"Self-care" is a buzzword right now, with Instagram memes full of words like depleted and replenished and nourished and reminders that you can't pour from an empty cup. Like hygge and eating clean, the "wellness" concept is at least partly about money and marketing (it's NINETY DOLLARS for a MONTH'S supply of Goop's motherhood "vitamins and supplements"!!), but there's more than a grain of truth in the idea that we need to get as good at looking after ourselves as we are at caring for others.
And guess what, you don't need Gwyneth Paltrow or a small fortune to fix your life. You can fix your life. Who cares if self-care sounds like an instruction to wipe your bum properly? And who cares if lots of us have been kindly caring for ourselves for all the years we've been alive? I've never found treating myself difficult, but of course I am also that person who tries to do everything and doesn't slow down until it's too late (we are all that person - woman! - right?)
As mothers, especially when children are small, we have limited control over how much sleep we have, and our patience and energy reserves are often maxed out, so arguably we need to be looked after even more than your average childless person who gets lie-ins and marathon cinema trips and relaxing holidays (not jealous at all). At times when my baby was small, I looked after my houseplants better than I looked after myself. Then someone told me that useful metaphor for mothers about fitting your own oxygen mask first, and something clicked. How could I look after her if I was running low on everything myself?
So here are ten reminders to care for yourself in small, frequent, everyday ways when you don't have three nannies and a trip to the spa coming up. They're probably all things you do already, but it's no harm to be reminded to cut yourself some slack.
I don't need to tell you how to eat, because you know this. What works for me is a balance of the good healthy stuff and treats, because abstinence and misery don't feel like being nice to myself. I try to fill up on good fats like unsalted nuts and almond butter or avocado on toast/a banana/a cracker (I know these aren't the cheapest), and ignore these guidelines frequently and have a cup of tea and a Hob Nob. I think my general rule is to never get too hungry and grouchy. I once met a woman who kept a whole array of snacks in her handbag on nights out, and I then became that woman.
I go to sleep at nine or nine thirty a few times a week. My partner says "it's nine-thirty" in an incredulous voice, and I ignore him. I try and commit to being in bed at grandma o'clock with a book and no internet connection, and it makes me feel like it's all going to be ok. Even if it's all downhill from there. Which in my case, it probably is.
3. Think in cycles
It's not very fashionable to be familiar with your body's hormonal cycle, and a first reaction can be eye-rolling or thinking ewwww. It's science though, and there are huge benefits to knowing exactly what's going on with our bodies at any particular stage because of the way our hormones (unlike men's) fluctuate. If you know when you'll have energy and be full of ideas and creativity, and when you need to hole up and not talk to anyone, you can plan around it. Of course, there are lots of other factors that work to affect how you feel as well, but this is a good place to start. And better still, you get better at self-awareness, knowing your body and checking in with yourself regularly.
And doesn't it always feel better when you go outside? Nature has cycles and we get to experience them all, from the comfort of being warm inside on a winter's night to exposing ourselves to hours and hours of light in the summer months. I don't have a religion and don't really have a sense of a God, but the wonder of nature does it for me every time.
4. Stay cosy
I know everyone's on about hygge (or they were, isn't there a new thing now?), but I often light a candle at 6pm as a signal that it's nearly bed and bath time for my daughter and we've nearly made it through the day. The sound of the match striking the box, the smell, the flickering flame is immediately calming. Have a nice bath, my mum used to say if I'd had a moody teenager day, and she was right. Lastly, I have commandeered my partner's M&S man's extremely soft dressing gown, and I know for a fact that I wouldn't have got through the first year of motherhood if I hadn't had that delightfully warm and fluffy gown to put on as I stumbled towards my wakeful baby, or towards the kettle as we got up.
5. Be balanced
OK, from now on we're alternating Cindy Crawford's "Aerobicise" and "Buns of Steel", and reading one non-school book a week. My first book is "Fit or Fat".
Mine is "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus".
Good. Now that takes care of our minds and bodies, but we should do something good for mankind or the planet for a couple of hours.
