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.
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 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.
I was feeling a bit frazzled this morning. I don’t know how getting two humans out the house feels like such an ordeal, but most parents would agree it’s a challenge. Leo was up too early, and he had to entertain himself just a little bit too long when I did unreasonable things like having a shower, drying my hair, tidying up, putting the washing on, getting all his stuff together for nursery and packing the car. His little toy giraffe was shouted at and the poor wee wooden animals were decanted from their ark. I do a lot of singing in the morning to keep the entertainment going while I try and sort things out. Leo’s little applause at the end of each song keeps me going.
Despite being up for more than two hours, I left without time for breakfast. That wee emoji with the steam coming out, that was me. As usual, once we are in the car, we both calm down. We chat about our day, sing songs and practice animal noises and arrive at the nursery. We are always greeted with a cheery welcome and Leo brightens further when he realises a fun morning awaits.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when your family gets a week off to spend together, at least one of you will get ill. That’s what happened to our family this week. Ross and I both took the week off work and Leo came down with a cold. I put on my out of office last Thursday evening and by Friday morning I had Leo at the GP surgery to get checked over. He is fine, and it really is just a cold, but the poor wee guy is out of sorts. On Monday, I woke up with a blocked nose and scratchy throat, and so it continued.
Just like the physical strains begin to show when you get some downtime, so do the psychological effects of needing a break. I found myself a bit tetchy this week. Not feeling 100% and looking after Leo who is less contented than usual was taking its toll and something else had upset me. Something that might not usually make me react emotionally, but I was more vulnerable than usual.
I took a course of action when I realised this. I cancelled a non-essential event I had planned – it needed me to be in a positive frame of mind and I wasn’t. I invited a friend around. We had a takeaway for dinner and a great conversation with plenty of laughs. I continued with my plans for Leo. I made sure I got to the gym. The what, now?
I have had this post in draft for a couple of months. I was waiting for the right time for our family to share it. Lately, Leo has been doing so well and we are feeling positive. We don’t shout about Leo’s disability but we don’t hide it either. It’s just something about him. I have encountered ignorance about disability (and confronted it) for almost my whole life and I think the only way to counter it is to be open about the realities. If you understand someone’s journey then you will have more empathy. This morning I learned it was World Cerebral Palsy Day and I felt that it was the time to share this post. I am a lot less angry now than I was when I wrote it.
I know that people reading this will be from all walks of life, will do lots of different types of jobs and will have their own challenges to deal with. I hope that reading this will make them mindful that they don’t know what people are dealing with in life and that kindness should always be the default response when faced with someone different from you.
This summer, exactly a year to the day we were given the devastating news that our son’s brain scan was showing evidence of a brain haemorrhage, it was confirmed that he has Hemiplegic Cerebral Palsy. That means the right side of his body is impaired by the damage done to his brain. We knew this was a possible outcome but had remained optimistic. The signs over the last few months had been hard to ignore and my fears of these two words were realised.
Leo, the boy who had overcome all the odds to be born at 25 weeks and 5 days and not only survive, but thrive, breathing independently and requiring only dietary supplements on discharge from hospital three weeks before his due date. Leo, our baby who one week before his due date was undergoing surgery so a neurosurgeon could fit a shunt that would drain excess fluid that wasn’t been absorbed in the ventricles – another side effect brought about the bleeding on his brain. Leo, the amazing child who got through his first winter without a single bug. Fate was not yet done with Leo.
I’m now four weeks into my new regime with Better:Gen. The shiny optimistic stage has passed and we are now into the icky part. The part where good habits are made, we are tested to our limits of willpower and resilience is key.
The long-term goal is to be healthier – fitter and with loads more energy. I am seeing signs that I’m making progress. A bit less lethargic in the evenings, fewer naps at the weekends and a few more chores being done are all good indicators that I’m on the up.