August will be Self Care Month here on the blog. We’ll be focusing on the importance of self care and sharing tips for integrating it into your hectic life. As the summer hits its stride and families are busy with the unscheduled chaos of the summer holidays, self care can easily be lost in the fray. Lack of structure and predictability can be stressful for parents as well as children, so even in the midst of the fun at the beach, the pool, the park, or a camp site, tempers can flare and emotions run rampant. For the next four weeks we’ll be thinking about how to get self care back on track when it feels hard.
The first article in this series is by Sheila Duffy
My mother brought up her children in the sixties and seventies. The roles for mothers and fathers of her era were sharply divided between stay-at-home moms and working dads. Dad saw himself as the breadwinner and mom knew her duties included everything from looking after children, keeping the house neat and tidy, cooking, cleaning, and perpetuating the idea that motherhood was completely fulfilling and so denying the existence of her own needs.
Fast forward to when my children were born in the early nineties: I expected raising children to be a shared responsibility. I also expected that my husband and I would share our duties related to housekeeping, errands, and working outside the home. We always had what I considered to be a progressive relationship with our foundation built upon equality. We prided ourselves on the fact that we would not fall into traditional roles when it came to having a family.
But in spite of the fact that we both still fundamentally believed in our equality and the importance of breaking out of the mold of prescribed gender roles, upon becoming parents we very quickly fell into the exact stereotypical gender divisions we were trying to avoid.
Eventually, during one of our many heated arguments in the postpartum years, a light was shed on the fact that my husband believed that I was the main caregiver whether he was at work or not and I believed that if we were both home then we were both the main caregivers. Discovering this difference of opinion provided a very clear indicator of why we were forever struggling to communicate our needs.
It was apparent that I needed to care for myself more actively but it was difficult for me to learn self care as it was never modeled for me as a child. I was raised by a mother who adhered to a strict belief in self sacrifice, as was my husband. I knew self care was necessary and well deserved, but almost every time I ventured into that territory I was racked with guilt and my husband responded with mixed messages like “go, have some time to yourself” spoken through gritted teeth. Of course, the reasons for the guilt are bigger than this one issue, but it certainly played a part.
Eventually I learned to do it anyway. I learned to feel the guilt, talk about it and continue doing self care. I went to yoga, I bought take out for dinner sometimes, I got child care so I could go to the spa or to a movie or do whatever I wanted. I made time to read, I talked to my friends, I went back to work part time.
Eventually, I noticed that the guilty feelings, and the voices inside my head that said “what’s wrong with you?” “why should you need a break?” “my mom had four kids and had no problems making dinner!” and on and on, became a whisper that I could easily dismiss or swat away. I noticed that I came home rejuvenated, happy to be home, and excited to see my children. They in turn got to see their mother refreshed and happy and, above all, they saw that I was not just their mom–I was a woman with a full life, with my own interests, with my own needs. My children knew that I saw myself as worth taking care of!
My children are grown and I’ve noticed that they do not see me exclusively as their mom whose sole purpose is to look after their needs (not that they don’t ask!). I give my energy to them it if I can and if it feels right and if it isn’t at the expense of me losing myself or just not taking care of myself. I make sure that I am not acting out of guilt or out of a need to be needed. Since I take care of myself my children also see me as important and worthy of self care.
My parenting journey was fraught with many obstacles and self care was the most important lesson at a time when I was literally wanting to die. It saved me. My postpartum depression was severe enough that at one time dying seemed like the answer. I see now that the lessons I learned during that period are ones that allowed me to finally learn to love myself, to see myself as a unique woman and a unique mother. I see that my journey has become my legacy to my children so that they will know that the very best thing they can do for their children is to look after themselves.
Don’t get me wrong… this has not been an easy road, there have been lots of ups and downs and I often fall into patterns of doing too much for my kids or just not looking after myself well. It is an ongoing journey, and I am always learning, always tweaking. As mothers I think that we often default to a place where we drop everything if it means solving an issue for our children, or taking away their pain, or helping them to be successful. But I recognize when I’m doing that now and when I’m suffering as a result. It is often a delicate balance of one step forward and a few back, but I’m so grateful to be in a place where I get to talk about this with my friends and with my kids. Now I have a chance to aim for progress and not perfection!