When I was asked to write an article on “caring for ourselves while caring for others,” I thought about you, the reader, and what your life might be like, and what you might be needing to hear. I imagined myself back when I was in the thick of the early years of mothering and wondered what I would say to myself across time. I’m sitting in the gardens with my friend Monique, reflecting on self-care, what we think it means, and how the work we did care for ourselves and others back then enabled this future, this now.
What Does Self-care Mean to You?
CM: Does self-care mean giving yourself treats or does it mean asking yourself “What do I need to care for me?”
MZ: I think self-care is asking “What do I genuinely need now? Is it a drink of water, a laugh, a break, to socialize?”
CM: Self-care always sounded like girls’ weekends, or facials or manicures. But manicures aren’t important to me. That’s not what I prioritized. There were moments as a mum with young children when I felt I just wanted to be looked after or have space for myself. I had to put that aside because I was caring for others. I remember being desperately tired and wanting my children to go to sleep so I could sleep myself or do a task.
It was hard to balance self-care with care for others because my happiness was tied in with theirs.
MZ: Evenings are such a pivotal time in the day, especially when the kids were very little. As they got older, bedtime became one of the greatest times. We had creative rituals that developed around storytelling. It went from being a really demanding time to being pretty much the highlight of the day.
CM: So much of mothering is creative if we pay that kind of attention to it. Connecting with my kids at bedtime was a way of taking care of myself, and of us all. Which were one and the same really.
MZ: I really wanted to be the best mum I could be. I remember being so tired and not knowing how to look after myself. I accepted it by thinking “Well, this is just how it is. I can do other things in my life later.”
CM: You and I have both identified self-care as very much wrapped in with caring for our children. When I reflect on my life so far, the way I have been a mother to my children is one of the things I’m most proud of. I was aware of the sacrifice I was making for my children’s future happiness, but it was for my happiness too.
I gave up a lot as a mother, but I really feel like now I’m getting that back. Both my daughters have said to me at different times, “Thank you for looking after us and giving all your time to us.”
MZ: Self-care for me was through, in, around, or in connection with my children. As a single parent, the practicality of getting a break was more regular because the kids would spend time with their dad. That would be my time. Often, I’d just be exhausted and sleep. I do remember asking myself “Am I doing what I want with the situation I have? What do I really want to be different?”
Self-care involved letting go of some things and realizing I couldn’t do it all. I prefer a tidy clean household, but I prioritized plenty of time for stories and cooking good food. My mother would have chosen house first and then the kids. I chose the opposite. I wanted the kids first and then the house.
Asking for and Accepting Help
CM: If I was going to do something differently back then, I would have done something more to sustain my professional identity. I didn’t really take time out full stop. I didn’t feel I had anywhere to put my kids while I went and did other things. I had an idea that I should be able to do it all on my own. Until a disaster would strike and then I would feel justified asking for help.
I remember probably the worst day of my life when a whole confluence of bad things came together. It was so clear on that occasion that I needed help so I could justifiably ask. The rest of the time I thought I should just be able to do it all myself.
MZ: That was a thing for me too. Asking for help or getting support was for emergencies and couldn’t be because I was tired and needed a break. It wouldn’t have met the bar for me to get help. Looking back that seems a bit mean-spirited of myself to myself.
CM: I would have liked to have more generous expectations of myself and others. Perhaps I didn’t accept the help that I was offered. I had a very high bar for the care of my children, so I wouldn’t accept offers of help from others if I thought they were below that bar.
What We Let Go Of and What We Hold On To
CM: I didn’t know how to let go. I did take up running with a friend for about ten years. It was an important piece of self-care. It wasn’t pampering, but it was a commitment to myself, time with a friend, and I was amazed at how I felt so much more positive and satisfied with myself and my days. That commitment was an act of self-care. Only I could do that for myself.
I prioritized things like home-cooked meals, good food, exercise. Those are forms of self-care and care for others. But I was a bit grim about it. I would like to have felt lighter, freer, more generous with myself. This would be an intergenerational story. My mother often says, “I didn’t parent as well as you, it’s really great to see you doing it better than I did.” I say “Well Mum, I’m able to do this because of what you did. It’s an evolution.”
That got me thinking that the bigger choices I made were self-care. Being a work-at-home mum was not easy, but it was my choice. I loved watching my kids play, playing with them, and the joy of all the intimate ordinary moments, like discussing if they wanted their pigtails up here or down there and being there to help them with that. I chose to work at the job of raising my kids, chose to go to Playcentre. (For non–New Zealand readers, Playcentre is a pre-school education space run by parents, where you play and learn alongside your kids and other kids and adults in the community.) It connected us with whole families right across the community. That was a kind of self-care.
This conversation is expanding my definition of self-care.
MZ: I, too, loved the freedom of not funneling my children out the door to get to the next thing. I loved that we could do the pigtails or play some more, and I could teach them how to tie their laces without rushing and I could make it fun. I think part of self-care was me valuing my experience, even when it felt like the rest of the world didn’t.
CM: I totally get that. I could have been kinder to myself. Yet I constantly grappled to value those small things that are actually the big things.
What Would You Say to Yourself Back Then?
CM: If I could reach back and give myself a message in those moments of stress or of not feeling valued, I’d say “Although it feels overwhelming now, life will balance out. Looking back, I thank you and salute you for that work because it has freed me up now.”
Another aspect of self-care: I don’t carry any guilt about not being there for my children because I know I so thoroughly was in those early years.
MZ: I know that for myself too, and that’s deeply satisfying. I’d say to myself back then “Go you! Look how you are making it work and finding creative solutions in tough corners. Apart from being tired, you are pretty happy. Celebrate that as an achievement. Lighten up, learn how to ask for help and say yes when it’s offered.”
What Message Would You Send from Then to Yourself Now?
MZ: “Your day has come. Get on with living now fully. Seize the day. Live. Be.”
In my fifties, I am doing that. I really do make the most of each day. I’m taking care of my health and well-being. Life is good!
CM: I would say “I’m doing this now so that in the future, mothering will be a significant, worthwhile, and lifelong gift for you and your kids.”
I really feel that sitting here now, that the relationship I have now with my children is because of the care I took then. I prioritized that. That was my self-care. If I didn’t collect the rewards then, they are coming back to me now in buckets. I am feeling my care then for myself, for us all, now.
Now to you dear reader, what does self-care mean to you?
Picture yourself across the times zones of now and then, in the future or back in the flurry of early motherhood. What message would you want to tell yourself?
Cathryn Monro is author of Spilt Milk Yoga, a guided self-inquiry to finding your own wisdom, joy, and purpose through motherhood.