What actually consitutes self-care when you're a mother

Self-care is all very well in theory but what about when there are tiny humans, quite literally, crawling on your face? asks Sophie White

During my first pregnancy, I was very good to myself. I essentially treated myself as a slow-growing, slow-moving pet that was to be cosseted and indulged and minded. I mainly did this because I believed it was essentially the last time in my life when I would have the chance to do so. Post due date, I assumed that I would be the least important person in my life and when my first son was born, I effectively demoted myself. And then during the first months of his life, I actually began to bully myself a little. I berated myself endlessly about not being the 'perfect mother'.

This 'perfect mother' notion is very damaging for women, one that Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of human development and family science from The Ohio State University, ironically believes actually breeds "worse" parenting – as stress and anxiety caused by feelings of failure depletes our coping skills.

"Recent years have seen an increase in 'intensive mothering'. The idea being a good mother requires total focus on children in terms of time, money and emotional investment," she told the Telegraph. "Some mothers may be more likely to get their parenting information from social media than from family, which was the norm in the past."

Of course while the highlight reels posted on social media, are invariably completely misrepresentative of most women's reality, they can still inspire guilt in those of us without the time or ability to craft photogenic memory montages out of every moment of our children's lives.

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"You all need to let yourselves off the hook," proclaimed my mother as I spiralled down into yet another motherhood-induced guilt vortex. "Millennial parenthood is very fraught," she concluded.

She is right of course, but sometimes this can be difficult to take on board for the legions of under-slept, self-flagellating propagators of the species. When motherhood hits, all our focus goes to the baby and sometimes even just taking a shower feels like an unsurmountable task, never mind actually fully leaving the house or getting time away from the baby.

As a new mum, the things that apparently constituted 'me-time' and 'self-care were depressingly basic. I once jokingly referred to the little walk between putting my son in his car seat and walking round to my door as "me-time". Self-care seemed to have achieved almost mythological status – I mistakenly believed it to be indulgent rather than absolutely necessary. I also misguidedly thought it had something to do with spa days, it really doesn't! I think I realised that I was hitting a nadir in terms of self-neglect, when one day while undergoing a smear test and I caught myself thinking: "Ah, this smear test is just so relaxing, it's lovely to be able to lie down for a bit without a baby hanging off me."

The first year that my son was born, I did not mind myself and as a result I suffered through postnatal depression untreated (as many, many women unfortunately do). I was hellbent on "pulling off" parenthood. Of not needing help and of never, ever admitting to how lonely and scared I was by this new life of mine.

When I made the decision to have a second child, it was a huge mental leap for me. I tried to be responsible, I explained to my care team what happened the first time. I tried to make provisions for what I believed to be sort of inevitable: Postnatal Depression: The SEQUEL. In the end, it didn't come to pass and I put that reprieve down to many things but most notable for me is the fact that I got a blood infection and was put on bed rest in the week after my second son was born. I genuinely think this 'enforced rest' was crucial and really helped me start to understand the importance of self-care. Many practitioners refer to a newborn's first three months as the 'fourth trimester' and it is recognised in most cultures as a time for nesting and caring for both your baby and yourself. Unfortunately, however, in contemporary Western society, this time often coincides with pressure to return work or (arguably even more annoying) our pre-pregnancy jeans.

In the antenatal classes we are all told to rest in the weeks and months postpartum, but who ever really lets themselves? The pressure to hit the motherhood trail running is strong, even more so with older kids to take care of but the sooner we accept that self-care is as important for our families as it is for ourselves the better. As acupuncturist and writer, Deb Valentin writes: "in order to truly mother others well, one must first mother themselves."

Dubliner Rebecca Flynn enlisted the services of a postpartum doula after her second son was born.

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"Because I’d had such a fraught and anxious postpartum phase on my first baby, I knew I’d need some support, which unfortunately my family, who are amazing, aren’t in a position to offer at the moment, so I felt like this is what suited me best. My mum had wanted to get me a gift, a 'big ticket' item like a buggy or a fancy co-sleeper but I asked for this instead and she was delighted."

"The biggest benefit," explains Flynn. "Was having help and support and an extra body in the evenings when my husband was working because he leaves at my older son’s bedtime and I knew baby would be cluster feeding.
"She was super with my older son and very knowledgeable about all things birth and breastfeeding so helped me unpack my birth experience and offered support."
"It was 100% self care. One evening, when I was particularly hormonal and emotional she ran me a bath, took the baby and even changed my bed sheets. It was so lovely. Also, it was just so nice to have someone there, a mother herself, so empathic and aware, to chat to. She played many roles, it was excellent, I can’t recommend it enough. I had PND the last time and not a single hint of it this time. I’m so much happier and relaxed. Definitely think having a postpartum doula contributed."

Of course doulas and night nurses are not always possible but self-care doesn't have to be complicated. Sometimes it can be as simple as checking in with yourself. Forgiving yourself for finding motherhood difficult or lonely. Allowing ourselves a bit of a break from the unending laundry (seriously, are the dirty socks procreating in their unguarded moments?!) even if it's just an hour in bed with a book. Or as my mother says: just letting ourselves off the hook.

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Model, author and wellness coach, Alison Canavan describes feeling overwhelmed after having her son and despite finding a wealth of books on how to care for a new baby, could find little on how to look after a new mum. She took matters into her own hands and wrote the book she felt she needed as a new mum herself, Minding Mum: It's time to take care of you. Minding Mum is almost like a workbook for new mums and is great for bringing priorities into focus because that's the nature of being a woman, we can always find things to priorities above ourselves until we put self-care at the very top of the list.

Oh, and it's okay (perhaps even essential) to lock yourself alone in the bathroom sometimes. Hiding from your family absolutely counts as self-care, right?!

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

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