying this to brag. I’m also not looking for sympathy. I’m referencing it because in my relationship circles here in London, it’s a perfectly normal way to behave. People normally congratulate or celebrate you for having a life like this, even though it could be viewed by some as pretty extreme. When I look back, it seems foolish, but I was there doing it, motivated by a desire to look after my daughter, my husband, my family, my friends… and me I suppose. Somewhere long down that list.

Over these past four years, to be awarded my diploma, I’ve studied biomedicine, illnesses and diseases, read papers on the latest research into new drugs to treat us, understood how these drugs interact with supplements but most of all, I’ve seen clients. 200 hours of clients.
Some wanted to improve their appearance, their fitness, their general wellbeing; others were taking on cancer, infertility, diabetes, multiple sclerosis. They all at some point had reached the end of the list of solutions that they could imagine for themselves and somehow had landed on nutritional therapy as an option. For many, going through the process of spending an hour telling their story, was the first time they had been able to take the time to digest and consider it, and to feel heard by someone, even a relative stranger like me.

Over these 200 hours, patterns appeared. The clients I saw were either younger people, battling as hard as they could to keep their head above water in this big city, worrying about being successful at work to make rent, often far away from their family. Or they were women. These women stuck in my mind the most as they, without fail and without complaint, led these incredibly complicated lives where, for them, it truly was difficult to find the time to shop for food differently or take an hour or two each week to focus on themselves.

They came from varied backgrounds and lifestyle: some were older, their kids had already flown the nest; some were supporting their young families, a few were preparing or trying to start a family and some had chosen to be childfree altogether. The red thread was that they were all nearly single handedly running the show, with very little support and very little care for themselves, and slowly but surely it was making them unwell.

Poor attention to their own needs – the food they ate, the sleep they got, the rest they took, they exercise they did, the hobbies or passions they pursued – had become the norm, their way of coping with all the demands, their way of saving time. But as I heard their stories, it became really clear it was a false bargain. They were tired, they were run down and then they started to feel guilty. Guilty that they could no longer reach the high bar they had set themselves, that they had lost enthusiasm for their kids, their partner, and they were often annoyed with themselves that the iron will that had been seeing them through was starting to crumble. As if they would cope better if only they had better resolve or stronger self control.

The very first thing I always said was: “You are doing a wonderful job of managing. But now we need to try to stop coping as well. You need to give yourself permission to be looked after, by me and by the people around you”.

The process of deconstructing the routine that has helped you hold everything together can be a long one, a battle against your perceptions of how much you can ask for, how much you can advocate for your needs versus how comfortable (or not) you feel with reaching out to people and risking your just-about-holding-it-together system collapsing like a pack of cards.

Interestingly, I had to challenge my own perceptions of my role as a nutritionist and as someone who was determined to be holistic and naturopathic. This naturopathic slant on my understanding of health alters how I support people, meaning that I’d find myself casting a net out wider and taking on a greater responsibility for the overall picture of wellness than a straightforward nutritionist or dietician would. I found myself being asked to paper cracks with vitamin supplements (when rest was what was required), to support a client in operating to a crazy caffeine fueled schedule (when it meant they slept only 4 hours a night) or to effectively be complicit in disordered eating (rather than address why controlling food had become a clients only way to cope with their day to day).

So now, here I am, at the end of 4 years of clinical education and finding empathy, having been handed a mission that I didn’t expect to find. In a roundabout way, I found this gap and lack of support work for people like me – the women stretching themselves too thin, trying to juggle everything and never drop the ball.

To help you take your first footsteps on a more balanced path, I’m sharing the 5 things I decided to do to help me reframe what mattered to me and begin to challenge my wonder woman complex.

Decide what to own and what to drop

Be real. The answer cannot be “I can do it all”. Not only is that not a laudable goal, you’re also ruling out the possibility of deepening connections to other people. Being a solo queen is an isolating, perhaps lonely, role to hold. Over the past few years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my mama tummy is here to stay, that my house will never be fully clean, that my hair will never be coiffed and that my husband and I just won’t have that much alone time. For now, these all have to be optional things. Ones I can’t manage to fit in with the compulsory things, like putting food on the table, keeping people clean and healthy, keeping connected to my family despite the mayhem. And then I had to give myself permission to not worry and not berate myself. If and when the time is right, I will pick up the ones that still matter to me.

Be clear about who is your priority

Hint – it has to be you first. I learned this the hard way more than a few times. The cycle of having just one more coffee, just one more meal that you know isn’t great for you, watching one more box set that’s keeping you from sleep, taking on one more assignment or doing one more favour is hard to break and it all adds up to you not having time to make sure you are looked after. Speaking from experience, everything else will just seem like fluff if you ever do truly do become unwell.

Ruthlessly support your health and mental well being

You must be your own advocate and become better connected to your own body and mind. So many of us see our bodies as the machine that acts on our mind’s commands and wishes, ignoring symptoms of hunger, tiredness, thirst and pain, effectively removing our chance to understand much more about what would make us healthier and happier, about what balance we need to strike and how we can flex our limits at legitimate times of pressure to make sure we can call on our reserves and be resilient when we need it. We can’t be always on.

Emotions are signposts. Valuable ones.

I’m an ex emotion hater. For the longest of times, emotions were useless to me. Pointless signals that made me feel bad and worry about my choices, complications that I didn’t have time for. Needless to say that after 4 years of studying how thoughts and feelings affect the chemical make-up of our bodies, I view them a little differently. Treat these messages from your self as precious and use them accordingly. These connections to your inner wisdom and intuition need respect and acknowledgement or they will just keep trying to reach you. Even worse, if you suppress them long term, they might become quieter and your inner compass will be lost

Lose anyone who isn’t a cheerleader for you

It’s fair to say that most people’s lives are complicated. It’s also right to say that relationships represent our greatest joys and frustrations.They are big, complicated, emotional things (wince – see previous point) that take a lot out of us. Many of my friends and many of the women I met are empathetic to the point of being like a sponge, ready to give and take until there are very few boundaries left. The result? A difficulty seeing in what’s working for you and what isn’t. A slow and gradual acceptance of relationships that aren’t balanced and take too big a part of your all too precious energy. If you don’t feel lifted up by a relationship and positive when you leave them, it’s time to reconsider.

For a wonder woman, I know just how hard it is to admit that old ways of working aren’t right, that maps for the future need to be redrawn, that the wheels may have come off the one woman road show. The clincher for me, as ever, has been my daughter. Acting as a mirror to me, she helps me see just how unstable and unsupportable my deals with myself have become. I’m fervently hoping she won’t ever need to unlearn the doctrine of ferocious self support. It’s up to me to show her a different way.

Photo by Mona Eendra on Unsplash

You can follow me online via Instagram @hannahmearns or @wonder_women_nutrition.

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.