Self-care. I know, I know. It’s a topic that feels like it’s been talked about to death. And yet. Every time I run a course, every time I speak to a client, every time I meet with a friend, it’s there. Or rather, it isn’t.
I want to get this out of the way first: self-care is not selfish. Maybe it needs to be said twice, because I know so many mothers out there still struggle with this idea; self-care is not selfish. Especially not if you are a parent.
I think sometimes it is assumed that if you are to be a gentle, attached parent, then martyrdom is required – that as a mother (and it’s always the mother, isn’t it?) you must sacrifice your life for that of your child, always putting your child first, pushing aside your interests and needs. I fervently disagree. In fact, I think it’s pretty much impossible to be a truly peaceful parent if you don’t prioritise your own self-care.
It is much harder to be patient and stay calm with your children when you are exhausted.
It is much harder to stimulate your child’s intellect when you’re not looking after your own.
It is much harder to do the inner-work that every peaceful parent needs to do, to unpick how you were parented and the impact this may have had on you, when you are burnt-out.
It is much harder to model to your children what a healthy, happy adult with diverse interests, a social life, and a thirst for knowledge looks like when you don’t make time for these things yourself.
It is much harder to cherish your time with your children when you feel resentful because your needs are not being met (and trust me, children feel that resentment).
This idea that when you become a mother your needs are erased is one which is far reaching and contributes to so much unnecessary guilt, and I’m sure also contributes to our high rates of postpartum depression; we know that having good support and self-care in place is one of the best protections parents can have against it (when I worked a birth coach I used to recommend to all the couples I worked with that they make a postnatal self-care plan). I think this myth of the martyr mother must be quite convenient to a patriarchal system. When mothers are exhausted and burnt out, it’s harder for them to fight injustice, start a business, go into politics, challenge their bosses for a pay-rise, or raise their children peacefully. Self-care is absolutely a feminist issue.
I have said it before: I believe that parenting can be a truly radical act, and that the way in which we raise our children can have a profound positive impact on our communities, our societies, and our world. Moving away from a dynamic of power inequality and control towards collaboration and connection with our children is a radical act of social change, and it is foundational if we wish to challenge wider inequalities and power imbalances. But it’s much, much harder to parent in this way – against the grain, against our own childhoods, against generations upon generations of control-based parenting – when we are not taking care of ourselves.
Of course there are seasons of your life when finding space for self-care is truly hard. Breastfeeding for example makes it hard to leave a small baby for any real length of time (which when Frida was tiny was irrelevant for me as the thought of her being anywhere but in my arms, on my breast, or strapped to my chest was unthinkable, but I know many mothers feel trapped at times and that is hard). I was terrible at self-care when Frida was small, a mistake I wouldn’t make again. Know better, do better.
When your family is sick, or your children are struggling or just need you more, self-care is harder. When your mind is busy with work, or you’re worried about finances, or you’re exhausted with pregnancy, self-care is harder. Hey, sometimes it just feels harder for no discernible reason. But even in these moments, it’s still possible to nurture yourself, and all the more important to try and do so to stop yourself from burning out.
I also want to stress something – self-care doesn’t necessarily mean time away from your children (though you probably need that too, depending on how old they are and if you feel comfortable leaving them yet – if you don’t, then listen to your instinct, going out and leaving your baby if you don’t feel ready yet will just make you miserable). You can still be around your kids and take moments to put your own needs first – and even better, you can absolutely find ways to meet your own needs whilst meeting your children’s needs too.
Self-care is not selfish. It is worth saying a third time. Looking after ourselves allows us to better look after our children, nurture our marriages, participate in our communities, and be happier.
16 ideas for self-care
If you know you need to practice more self-care, but feel lacking in inspiration or in a rut, here are some ideas for things to do which will fill up your cup, mentally and physically:
- Read beautiful poetry. And I don’t just mean to your children (although you should absolutely do this too!) – when was the last time you picked up a poetry book for yourself? It can feel daunting and inaccessible, but it shouldn’t. Good poetry is so nourishing for the soul, and it engages your brain in a different way too.
