I’m a huge advocate of self-care and even I am getting sick of those hyphenated words in a year where they are offered as the solution to so many ills. I have had people comment on how seriously I take it. For most of my adult life I have been navigating the highs and lows of the world of ‘wellness’ and in the three years since becoming a parent, it has been an important focus. I simply need my body and mind to perform for me every single day to fulfil all my roles and no more so than that of parent carer to Leo. I need to be strong enough to lift him, have the stamina to meet all his needs, be tenacious enough to advocate for him and be mentally fit enough not just to overcome the trauma we have endured together, but be resilient enough for whatever comes next.
It’s not all on me. I have help. I am aware that many who really need to look after themselves are not getting what they need. I have good family support. A brilliant local authority nursery. A personal trainer who cares about the whole picture. Understanding and supportive employers. I have drawn on practical and emotional support from charities. My boys provide the joy and the why, my home and my motivations. I invest in my health because my loved ones depend on it, but it’s more challenging that buying bath bombs, lighting candles and eating chocolate (but I do those things too.)
I believe that true self-care makes us uncomfortable. It is the harder daily route. I go out and run when I want to curl up and watch Netflix. I plan meals when I want to call for takeaway. I journal and work on my thoughts and fears when I want to bury my feelings. I meditate when I would like to scroll mindlessly. I prioritise the must do from the should do. I write emails of complaint when I would rather avoid conflict. These choices do not always make me feel kind to myself or relaxed, and they challenge me rather than soothe. But I know it’s what I need, and what I need to be for Leo. It’s about being accountable and responsible. Self-care can be fun, life-enriching and transformational; but it can also be very hard work. It is what you can control in an ever-changing landscape; but it doesn’t solve everything. It can also be an enormous privilege in the face of poverty, illness, discrimination and isolation.
What self-care is definitely not about, is fobbing people off when they should be properly served by authorities. I feel alarmed with the increasing reliance on teaching ‘self-care’ to carers who should be supported with respite. I am appalled that ‘wellness tips’ are offered instead of proper mental healthcare services to people who are suffering. Employers should not be offering ‘wellbeing’ leaflets when they cannot offer flexible-working, acceptable terms and conditions and defined roles and responsibilities.
For me, self-care is what we can do personally, so we can fulfil our responsibilities and potential to ourselves and others. But it does not replace essential public services that are legally and morally bound to provide for us.
I asked on Instagram recently if the people who watch my stories have any blog subject requests. A sole suggestion was made… ‘juggling everything [exploding head emoji]’. I could almost feel the overwhelm through the screen. I know this woman has three children and I suspect ‘everything’ in this context is about being a mum, a wife and her own person. So here it goes… Spoiler: I don’t have the definitive answer. But I think it begins with challenging some assumptions.
Every year the ‘Calendar Stall’ appears during the run up to Christmas in our local shopping centre. Year on year, the number of ‘Mum calendars’ appearing on the racks seems to increase and for me, this feature of kitchens everywhere sums up the overwhelm pretty well. Titled ‘Supermum’, ‘Do-it-all-mum’ and ‘Mum’s Busy Day’, the pages are illustrated with cartoons of frazzled women and have text in ‘fun’ fonts. The calendars have a column for everyone in the household, sometimes even pets! In the calendar world, mums exist to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time with the things we need and ultimately… they are responsible for no one ever forgetting anything. Ever. ‘Cheery’ wall calendars are sold as the project management tool of choice for unpaid work done by a workforce of women increasingly feeling overwhelmed by the mental load. Perpetuating the idea that this is our job. Whether you are a man, woman, put-upon child or anthropomorphic pet, IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO DO EVERYTHING WHEN YOU LIVE IN A HOUSE WITH OTHER PEOPLE. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
I first came across Lauren Currie in 2016 when I was feeling a bit lost. I had just closed my retail business, my dream that had not worked out as planned and was looking to the next opportunity. Dealing with failure is hard and exposes vulnerability, and in my case, in a fairly public way. My first encounter with Lauren is documented in an old blog post written at the time. We tried to get an in-person Upfront course going in Dundee a year or so later but unfortunately, we just couldn’t get the numbers to make it viable.
