Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Self Care: A Mother's Salve

Motherhood is wonderful, but it is also grueling.

If you are a mother, then you understand what I'm saying. The hours on the job are tough -- twenty-four per day. (Last time I checked, that's every hour in the day.) The job description is extensive. It ranges from breastfeeding (or bottle-feeding or a combination of both) to potty training to assisting with homework to breaking up sibling fights to picking out kids' clothes to throwing birthday parties to teaching morals to cleaning the home to changing the sheets to driving to sports practices to attending awards ceremonies to navigating transitions to new schools to helping a child suffering from an eating disorder or one victimized by a bullying situation and on and on and on. Obviously, the skill set needed to perform this job is wide and diverse.

No wonder motherhood is considered the hardest job in the world!

How then is a mother supposed to get what she needs -- a break, alone time, comfort, nurturing, etc. -- when all she seems to be doing is giving, giving, giving to her young ones?

Well, if she has a husband or other significant other, and it is a healthy relationship, she can get much of or some of what she needs from that person. A listening ear, a foot rub, a night of dancing, an offer of dish drying or lawn mowing. If she does not have such a loving partner in her life, she may turn to a trusted family member living close by or a special friend who has a knack for making her feel good when she's stressed out, overwhelmed, or just plain old tired. Or perhaps she can soothe herself thanks to the collective efforts of several people in her circle.

But the fact remains: every mother should consciously practice self care because motherhood is an unending marathon that requires energy, patience, pacing, and replenishment. Unfortunately, the experience -- like life itself -- is not created equal from mother to mother.

Indeed, some mothers seem to have it all. Self care is built into their schedules. They are members of a women's tennis league. They are diligent about treating themselves to a massage. Their husbands take them clothes shopping. (Yes, I actually ran into someone I know on such a spree a few months ago!)

For most of us, however, it takes some level of effort to make self care happen. Calling in a babysitter. Forgoing most of a lunch break in order to take a walk. Sacrificing an expense in order to splurge on a facial.

Self care takes many forms:

It can be physical. Eating well. Getting exercise by running, practicing Pilates, playing a sport, or having sex, for example. They make the body feel good, and they lift the mood. With regularity and proper eating, they help the body look good as well.

It can be emotional or psychological. Talking to a close friend over coffee or having a psychotherapist session can do wonders for the spirit. Then there are other things one can do -- and each of us knows what they are or are still discovering what they are -- that help to bring us up from a dark place. For me, some of them are sleeping in a tent, downhill skiing, gazing at Impressionist paintings, and swimming. Being one with nature, being exhilarated in the crisp mountain air, being moved by artistic beauty, and being "baptized" in cool water have a transforming effect on me.

Now that's good self care!

It can be spiritual. Listening to a moving sermon or hymns being sung at one's beloved church. Praying. Meditating.

It can be charitable. Making a donation -- monetary or otherwise -- to someone or some group in need. Writing a check to the American Red Cross. Offering the gift of time to a worthy cause. Paying forward baby clothes and other items to a new mother. Giving to another person out of genuine kindness and with no expectation of getting anything in return is marvelous self care because of the warm feelings that result within.

It can be intellectual. Stimulating one's mind with thought-provoking conversation by attending a political forum or book group.

Self care should be a regular part of a mother's life, especially a single mother whose responsibities are many and whose resources are few. At a bare minimum, she should practice it in at least one form every single day. Ideally, many forms many times a day, but few of us have the time for that. And during those especially tough spells -- when a child is sick or injured, when work is extra stressful, when there's a death in the family, etc. -- it becomes essential as a way to try to keep the equilibrium.

I am recently coming out of one of those highly exhausting, pressure-packed, and soul-crushing periods. Nothing short of an all-out self-care blitz was needed to balance me out! In the space of about one month, I indulged myself in among other things a haircut, a manicure, a facial, an intensely focused session of Rainbow Loom bracelet-making, a solo visit to an annual fair, a long walk along a fall foliage-beautified bike trail, a tete-a-tete with a dear friend during a playdate, and a new pair of running shoes.

It's called loving one's self from head to toe. Do it. Just do it! Do it as often as you can because your mental health is dependent on it, and your children are dependent on you.

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