See, Clueless's Cher knows all about balance! Sometimes I read an actual non-fiction book (like this amazing book which explains why women tend to be more empathetic and why men don't listen when you nag them!) and realise that my brain needs to be stretched again, instead of just watching the Bake-Off and reading Facebook. Keeping lots of little bits of different stuff in your life makes for a healthy brain and body.
6. Go slow
We're so wired into society's obsession with rushing, or we are actually in a hurry so frequently that it's hard to get our body and subconscious mind to slow down when we don't actually need to rush anymore. When you have time, take it. Move slowly and stop tensing the muscles in your body that you're almost certainly tensing because of all the plates you are constantly spinning.
7. Be with people, or be unapologetically antisocial
Sometimes I take my daughter to a play cafe or soft play etc because I want to be around other people, even if only smiling at someone or passing the time of day. Other people are a resource sometimes, even strangers. The days with my friends with children can be a godsend. And sometimes I don't feel like talking to anybody and keep my head down in the playground. Let's not be English and apologise for not feeling talkative. Let's just let each other do what we need to do.
8. Therapeutic cosmetics are your friend
This might sound weird and trivial, and I am honestly not giving you skincare advice, but if I'm knackered and feel ropey, either cleansing or exfoliating my face or my feet (the Ped Egg has changed my life) then slathering myself in a delicious smelling moisturiser, even after the worst day, never fails to pick me up a little. I don't have wads of cash to spend on posh toiletries, but I always ask my mum or sister for that kind of stuff for birthdays and Christmas and use it very sparingly and I swear it has helped me on my very tiredest days, when I stagger towards the mirror at the end of the day. It makes me think "yes, I'm alive", and that's enough. My favourites are Liz Earle Hot Cloth cleanser, Alpha-H cleansing balm with rosehip and geranium, the Dr Hauschka rose range and Eve Lom cleanser, which I've nearly run out of and will never be able to afford again 😭😭🙏🏼,. Let's hope my boyfriend reads this and puts an order in for me.
9. Think small
A cup of tea, 5 minutes of yoga, talking to your mate on the phone on the way to the bus stop, Facetiming the grandparents - it's the little things, isn't it. There's something about even setting the kettle to boil that has an immediate calming effect on my nervous system. Even if you don't do yoga, or don't want to do much active yoga, I really recommend buying a yoga mat to have as somewhere you can just lie or move your body in very small ways now and again. They are cheap and easy to store (roll up and tuck them away). Get a pillow for your head and underneath your knees. Lie and breathe. If you know yoga, just do whatever poses you feel like doing, and if you don't, just move your body in a way that feels nice.
We have this idea that only an hour of exercise is "worth it", when all the research tells us that it's the little things, like climbing the stairs every day instead of taking the lift, or walking for five minutes, that can add healthy years to our lives. So just think: I'll lie on this mat and breathe for a few minutes. Or: I'll do 7 minutes of yoga. It's still worth it. It still counts.
10. Let a lot go, and hold onto the rest
When I was a new mum I read that advice about "let the washing up pile up, ignore the dusting (er who does DUSTING?!), you can mop the floors next week (er who MOPS THE FLOORS?!), just rest when you can." I found though, that the flat looking like something off How Clean Is Your House did not make me feel better. Sure, I've never worried too much about sparkling surfaces, but I found if I didn't have a minimum level of cleanliness, I just felt worse. So even when I was so tired that I was in full zombie staggering mode, I tried to induce enough order to make me think "yeah, that'll do."
Similarly, I tried hard to let go of a lot of hard stuff and instead of talking myself out of it, just be in it and say to myself "yes, this is awful/hard/sad right now." Likewise I tried to lose any expectations that things would always be fun or easy, but when things seemed really shit, I allowed myself to really feel it instead of trying to be strong. It seemed important to hold onto that reflexive part of my personality that immediately screamed oh god this is so difficult and it's NOT FAIR.
I hope that helped to remind you to bring these litttle things into your everyday where you can. These are all ways to be kind to yourself. Sometimes being nice to yourself is a radical act. You definitely deserve to try it.