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A Mum-Care Basic

I've had a couple of really interesting conversations about 'care' with friends recently, and exactly what self-care or Mum-care might look like.

My take on this is that it will be different for everyone, depending on what they need on a particular day, or at a particular time in their lives. Just as we look at our kids and figure that sometimes they need a duvet day but sometimes we can push them out of their comfort zone in order to try something new, or some days they'll only eat their favourite food but other days you can slip in some broccoli, we need to judge how far we can push ourselves. As a parent of three SEN kids, I'm tuned in to their anxiety and 'triggers' to a degree that some have jokingly called supernatural and others have dismissed as coincidence, but it's real and it's all through fear of What Might Happen if I miss the signs of need. So why on earth are we Mums so utterly hopeless at applying this sort of awareness to ourselves? Why aren't we scared of What Might Happen? Why do we block out signs of need? As someone who has struggled, at times, to avoid total desperation and a paralysing sense of 'overwhelm', I can assure you that we need to keep track of ourselves and not just push on 'because we have to'.

I'm not saying that we can stop looking after our families -- all kids need care, and many kids need medical support in order to stay alive, or emotional support in order to function in an overwhelming world. (And that's without even invoking the dread spectre of Homework, bane of Mummy lives the world over.) But could we at least notice that there's a breaking point somewhere, and that we are not invincible? Ideally we'd notice well before we approach the breaking point and find little ways to show ourselves a bit of compassion and respect on a regular basis, so that we're not suddenly so desperate that we need to run away for a retreat or spa or girls' weekend, or to hide in a dank cupboard eating chocolate while the children access inappropriate material on our computers. For example. Clearly I would never find myself in such a situation. (Ok, that may actually have happened a few years back, involving a Ben 10 'tribute' set to a very rude song.)

Increasingly I believe that what you do for yourself is less important than stating that you are going to do something, and then doing it. After all, in the early days of motherhood, we can't even plan to pee unaccompanied and then do it, or make a cup of tea and actually drink it. All belief in our ability to 'do things' is eroded and it can be hard to get it back. But we must, and that's why I think the statement of realistic intent and then achievement of your goal is so very important in caring for our Mumselves. So you might be someone who wants to and is able to look after yourself by running marathons, and if so I applaud you. You might also be someone who is so overwhelmed that the day's self-care challenge is to brush your teeth. Equally applaudable. And yes, I'm serious. Especially as I'm just home from the dentist. So choose realistically, then do. You're not competing with anyone - or if you are, you shouldn't be. Brush your teeth, wash your face, eat a carrot, take the bin out before it overflows. Or say 'Today I won't...' and make that tiny change. Choose and do. Choose and do. Choose and do again. It's a form of care and it's magical.

Let me just quickly chart my Mum-care experiences over the last few months, in the hope that it might make my point clearer.

After hating myself for pulling out of a half-marathon, I decided to give up alcohol for 90 days. Yes, it was a fairly odd whim, and the decision to follow up on it was, in retrospect, completely inexplicable. I was also going to blog about my hideous experiences of stone-cold-sober life as a Mum. Both things happened, and the blog is still available to read if you're interested - the link is www.90daysdrydreamingofpimms.blogspot.com  As I think I said in a previous post here, the whole abstinence thing got fairly easy quite quickly, and the blog became much more about looking after ourselves.

What I didn't track publicly in the blog was the mental 'journey' (hate that metaphor, but can't think of a better one) that accompanied the self-imposed sobriety. In my head, it went a bit like this:

  • I am such a useless [INSERT INSULT - MINE WAS CRUEL]
  • I may not be a completely useless [INSULT]
  • I'm maybe not quite as much of an [INSULT] as I thought
  • Maybe I'm only a bit of an [INSULT]
  • I'm not an [INSULT]
  • Maybe I'm ok
  • I'm ok, you know
  • I'm ok, and it's ok
  • It's ok, and I'm ok (small difference, but it makes sense to me -- once you're ok, life can start looking surprisingly ok)
  • I deserve to be looked after
  • I'm going to look after myself
For at least 60 of the days, I stopped myself in my tracks at various points of stress and said 'It's ok, and I'm ok', and then moved on. That was my self-care. That one mental act, repeated over a period of months. Not drinking became the add-on rather than the project. And I deliberately avoided exercise challenges or any other grand gestures, to keep the headspace clear enough to take notice and tell myself all was ok.

When the New Year rolled around, that foundation had me feeling ready to extend the process further into 'I'm going to look after myself'. My self-care commitments are more far-reaching now, including healthy eating, trying to address my debt, doing the odd bit of exercise and so on. BUT, crucially, they are extensions of trying to be kind to myself, NOT punishments for a previous 'failure' or 'loss of control', and if I feel overwhelmed one morning, or the kids' needs are particularly time-consuming, I roll back the expectations and celebrate brushing my teeth and believing that 'It's ok, and I'm ok'. I'm Mumming myself as well as the kids, and looking for the days when I need an audiobook and a cup of tea, and the days when I can push harder into the nutrition/exercise/financial security side of 'care'. I firmly believe that both are essential for my long-term well-being, but that the 'further push' will only cause damage if I don't keep on top of the basic 'It's ok and I'm ok'. Recognise your own signs of need, people, because just like our children, one day we can cope with something that is impossible the next, and the price for ignoring that might just be your long-term resilience.

A final note is that sometimes, of course, 'It's not ok'. Sometimes terrible things happen, you can't get the external support you need, the doctors can't help, and so on. I'm not going to tell you to 'just believe and the universe will deliver'. We live in the land of the NHS, after all. I'm going to tell you, though, that none of that is your failing. You are ok, you are not a useless [INSULT] and if in the worst of circumstances, all you can manage in terms of self-care is to refuse to hate yourself, do it, count it as your first achievement and be proud. Not hating yourself is the first building block in Mum-care, I would argue. It's the Mum-Care Basic, the Mum-Care 101. Just noticing and 'seeing yourself' as you need and deserve to be seen is going to help you to move from being a Mum to a Mum-Person, ready to tackle much more effectively the difficulties that you or your family face, and to come out the other side still standing. Or crawling if you must.

Go forth and do, Mum-People. It's ok, and you're ok.

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