Care of the self (for mothers and others)

It’s not about a pedicure.  It is about taking note of how you are feeling.  Take note.

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Photo by Mati Mango on Pexels.com

The term “self-care” is all over the internet, aimed at first (I think) at women who probably don’t take care of themselves particularly well, but more recently becoming a buzzword designed to sell products and services.

Radical care of the self isn’t about buying things or even about buying a service, such as massage or even psychotherapy.  Radical self-care is about taking care of yourself as if you counted, as if you are as important as the other most important people in your life.

So let’s deconstruct this.  What do you do to take care of other people’s selves?

I am guessing that you may be involved in material care of other people.  If you have children or a spouse, certainly you are involved in making a safe and secure home, procuring food, clothing and other things that are needed, and doing daily tasks that are required to maintain lives.   You are probably also engaged in helping those people with their emotional work.  That is, you may keep a weather eye out to see if your child is looking tired, or if your spouse is stressed or feeling harassed, or if there is something to celebrate from the events of the day.   You are the one who notices these things, who expands on them as appropriate (“Let’s tell Auntie June hooray for her promotion at work!”) and helps process them as needed (“Let’s talk about what happened at school today.”)  You are the one who is attentive to all of the nuances in the family system, keeping a light finger on the pulsing dynamics, noticing when the toilet paper is low and when spirits are low.  These are important facets of being a family member, and particularly with children, this work is essential to helping to grow up adults who can function emotionally.

The challenge of self-care, though, is to provide yourself the same level of concern and attention.  We generally know when things are very bad with us or when things are very good.  Those extremes are often easy to label because they are extremes.  But it is important to check in with ourselves regularly, not only when an extreme of feeling makes us pay attention.

What’s the purpose of this?    We are designed with early warning systems, actually, that can help us to know in advance when we are on the pathway to becoming overwhelmed.  We can’t tell that we’re on that path, though, unless we take a moment or two to check in and see how the current situation is sitting with us. How often have you suddenly felt like you couldn’t take one more baby crying, one more request for something, one more kid arguing?   Sometimes we experience this as if we are going from zero to sixty in an instant but generally we didn’t start at zero.  We started at about forty-five because we were so busy “holding on” or “holding in” whatever reaction the stressor was creating.  So then we get explosive, the kids get scared, the spouse gets defensive and angry and another lovely evening begins.

This is not the failure that you think it is.  You haven’t failed to be a perfect mother.  You have failed to pay enough attention to yourself to realize that something has to shift in order to avoid a blowout.

So what has to shift?  Okay, the handsome prince comes in on the white horse, gathers up the crying children, leaves a gourmet meal on the table along with a large glass of wine, and rides off into the sunset with the kids, the dirty laundry and the dishes.  Don’t worry, he’ll return in the morning with everything clean, happy and well-cared for.  This is my fantasy, right?

But what if my fantasy can’t be realized right this minute?  You need some self-care and that’s not about getting a pedicure when the baby is crying, dinner is burning on the stove and your spouse reminds you that some mission-critical tasks is yet incomplete.

It is about taking note of how you are feeling.  Take note.  Notice what your body is telling you and then notice what your mind is saying to you.  Decide where you will shift gears.  Will you change your location, your thoughts, or your body response?  You have control over all of these.

Notice your body.  Are you tense in your shoulders, jaw, and hands?  Can you feel energy rising up your back and pressure building that feels like you have to scream?   Can you try jumping up and down, shaking your head and your hands like a wild person, discharging energy in a way that isn’t hurtful?  Can you try that shift?

Notice your thinking.  Are you having thoughts that tell you that you can’t do this, or that they shouldn’t be the way that they are, or that there is something wrong with you?   Can you try just looking at those thoughts as if they are not yours?  Can you shift gears and remind yourself that this is a moment, just a moment in time, and soon there will be a different moment?

Notice your location.  Notice how your body and mind respond to the immediate stimulation.  Is it possible to change your location for a moment or two?  Can you step outside into winter’s cold, or put a door between you and the stressor, long enough for something to shift inside of you?

These are the baby steps of self-care in emergency situations.

From here, you have choices.   When you are able to check in and see how you are feeling, rather than being rushed away with the stress of the situation, you are able to make decisions about your next step.  What can you choose to do next that will support you?  Can you decide to take a moment to turn off the stove, sit and take a breath?  That is the beginning of self care.