Monday, 27 April 2015

What does self care actually involve?

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!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Living Arrows 14/52

Spring is here! Actually here, not 'the sun shone for 15 minutes' here. So I dressed my crazy girls for sunshine and fun, let them play in thickest mud, and took them to the edge of the world.

I'm really glad I was honest about finding parts of last week tough, and about my ongoing quest to stop yelling at my children. It makes weeks like this, when we're all beautifully connected and in perfect harmony, so much sweeter when I acknowledge the hard as well as the good.

There's so much I want to remember from today, from the yellow brimstone butterflies we saw to Cherry's fierce and intense concentration as she played with a few stones and a stick for hours, conjuring personalities and stories from wood and earth.

A beautiful happy day with my beautiful happy daughters.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Easter in Yorkshire and slowing down

We spent Easter with Noel's family in Doncaster. This was actually our first visit since Violet was a very young baby and I was excited for the girls to spend some time with this side of their family, my side currently being camped out in Singapore.

It's amazing how much more you notice when you are with children - well I find I do anyway. I notice and learn so much not only about the children but also about myself, and about Noel, and about our dynamic as a family.

The main thing I noticed this break was how much more rewarding life, travel and everything in between is when you slow down and take the time to pay attention.

Noel and I consciously chose to slow down to our children's pace when Cherry began walking. It's a very adult trait to hurry and rush your child along, to hurtle to the destination for no purpose other than because that's where you're going.

The day we realised that for Cherry (and now Violet too) the journey usually is the destination, and the fun part, was the day we vowed to never hurry or harry our children. Instead we do things on 'Cherry time' or as it is now, 'Cherry and Violet time'.

(That said the actual car journey to Doncaster was a little too unhurried even for our liking, six and a half hours of relatively relentless queues and roadworks. Fortunately both Cherry and Violet are pretty good travellers.)

In slowing down and taking things at Cherry and Violet's pace this weekend I saw:

My older daughter gritting her teeth and setting her jaw in determination as she struggled to master swinging off a hanging rope. I think left to her own devices she'd still be there now!

My younger daughter's attachment needs loom large before my eyes as she asked for far more holding, cuddles, feeding, love and attention from me than 'normal'. I made a mental note to pack the sling for Singapore! We haven't done much babywearing recently, mostly Violet walks everywhere or goes (reluctantly) in the buggy for short distances. Being out and about for full days she was much more keen to be carried.

How Noel and I often go home too early. This is partly a throwback to days when Cherry still napped, and we tried to coincide coming home with her nap or make sure we were home in time for her to nap. And if I'm honest it's partly because sometimes Cherry can be something of a slow-burner when it comes to days out. She's always been a child that takes time to settle in - then once settled, she doesn't want to go home! But on the days when it takes her a really long time to settle, it can be much easier to just pack up and go after an hour or two than stick it out for the entire day.

How easily and happily both Noel and I wander off the beaten track, follow our own and our children's noses and find new and interesting things to do. Our willingness to explore and enjoy the journey rather than rush to the destination is one of our greatest strengths as a family and I felt really proud of all of us this weekend.

How uncomfortable and anxious Cherry can be when she feels nervous, overwhelmed or in unfamiliar and unexpected circumstances. We all want to see the best in our children, but I feel it's important to see children for who they truly are too.

That sharing a queen-sized bed with a restless Violet and a poorly Noel does not make for a good night's sleep!

That children really do know family. We haven't spent huge amounts of time with Noel's family, and since Violet was born even less, but both children seem to understand that the people we were surrounded by meant something and were truly connected to them.

That it's lucky I had promised I wasn't going to stress about bedtimes and sleep, because both girls were awake until nearly 9pm and up and about at 6. It's nice to let them stay up later and see them enjoy themselves - but I think they will need a few earlier nights this week!

Somehow time is flying by and we leave for Singapore in less than a month. In the spirit of honesty I freely admit I am both hugely excited and more than a little anxious about our impending trip. A few days in Yorkshire actually went a long way towards settling some of my concerns about our upcoming six weeks on the other side of the world.

I was reminded of how fundamentally adaptable children are and how much easier everything is when you slow down and take time to explore as opposed to stick to the pre-ordained path and hurtle to the finish line.

As incredibly grateful as I am for the opportunity to travel and see more of the world with our children, I can't deny that the trip does feel like a huge undertaking - not least the 13 hour flight home with both children but without Noel! But I am confident if I take things on Cherry and Violet time I will be up to the challenge.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Living Arrows 13/52

Clearly I was being a bit optimistic in writing about our Easter plans! Three days in and these two have run me ragged. We've seen friends and had some fun but there's also been a fair bit of fighting and screaming (from them) and far too much yelling (from me) (and them!).

I absolutely loathe myself when I yell at my children and have seriously worked so hard to keep it to a bare minimum. Ideally I would never yell at all as I do recognise it's pointless, and it models awful behaviour and habits to them. 

I certainly yell infrequently, and I never shout abuse or insults or say anything I would regret later (although once a long time ago I told Cherry 'I'm sick of you!' and for weeks later she kept repeating 'I'm sick of you!' in an irate tone to her toy pig and I felt JUST AWFUL about it. I did apologise to her and tell her that I shouldn't have said it and it was wrong and not true, but safe to say I've learned my lesson and have never said anything since that could come back to haunt me). 

But sometimes I do get to a stage whereby I can't help but get snappy and raise my voice. Afterwards I feel beside myself with guilt and like I'm the worst mother in the world and the only parent ever who yells at her kids.

The worst thing about yelling is I know it's pointless. I don't yell because I think it will get my children to do what I am asking them to do or because I want their attention and I don't have it. I do it because I've become so frustrated or irritated or ground down or wound up or just so exhausted I feel I have no other outlet but to yell. 

It's not their fault I don't always have the energy to stay calm and patient and it's not their fault that I struggle to contain their emotions on top of my own sometimes. I'm not exactly yelling for their benefit either! I don't think any of us really believe that yelling is a useful way of communicating with our children - some people do say 'it's the only way to get them to listen' but I don't find that to be the case. The only way to get my children to listen is to get down on their level, make eye contact and speak to them in a manner and tone they can understand and relate to.

All yelling does is upset all of us. Essentially it's me having a tantrum, which is something at 34 I should really be past by now. I hope one day I will be. I hope one day very soon! And I will keep working towards that goal in the mean time. 

But I do think it's important that I acknowledge and move on rather than beat myself up for it for days on end because that helps nobody either. Honestly, parenting is like some kind of crash-course in all the life skills I didn't even know I was lacking!