- In fact, read in general. And not just parenting books! Read crime thrillers, or literary fiction, or mind-stretching non-fiction, or a graphic novel, or a good newspaper. And make time to it in front of your children as well as when you’re alone – it’s great for them to see you modelling a love of reading. Audiobooks, podcasts and the radio are a busy parent’s friends too.
- Dance… Put on your favourite tunes – with children present or not – and let loose. There’s nothing like dancing to great music to get those endorphins going. And if you love dancing, make the space to go out dancing with your friends. It’ll make you feel a bit more like yourself again – until the next morning that is…
- …and move your body in other ways, in whatever ways make you happy.
- Be in nature. Alone, with children, with friends, with your partner, with your pet. Just do it. It is so, so good for you.
- Make a list of Sites of Mutual Fulfilment (thanks to Lucy AitkenRead for this wonderful concept) – things which bring you and your children joy at the same time, and make it a priority to do more of them. They are the ultimate win in parenting, and the more you can fit into your life together, the more joy there will be all round.
- Make things with your hands. Bake, knit, craft, draw, garden, cook, do that Pinterest project you’ve been putting off for ages, sculpt, paint, crochet, build things, restore furniture, write, arrange flowers. Again, this can be done alone or around your kids.
- And talking of flowers – buy some. They don’t have to be expensive or fancy. They make such a difference to your home and your space. Have plants around, too.
- Journal. It can be life-changing. If you’re new to it you could start by making time for a gratitude list every day (solid research shows the having a gratitude practice can have a profound positive impact on mental health) and setting a few intentions for the day in the morning.
- Be fiercely protective of your time. Practice saying no more to things that don’t light you up, or things that that drain you. Save your precious time and energy for things and people that make you feel good. Put your phone on silent or just turn the damn thing off. The older I get the more important this becomes to me and the less I care about accidentally offending someone by turning something down, be it work or play. If a person cares about you, they will understand when you decline an invitation or need to cancel.
- Spend time with people who fill you up. Drinks with friends, a dinner date with your love, reading on the sofa with your children, family lunch with another family you like, a phone call with a friend you don’t see enough. This human connection is what truly matters, when all is said and done. How much you’ll need will depend on how extroverted or introverted you are, and how you’re feeling in each season of your life, but however you’re feeling you will still need some connection with others.
- Make your home lovely, a little corner at a time. This might sound superficial, but a beautiful uncluttered home that reflects your values and tastes can again have a profound impact on how you feel. I love reading stylist Han Bullivant’s blog for inspiration. A nice candle here (that you actually burn rather than saving for ‘best’), a plant there, a decluttered surface with a framed print that you love hanging over it. Little things can make a big impact.
- But equally, it’s cool to let chores slide for a bit. Sometimes self-care will look like a mega decluttering session, sometimes it will look like ignoring all chores for a while and letting the dishes and laundry pile-up whilst you finish the book you can’t put down, go out for dinner with friends, or just nap. Yes, having a nice home will make you feel good, but you’ll never look back on your life and wish you’d done more laundry. Balance is key; if in doubt, do the more interesting thing.
- Meditate, or practice mindfulness. I love Headspace for guided meditations – they have basic ones as well as specific ones for anxiety, stress, illness, work, exercise, sleep – you name it.
- Be in water. So clichéd, but there is something so calming about water, whether it’s a bath or a swim. Plus you can’t take your phone in (unless you have a fancy underwater one) which is brilliant for getting some mental space. Being in water with children is great too, and can be a fantastic Site of Mutual Fulfilment – and if you don’t think parents should bathe with their kids, I’m probably not one of your people!
- Sleep. You are a parent. I don’t need to sell this one to you.
This week I’m going to try and find time to go for an outdoor swim with Frida, I’m organising a London meet up where I hope to meet some of my lovely readers – more details in my Facebook group – and I’m going to make time to finish my current book (The Adversary – have you read it? So gripping).
How are you going to take care of yourself this week? Let me know what you’re committing to in the comments!
PS. I’ll be taking part in a panel on feminist parenting at this year’s FiLiA conference, let me know if you’re coming!