Over the last couple of years I have been on something of an ongoing quest to work out what self-care actually involves.
I am completely on board with the concept and entirely convinced of the case to take better care of myself - firstly for my children and family, but more recently just for me. I am entirely sure that the better I look after myself, the better a mother, wife and person in general I become.
What's been more difficult about this is understanding what self-care actually is. Magazines, newspapers, websites and blogs are full of articles exhorting the benefits of taking care of oneself but I always find them quite light on the detail.
Generally, suggestions are limited to things like bubble baths, massages, spa breaks and solo visits to the cinema. In fact since the language and concept of self-care was embraced by the marketing and advertising industry you could be forgiven for thinking that purchasing toilet paper or bikini wax fell under the umbrella of taking care of oneself or 'pampering', an entirely hideous word with connotations of indulgence and superficiality.
I think that's what's bothered me about the textbook definitions of self-care, the connotations. There is nothing indulgent about taking care of oneself but it becomes portrayed as such when we're led to believe giving large corporations money we don't really have for over packaged products we absolutely don't need is a luxurious, empowering treat.
On a very personal level I found when I felt myself starting to get very tired and irritable and fed-up I would go for a massage or have a bath or take myself off for an afternoon with the full intention of recharging my batteries and emerging refreshed, energised and ready to embrace everyday life with open arms and marginally less heavy eyes.
How I actually felt afterwards was basically exactly the same but having had a nice half-hour, hour or even afternoon. Nothing seemed to move below the surface. I still felt just as tired, just as irritable and anxious at times, just as weary and fed-up. In fact I often felt a bit more irritable as I'd had my allotted 'treat' and I still felt just as drained and in desperate need of filling up my cup.
In the last six months or so I have begun to hone in much more on what self-care looks and feels like for me personally.
For me, self care is
First and foremost, taking the time to truly get to know myself.
This has mainly involved keeping a journal daily, beginning with morning pages and finishing in the evening with observations and notes about my actions, feelings and reactions throughout the day. Over time I have begun to notice patterns that I can then pick up as they happen, such as negative thoughts creeping in or times when I feel particularly tired or get snappy with the children - all warning signs that I am running dangerously low on inner resources and energy.
Listening to my body
It amuses me that people still think self-care is indulgent when in fact it involves a great deal of discipline and often putting aside what your head wants in favour of what your body needs.
Such as going to bed early when you're tired and have a busy week ahead even if you'd prefer to stay up blogging or watching TV or go on that night out you've been really looking forward to. Or getting up and going for a run or bike ride at 6.30am when you have the time, because you always feel so much stronger and more positive if you exercise but if you leave it until the kids are in bed you know you won't be able to face it. Or cutting right back on added sugar because you're feeling uncomfortable in your own skin and know you're eating too many treats instead of addressing the issues that you'd rather reach for a third cupcake than look into.
Allowing myself space
Harder than it sounds with two very young children! I have very little time 'to myself' and the temptation is to cram a billion and one things into the time I do have, make plans on top of plans, and use my downtime 'productively' at all times. Reminding myself that I will have time in future helps me narrow the seemingly exhaustive list right down. I might want to start on that book idea I've had in my head for the last two years, but it's probably more important that I write in my journal or just clear my mind and sit by myself for a while. I am becoming more and more convinced I am an introvert, which is at odds with my perceptions of myself over the last 34 years. One of the telltale signs is that when Noel gets home I am in no rush to pounce on him and offload about my day and get some 'adult' conversation. I'm more than happy to sit in silence with myself while he works out, and we can catch up later over dinner.
Making tough decisions
Such as deciding to stop working and completely put my career on hold. This is a decision I took more than a year ago and I have wound down and wound down and finally only just finished work 'for good'. But already I find little thoughts popping into my head like bubbles. Why don't I pitch an article on this or a book on that? Again, I have to keep reminding myself I have time. In a few short years, I will have more than enough time to write whatever I want. In the mean time, I have consciously chosen to focus 100% on my family, I have become acutely aware that for me personally to try and work around my young children is to split myself in half. Neither work or my children really get what they deserve from me. Please don't misunderstand, I know there are many MANY women out there who successfully balance work and family with all manner of different arrangements and circumstances. I am just not one of those women and the balance I have found is to choose to prioritise my children and family now, and my career later.
Reading, learning, thinking, growing….
I have a veritable library of books and resources I have devoured over the last year or so and from which I draw enormous amounts of inspiration and food for thought. I have also found some excellent blogs and websites that help further crystallise my thinking, or point me in the direction of more materials that I find useful. Not all of these resources are specifically about self-care, but the overall themes can always be drawn into that space. Everything is connected, after all.
And on a purely practical level, self care for me is
Exercising daily, getting outside at least daily, giving up alcohol, green smoothies in the morning, cutting out added sugar, writing in my journal at least daily, group therapy once a week, a massage as often as is feasible (once every few months or so), getting in the bath with my daughters as often as possible, eating actual and nourishing food for dinner and never ever going to bed on just snacks or toast, cutting right back on time spent on social media, embracing the written or spoken word instead of Facebook, reading as many books in the field of self-discovery, growth, parenting and child development, mindfulness and meditation as I can get my hands on, going to bed at 9pm most days, getting up at 6am most days, saying YES whenever I can but saying NO whenever I need to, using my phone primarily as a camera and almost never as a communication device during the day, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and going to events, groups and gatherings I wouldn't normally think of as being 'for me', picnics with my daughters, remaining present with my children wherever humanly possible, actively practicing positive thinking and keeping negative thoughts in check, endless reading around the psychology of happiness and motivation, switching off and watching a film with Noel every now and again, and immediately cancelling any plans and getting an early night the minute I notice myself becoming irritable, anxious or snappy or negative thoughts beginning to crowd in.
And on that note, I'm off to bed!