I continued to follow Lauren’s progress on social media and enjoy her blogs. An entrepreneur, yes, but with a mission. To do things better. Her content and attention were increasingly about the visibility of women on stages and panels, in board rooms and in public discourse. She absolutely walks the walk and started the Upfront movement. Allowing people to experience stages. Building public speaking skills. Ultimately, helping people, specifically women, find their confidence.
2020 has brought lots disruption and necessary innovations and I was delighted to see one of them was Lauren taking her Upfront course online. In some ways my confidence has improved since my teens. I don’t fear public speaking, I can contribute in meetings and I can advocate for myself. But it doesn’t feel comfortable and I know I can be much better. I don’t think I allow myself to fully explore my potential and I often pause from sharing or publishing what I really think. I worry far too much about others think about me.
I signed up for the six-week course. I took the four payment instalment option and for clarity, I paid full price and have not been given a discount or incentive to review or recommend this. (I can provide a link to get a discount, so ask me if you want it! It takes the course from around £385 to £308). I paid personally and did not approach my employer in this instance. I signed up before my son was back at nursery, knowing that we would be spending a week in hospital for planned surgery, that we would spend a week on holiday and with the commitments of work. I know there is never a good time to fit learning and development in – there is only making time.
A list of things said around me, and probably most other girls growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s Scotland:
- Stop showing off
- Little girls who ask, don’t get
- Don’t talk back
- Adults are talking
- No one likes a show-off
- Who does she think she is?
- They’re full of themselves
- If they were a bar of chocolate, they’d eat themselves
- (Sarcastically) I love me, who do you love?
- Good girls are quiet
- Oh she loves herself (that was NOT a compliment)
Lately I have had the pleasure of joining a group of intelligent, capable, hard-working, beautiful, thoughtful women on a confidence course. They work around the world and in all kinds of organisations. I don’t know, but I can imagine, they earn vastly different salaries and I know they are of different ages, stages, backgrounds and nationalities. And listening to this group of women has made me angry. So angry. The kind of angry that sparks hot tears and sets your stomach spinning. Not because they were saying anything awful, they were speaking truthfully. But because they were reflecting the deepest, darkest thoughts I have had, and my female friends and relatives probably have too. They were sharing how a lack of confidence was holding them back in aspects of their life. It is debilitating. It is destructive. It is devastating.
And here’s the thing that really drives me crazy – this lack of power is completely embedded across institutions in society to keep women feeling like this. How dare our childhoods do this to us? How dare society malign us? How dare we allow our gifts to be hidden away while mediocracy reigns? We are missing out on talented leadership, original thought and creative innovation that can solve the types of challenges that are really puzzling us in the world and we are owed the voices of these women, as much as women are due to be heard.
So, I am angry, but I am taking action. I am halfway through Lauren Currie’s Upfront course and it has my rapt attention. Lauren talks about finding a positive and joyful view of issues as anger disengages audiences. It makes a lot of sense. Especially when I think of the speakers I enjoy the most – they are charismatic and they give me hope. Thankfully, finding positives in a situation, focusing on things I can control and practicing gratitude for life’s gifts are things I have been working on for most of my adult life. I can find hope in many places, but I have been needing the final piece to take action and speak up – the audacity.
I think we have all discovered new things that annoy us this year. Change has been imposed on us and many of us do not feel the same control over our lives as we are used to. It’s no wonder that we are all feeling a bit more irritable.
Mostly I have stayed calm with all the changes. I started wearing a face covering before it became mandatory to get used to it, and I am now. I have followed the lockdown guidance and do my best to maintain social distancing. I leave my details when eating out for track and trace and I am fastidious about hand-washing/sanitising. I don’t like home working much but I have learned how to stay connected and motivated.
I see others around me struggling – either being uncomfortable or reluctant, or just being overwhelmed by the volume and speed of changes. Many are still too frightened or vulnerable to venture out. I can understand that, Coronavirus may have been suppressed, but it is still very much around. We can see that by all the restrictions still around us.
I am watching the world around me confront a new reality brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every life lost to this virus is a tragedy and the scale of loss is devastating to the entire global community. I realise the worldwide severity of this illness and I, in no way, would or could ever rationalise or minimise that devastation. Today, on the 22nd of May, the number of lives lost is 333,000 with over 5.1 million people found to be infected. One-third of a million families grieving a loss due to COVID-19.
