Self-care within the margins.
The beginning of motherhood is busy. Busy days that feel like you’ve done nothing at all. Moments that crawl by while all at once you blink and the day has gone. Barely moving from the sofa, yet feeling as though you hadn’t stopped all day. And so it continues, as we leave the house we should be at baby rhyme time and baby massage, graduating to toddler groups and singing groups and dance groups and play groups, to after-school activities and weekend clubs and…
As mothers we feel like we have to wear our busy-ness as a badge of honour, sometimes only feeling accomplished when we’ve spent the days barely sitting down or having but a moment to think for ourselves.
These days I advocate for dream-time, slow-time, nothing-in-between-time. Hours to kill with nothing to do and nowhere to be. Where taking half an hour to walk home from the shops is not only fine, but it’s the grand activity for the day. Candles burn and tea is brewed, train tracks are built and paints are striped across a waiting canvas as music plays low. We go slow and softly into naps and wake in the same way. That is my self care with child in tow.
But we make time for spontaneity too. Outings to the butterfly house or, yes, the playgroup round the corner. It doesn’t mean we reject a moment or two of madness. As I sit writing this, down the hall I can hear the music turned loud and a small toddler shrieking with laughter as she dances with her grandparents. Calm is nice, but full-on-deep-down-in-the-belly laughter is delicious. I need that laughter too.
It seems to be a mother’s purpose to exist as bone tired and mentally exhausted. Driving children from group to group, while carrying in their minds the chores to be done when we get back home, the half-written shopping list in the backs of our mind, and the doctor’s appointment we need to remember next week. And it seems to be a mother’s work. Carrying small children while carrying the mental load. Falling into bed at night, waking for children in the early hours, only to rise the next morning to do it all again.
I feel like a rejection of a busy motherhood is a feminist act; as is any kind of kindness to oneself. This is not to say that we don’t go out to groups and host playdates and take visits to the park and our local National Trust properties. We all define ‘busy’ in different ways. What is too much for one person, may be not enough activity for another.
There are so many barriers put in the way of achieving time for ourselves. Guilt that we are away from our children, or that our attention isn’t solely with them, or even that we are simply doing something that we actually enjoy.
Then there’s motivation. At the end of a long busy day or in the quiet moments between, it can feel far easier to numb out on your phone than to do other things.
When we are sleep-deprived the thought of doing anything other than the necessary can be insurmountable (and allowing yourself to do that is self-care in my opinion!).
Not trusting others with childcare responsibilities, or feeling that no one else will be able to do it as well as ourselves.
And time. Time is the one I hear most of all.
Time is often in seemingly short supply in motherhood. We are told to make time for self-care, and prescribed a one-size-fits-all solution. “Take a long hot bath and have a glass of wine once they are in bed” may not fill your cup as the saying goes. Perhaps, actually, seeing self-care as another to-do on the list is adding to the mental load. Contrarily, I don’t believe that it should feel like yet another chore. Instead, I’ve found that adding things into our daily rhythm, and reframing the simple and everyday as little indulgences is filling me up instead.
Sometimes we have to give ourselves the things we need while working within the barriers, not in spite of them. We cannot go and go and go and go until we drop. We are not the only one suffering when we do. Our families need us to be rested and happier and able to raise children in the ways we want to.
I hope this reassures you that sometimes, it’s ok not to feel like you do need time to yourself. And equally, it’s ok to be desperate for the moment your partner walks into the door. That just because you’re doing a lot of parenting on your own (or all of it! If you are a single parent then I applaud you entirely) and wanting a moment or two to yourself, that doesn’t qualify you as unable to achieve some kind of self-care.
Giving yourself what you need, despite the barriers:
Craft a creative habit. That can be as simple as beginning to journal your feelings (so cathartic in itself!) for five minutes when you wake up or during bedtime, involving yourself alongside your children as they take part in art activities, picking up a quiet hobby that can be done whilst they play.
Ask for time. If that’s something that you need for self-care, ask for it. Ask people you trust if they wouldn’t mind watching your child, and don’t feel guilty that it’s ‘just’ for time to yourself. Often, people love the opportunity to spend time with your child. Or create some sort of agreement between you and a friend where you take turns to watch each other’s children, even if it’s downstairs in your own home while you are upstairs.
Simplify. A lot of my time before we moved was spent tidying, washing up, cleaning and moving clutter from room to room. Once we moved and got rid of about 80% of our belongings, I realised that actually it was owning a lot of things that was causing these issues. Constantly tidying was taking up so much of my time, and simply having the ability to be fully present with my daughter was what I needed. I hope to keep hold of this lesson as we build up our belongings once again.
Find Sites of Mutual Fulfilment. You would have definitely heard me talk about this one before, because it’s such a powerful thing to discover. Natural spaces, the play cafe where you can get a hot cup of tea, a trip to the library to get you all some new books, any place that brings you both joy is good. I don’t believe that our days have to be constant giving in that regard.
Get things in order. It may not be the most glamorous form of self-care but truly sorting out your finances, changing the address on your car insurance or taking that package to the post office can take huge amounts off your mind, leave you thinking clearer and give you more mental space to do things you love.
Read. Read with your children, next to your children, in bed at night, for five minutes before you get on with the washing up, on the bus, on the train. And while we’re here; listen too. Take delight in the creation of audiobooks - so perfect for the time-poor - or your favourite podcast and music. Audiobooks are one of my favourite tools for children if you’re in need of five minutes peace also.
Rekindle your loves. For me, this one was cooking. First with a baby tucked on my front in a wrap, then later side by side with a small toddler cracking the eggs and messily chopping carrots. Whatever your previous passions are, try to recapture them, you’ll be surprised how much you can do with your own children.
Look after your time. Don’t do things that don’t bring you joy. Say no. That’s not to deny that there are some things in life that are unenjoyable yet unavoidable. But don’t say yes to events that might bring you stress, or that outing that you don’t really want to go to, or to the playdate with the child that your own always ends up fighting with. “No” is good.
Carve time. Sometimes you just need a day. It’s been a sleepless night, or you’re feeling rough, or just simply drained. It’s fine to do the minimum, to serve beans on toast and to stick the tv on. In fact it’s good enough, and that’s all you need.
If you enjoyed this, try Why feminism needs to find motherhood; a word on the fouth trimester.