What is self care, anyway?

Lucy the Hiker

Toddlerhood is here! There is no looking back.

I’m about a year and a half into this motherhood thing, and there’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It has to do with the personal, internal work of motherhood, and the concept of self-care. As a new mother, the idea that I need to prioritize self-care washes into my consciousness from so many sources. This message has stuck with me, and sits around in the back of my mind as I try to get a grip on my priorities so that I can actually decide what to do when I have a free moment. I often find myself overwhelmed by all of the possibilities for my “free” time; my time feels so limited that, when I do get a free minute or thirty, I usually just dive in, start doing, and hope for the best. Too often this means that I’m taking care of the basics but not taking care of my Self.

When I was pregnant, I was very aware of the transitional, in-between nature of pregnancy. You’re already a parent, but you have yet to meet your child. Your life has already started to change, but you know that there is so much more coming. This made sense to me, and I did my best to be present for the little life growing within me rather than worrying about the future or mourning the past. And of course you expect the months after your baby is born to be a period of transition as you adjust to your role as a new parent and all of the demands and joys it brings with it. I knew I needed to prioritize self-care and connect with other mamas, and it did pretty well with that. I tried to get out of the house for mommy & me yoga or story time once a week or so.

Here’s the thing I wasn’t quite prepared for, though: the toddler years are a time of transition for parents, too! Your baby isn’t a baby anymore, but they aren’t quite a kid yet either. They are becoming independent, but seem to need more of your attention than ever. Self-care is still so very important for preserving your mental and emotional health, but now that your little one’s moving— quickly!— it’s a lot tricker to incorporate it into your days. At least it is for me. I find myself trying to squeeze self-care into the times when my daughter is sleeping, but that’s also the time I use for things that “need to get done.” I started feeling like there were things that I “should” be doing to take care of myself, but I never could find the time. I felt guilty that I wasn’t getting enough time on my yoga mat, and it was starting to feel more like a chore that was hovering over me than something that I looked forward to doing. New mamas out there, does this sound at all familiar? I think it’s time we step back and reconsider what self-care looks like for a toddler mom.

When I was feeling the most overwhelmed, I began to think critically about all of the things I wanted to be doing for myself and my family. My list looked something like this: plan meals in advance and actually cook them, bake more, sew and knit all the things, do more yoga, take walks, and write more often. I then took another step back and began to think about my life before my daughter. I looked at how all of these things fit into my life before motherhood, and my perspective changed. Most of these ambitions I have? They’ve always been ambitions, even before I had a kid of my own to chase after. I have always enjoyed them, but I’ve never successfully incorporated them into my daily life. I’ve dabbled, but never really committed. That’s true for almost all of the things on my list. The one exception? Writing. I have always, and will always write, even if it’s just a few sentences in a journal each week to mark the passage of time. Writing fuels me and keeps me connected to my purpose and my best self. It helps me find clarity and navigate turbulent emotions. And with all the hormonal turbulence being a new mama brings, that is EXACTLY what I’ve been needing. But, for some reason, writing has been falling to the bottom of my list. Instead of being a daily practice, it’s been sporadic at best.

It must be because all those other things seemed more important somehow. They fit better with the images of self-care that have seeped into me through the media, my peers, and my mentors. Or they felt more important because they make me feel like I’m taking care of my family. Intellectually, I know that taking care of oneself IS taking care of one’s family, caring for the caregiver and all of that, but it’s a really hard thing to put into action. It’s hard to break away from the idea of what self-care SHOULD look like. I mean, I’m a yoga teacher, right? I should be practicing daily, waking up early to meditate, and moving with clarity and full attention from moment to moment throughout my day. Right. That’s never happened, even when I had the time to make it my truth. So what am I doing to myself when I prioritize these idealistic self-care practices? I’m setting myself up to feel less than, to feel like I’m not good enough, because no matter how many times I try to make it happen, a daily yoga and meditation practice is not in my cards right now. And I’m just not motivated enough to plan out all of our meals and stick to that process, week after week. I have faced enough micro-failures in my first year and a half of motherhood. I can find so many things that are out of my control that shake my confidence as a mother, why am I CREATING these expectations for myself that make me feel like I just can’t keep up with life, no matter how hard I try?

So I’m reimaging self-care, on my own terms. I’m investing my time in the one act that I know I can engage in daily, the one thing that has always kept me grounded and sane. It’s only been a day or two, but I can already tell a difference. I’m calmer. I’m not so fixated on the things I “need to get done.” And when I have some time to myself? I’m not scrolling through an endless facebook feed or looking at photos on Instagram, I’m actually WRITING. It’s helping me realize that I still have the ability to focus and form coherent thoughts (sometimes I feel like my daughter has sucked my brain right out of me), and that kind of clarity ripples out, touching other areas of my life.

I’m sure I’m not the only mama who has a hard time caring for herself. If this speaks to you at all, I’d like to invite you to look closely at what fueled you before you got pregnant. It probably wasn’t mommy and me yoga classes (though those are a great way to decompress and connect with other mamas!) It may have been a glass of wine, a long bath, a girl’s night out, but maybe not. Whatever it was, are you making time for it now? What can you do to own it again? How will our lives change if we step away from someone else’s idea of how we should recharge our batteries, if we step away from someone else’s idea of what our priorities should be? Could we find a little more ease in our days? Would it strengthen our bond with our families, with our friends? I believe it’s a step toward living a more connected, more present life, and the closer we get to that, the better life feels, not just for ourselves, but for everyone we care about, too.

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