I am watching this unfold in Scotland as a parent of one of the one billion people in the world with a disability (and as a big sister to another). I have seen my life change dramatically as a result of steps our Governments have taken to limit the loss of lives and prevent overwhelming our NHS. For one billion people who were already coping with the challenges disability created in their everyday lives and their families, things have become even harder. Until this point, I have been fortunate enough not to have anyone in my immediate family become ill or lose their life to coronavirus. That is the one thing I focus on when people ask how my family is. Commenting anything other than “well” can feel indulgent. Despite the fact we are without nursery, therapies and clinics, not to mention the circle of supportive family and friends we usually have around us, it does not occur to me to complain. It’s no one’s ‘fault’ and we work around it.
I have observed how the people around me, and the wider public have behaved through the emergence of the virus and the lockdown. I have seen my own thoughts and behaviours metamorphise as we move through the weeks. I have been shocked, saddened, angry, moved, thrilled, delighted, bored, frightened, grateful and exhausted. Like many carers, feeling all of these things in a week is not that unusual.
Seeing your child ill in hospital is one of the most difficult things you will encounter. Whether a premature baby or a teenager approaching adulthood, seeing your child dependent on the expertise of a hospital team to save their lives is the most vulnerable you may ever feel. Your priority is their recovery and wellbeing. Your waking thoughts are focused on charts, stats and test results. You measure time in doctors’ rounds and nurses’ handovers. You may be going home to sleep, creeping into parent accommodation or camping out on a folding hospital bed. You get through it, because you have to, and your child needs the constant in their life to be well, constant.
If you are lucky, like I am, then you will have people around you in life who want to help. People who want to support you and make sure you are fit and well for your child. They will check in on your child’s progress, but they will also be concerned for you. Unless they are medical specialists, there is often little they can do to actually help the child.
If someone you care about is currently spending time with their child in hospital, you may not know how best to help, even if you really want to. You might be worried about causing offence, appearing nosey or interfering. Imagining yourself in the situation might provide clarity. There are things that have undoubtedly helped me. I am fortunate enough to be able to share a list of kind things my friends and family have thought of. I want to share them – as a resource for those facing spending time with their children in hospital, for their loved ones and as a reminder to me, should any of my friends ever need the same in return.
It was Sunday afternoon and I was stressed out. I was overwhelmed, and Leo was crying. He was looking at me like I had utterly betrayed him. I cuddled him and told him I was sorry, I was just trying to help him, but I had got it wrong. How had this dramatic scene come about? I had taken him to a baby swimming class.
Leo had not been swimming this year until we went to the hotel pool last month. He had been ill, and we had been busy at weekends. He hadn’t enjoyed the hotel pool – it was cold and noisy. I knew swimming was very good for him – the water would support him, and he would enjoy greater physical freedom than he is used to. I was determined that we would get back into swimming with him.
A visit to our local leisure pool went better and I was looking forward to the swimming class. It takes place in a hydrotherapy pool which is great for his muscle tone and there would be no older kids jumping around and shrieking. I had a vision of a lovely mother and son bonding moment in a cosy pool while Leo grew confident in the water.
The reality was 30 minutes of fast-paced activities, feeling like I didn’t have enough hands and a very upset Leo. I felt quite stressed trying to keep up and I felt very guilty that Leo was having such a rotten time. At the end of the class, the stress subsided, and I felt very upset. First of all, I felt very bad that I had put Leo through such a miserable time. Then I felt disappointed that I had failed to find the right class for him. Finally, I felt demoralised. I had acted with the best of intentions and I had upset my son.
I am what you might call a ‘summer person’. I love light nights and going out without a coat. I used to feel dragged into autumn kicking and screaming. Wishing for one more day dashing about in flip-flops. But not this year. While autumn always felt like the end, this year it feels like a new start. Like a new term, but for family life. While I used to crave excitement, now I like order, routine and knowing my plan from one week to the next.
Our transition from spring to summer was sheer relief. Leo spent eight weeks of spring in hospital and he was discharged in May. He had been gravely ill – more so than I would allow myself to reconcile with at the time – and were just so grateful that he was well enough to go home. I looked up and noticed that the trees were full and green, the sun was higher in the sky and the grass was regularly overgrown.