I’m thinking today of anyone (including me!) who finds the school holidays a bit of a juggle.
So how we take care of ourselves amidst the additional mental load and juggling act that is the summer holidays? I recently read a really interesting book called ‘In her Nature’ by Rachel Hewitt, which is ostensibly about women in sport, but it’s much broader than that, and looks at women’s position in society and the ways in which women have been excluded from all kinds of activities. One of the things that resonated was how women take on the majority of caring roles and the expectation that women should not take unacceptable levels of risk because of their primary caregiving responsibilities. An example was given of a woman mountaineer who was seen to be reckless because she had left behind her two children, versus a male mountaineer (who was a father) seen as brave and adventurous.
It makes me think that our roles have so frequently been constrained by a socially acceptable way of behaving. What things do we not do because of the motherhood role? What risks do we not take as a consequence? What chances do we not jump at? I was musing recently after a weekend where I had been ferrying my high-achieving children around, that so often, mothers are shoe-horned into roles that enable other people to succeed, rather than enabling their own success. There’s nothing wrong with this per se. But it makes many women juggling a mothering role as well as a career feel like they’re spinning so many plates that they feel dizzy.
From experience, the thing that often is the first to go when we’re busy, stressed and juggling, is our own self-care. I’d just like to take a moment to encourage you to find a way to take care of yourself this summer.
For those who hear sentences like that and feel overwhelmed at the thought of yet another thing to do, I get it, because people used to say this to me as well and I never knew how to move from feeling guilty that this was just another task I was failing at. So I’ll break this down into five key areas for you:
1. Beyond basic needs
There was a time that things like going to the toilet when you need to, seeing the GP about a longstanding back problem or mental health struggle were included on lists of ‘self-care’ ideas. I have mixed feelings about that. As an ex-nurse, I recall too clearly not peeing when I was busy because there wasn’t time, and so I think for some, there is value in being reminded to do these basic things. After all, if you’re hungry, thirsty, in pain, or need the toilet, it’s pretty hard to achieve anything great. But let’s go a bit beyond such basics. Rather than just shovelling food in, try to pause and taste what you’re eating. Rather than having a 2-minute shower, stay a while. Use moisturiser. Say no to stuff you don’t have time for. Set boundaries. Little things that make you feel better are a good investment in yourself, and they don’t have to cost much/anything.
Do you carve out time to hang out with people who fill your cup? The older I’ve got, the more important my female friends have become. I’m an introvert, but oh wow do I need those people in my life who know how to scrape me off the floor, make me laugh, or commiserate with me. You also need to be able to spend time with your partner (if you have one) and not just exchange boring household details or swap itineraries. If you’re snowed under with life, even just getting a date in the diary for a couple of weeks’ time will lift your spirits.
3. Interests outside parenting
Parenting is so consuming that it can feel like there’s very little time for anything else. I know when my two were little I also barely had any energy for anything else even if they were asleep. I really do get it. But try to do something that you enjoy. I won’t say do this every day because if it’s having a fancy meal that’s not exactly a sensible daily occurrence! But you know what I mean. Some things we enjoy will trickle charge our own cups and cost nothing. Other things super charge our cups and we can get away with having them planned in our diary every few weeks. What interests have you shelved or put on hold since caring for others – whether at home or work? What has slipped to the bottom of the priority list and could it be moved up the scale a few places?
I would be remiss if I didn’t include sleep wouldn’t I?! I know I often talk about infant and child sleep, but your sleep matters too. I realise that if your child doesn’t sleep for long unbroken stretches you might glaze over at the mere mention of adult sleep optimisation but there are a number of things you can do to improve your sleep at any age and stage. I always thought I slept well but recently I’ve been sleeping even better, by taking my own advice, which includes:
· Clean up your diet as much as you can. Plenty of fruit and vegetables, and as few ultra-processed foods as you can. I know it’s hard and many people don’t have the time or energy to cook, but just make one small change. An extra portion of veg or a switch from white bread to brown for example.
· Try not to doom scroll before bed. Avoiding screens really does work to improve the quality of your sleep.
· Don’t look at the clock when you wake in the night – it’ll just make you overthink how many more hours of shut-eye you’re going to get.
· Don’t go to bed cold, hot, hungry or angry.
· Have a predictable bedtime routine (yep – that one works at any age!)
· Make sure you’re comfortable – cosy PJs, dark room, and I’m a recent eye mask convert. I cannot believe the difference this is making to my sleep. Truly.
· More fresh air and….
Sorry, but this one needs its own category. I haven’t wanted to make too much of a fuss about my own exercise journey because I know how triggering it can be for many. But also – if I hadn’t heard the stories of others, I might not have started this. So, in case it helps just one person, I think it’s probably time to tell you that apparently, I’m a runner. My journey started 2 years ago when I realised that despite my daily dog walk, I wasn’t really that fit, and I saw the dog walk as a chore. I was told by several discouraging teachers when I was a child that I really didn’t have any aptitude for games and sport, and I think I held on to that far too tightly, never making any effort to get any better, so not knowing what I was capable of.
The hard truth is that getting fit isn’t always much fun. I don’t think enough people are honest about that. It was hot, hard, and it initially gave me sore and aching legs, arms, and lots of other places where apparently my muscles had considered going into early retirement. I started with 15 minutes on the peloton (stationary bike – because I couldn’t leave the kids at home alone at that point) just twice a week. Not much, but something. And that’s my first tip. Don’t try to climb Everest – just start somewhere. I then started to take the dogs for 2 walks per day, instead of 1. Then I doubled the length of one of those walks. Then I also doubled the length of the other one. I did this really slowly, over more than a year (that’s tip 2 – increase exercise gradually). I then started to run. And you know what – I now really need it. Sure, I’ve lost weight, but that’s the least of the benefits it’s brought. I feel strong, free and confident. I consider it essential to my mental health…. (this is tip 3: don’t see exercise as a tool for weight loss, but see it as a broader self-care act).
Aaaaaandddd, it has made my sleep next level good. I’d love to encourage anyone who feels nervous or apprehensive to just start with something small.
I hope in all the busyness of the summer months, you’re able to take even just one aspect of self-care and invest in yourself.