When our babies are newborns, they are obviously vulnerable, needy beings. And it’s our job to love them, protect them, feed them, clothe them and keep them safe. But we can’t do all of those things, and keep our sanity intact, if we don’t give ourselves the time and space to nurture ourselves as well.
Sunny Mondays was born from the idea that mums need to care for themselves first, to be able to give wholeheartedly to their children. This is a lesson that took me a LONG time to learn. I spent years believing that my job was to be a martyr, to put my child’s needs before my own, and only give myself a break when I had ‘earned’ it. I truly believed that having a child meant that my own needs, wants and dreams should be pushed to the side in order to care for my child. And this belief made me miserable.
I was too afraid to say “I need a break”, because I felt like that was admitting that I wasn’t coping, or that I wasn’t a good mother. I have always been a perfectionist, but it wasn’t until I became a Mum that I realised just how damaging this type of perfectionism could be. I loved my baby with every part of me, but my love for myself was at an all-time low. It was a toxic combination.
For me, it took being at my lowest point to realise that something in my life needed to change. I was running on empty. My own energy tank was completely bare, so I had nothing left to give to my children. What I did do for them was forced, and I was angry and resentful – not the way I had imagined new-parenthood to feel.
To better understand my self-care journey, I want to share part of my story of Post-Natal Depression (PND). I have touched on my experience of PND on Sunny Mondays before, but I feel like the time is right to share more of my story.
I remember when I was deep into the depths of new-motherhood, I was woken up for the third, fourth, fifth time by my hungry, crying baby, and I just couldn’t get up. I laid in my bed, willing him to stop crying, because I didn’t have the energy to stand up and hold him. I laid in my bed quietly crying, with my tiny baby crying in his bassinet beside me. I had expected that parenting was going to be hard, but I had never imagined that it would strip me of every shred of energy so that I was fighting through each moment.
I told my family that I was fine. I tried to block out the negative feelings that I had and focus on the miracle that was staring up at me from his cot. I held my baby, and smiled when other people told me how beautiful he was. But when I looked at him, it didn’t feel like I was holding my own child. I couldn’t recognise him, and it wasn’t until he was a year old that I felt like I had made a strong bond with him. I loved him, but I didn’t know how to show that I loved him. I watched my husband singing to him, playing with him and holding him, and I marvelled at the way they seem to ‘get’ each other. But for me, I just went through the motions each day, with no real emotions besides grief and fear about the life I had given up to be a mother.
And then one day, I was sitting on the floor playing blocks with my son, and my heart felt like it exploded. All of a sudden I was deeply, fully in love with my baby. I missed out on so much in the first year of Jack’s life, even though I was right there watching it happen. And that’s something that I was forced to face when my second baby, Harry, was born last year.
Things were so very different to my first experience of the newborn days. I rode the euphoric waves of adrenaline for weeks after Harry’s birth. I lapped up every moment of baby love, and I kept thinking, so this is how it’s meant to feel, with a big, fat grin on my face. I felt like I had been given a second chance.
The onset of my Post-Natal Depression was much slower this time. I was parenting solo with my husband away for work, and (just barely) managing the care of two very young children. I was more kind to myself in those early weeks than I had ever been, but eventually, as the tiredness overcame me, and there was little relief from the relentless work of parenting, I sunk back into my old ways of thinking and behaving, and the PND took hold. The difference this time, was that I knew what had to be done to feel like myself again. I found a psychologist, upped my medication, made a rule to leave the house every single day, and I told my loved ones that I was having a hard time.
But it wasn’t just those ‘big’ things that I check off my wellness to-do list. Many small changes, made over time, combined to support, nurture and heal my mind and my body from pregnancy and PND. The very first thing I did to move towards healing was this: I lit a candle. I created a simple ritual to give back to myself. At the end of each day, instead of having a quick shower, jumping in my daggy PJs and crashing in bed, I lit a candle, turned off the lights in the bathroom, and had a long, luxurious shower. I consciously imagined the day washing away, and when I stepped out of the shower I gave myself permission to let go of anything bad that had happened that day.
I also started moving my body more often, and importantly, I changed my attitude towards exercise. I now see it as a gift that I give to myself, time just for me, and one of many energy sources that keep me moving forward. I started meditating, oh so slowly at first, 5 minutes if that was all I could manage. And now I can sit in stillness for 30 minutes (and love it!) I changed a damaging caffeine habit that had arisen out of my total exhaustion, and I now enjoy the coffee I have, instead of drinking it to keep me standing upright! The one thing that I am still working on – always have been, probably always will be – is the food I put in my mouth. I am facing up to my habits of emotional eating, scary as it is, and trying to learn all that I can about nutrition and wellness. I’m starting to shake things up and break some old, worn-out habits.
The importance of self-care for mothers is something that I believe in with all my heart. It is also something that I am working on every damn day. I do not have it all figured out. Yet. I don’t always nourish my body the way I want to, I do miss days (weeks) at the gym, and I know exactly how hard it can be to make time for myself when everyone else is asking for my attention. But I do know that adding in even the tiniest bit of love and devotion to you, dear mama, will be a total game changer for you. Everyone deserves to be held, nurtured, protected and supported – your kids do, and YOU do. And I’m happy to be figuring it out beside you.
What has your path to self-care involved? Please let me know in the comments below.