Self-care at the mercy of others

“Just remember to make time for you,” said every person I interacted with in the first year after having a baby. It certainly felt like every person, anyway. I would smile and “Mm hm” back at them but some days the temptation to bitch slap these well-intentioned people was almost overwhelming.

It’s not the message – self care is incredibly important and all – it’s the fact they said it to me like I had every opportunity to go out with my friends and sleep in, and I was simply choosing not to.

“Um, hello?” I wanted to shout. “I know time for myself is important but how am I meant to get it? I have no family close by, my partner often works till late at night, it’s literally me and the baby most days. Am I just meant to leave him to wail his head off while I have a cup of tea and read a book? Because that is NOT relaxing me-time.”

Self-care is a sexy catch-all phrase for taking care of your physical and mental health. It recognizes that you need to look after yourself in order to look after others. And that is great. I’m not arguing with that. But can we please recognize that the ability to practice self-care can be very reliant on others?

Can we please recognize that the ability to practice self-care can be very reliant on others?

We live in a world where we often settle in a place that is different to the one we grew up in. We move around for work, for more affordable housing, or to be with someone we love. Through the internet we’re more connected than ever, but in many ways I think we’ve never been so alone. I spent my angsty teenage years dreaming about when I’d leave my hometown, and as an adult I was never bothered by living far away from my parents… Until I found myself with a small person who cried whenever I put him down, dinner to cook, vacuuming to do, laundry to fold and the pressure of returning to work before I was truly ready looming over me.

Now, I’m a pretty capable person and I love being a mum. I had an overwhelming desire to be with my baby all the time when he was so little and I didn’t mind getting spit up on and cleaning up poop. The suggestion of leaving him with a stranger so I could have me-time didn’t gel with me and nor could I have afforded it. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle sometimes.

When my parents visited it was like a fairy godmother waved her wand over the house. They cooked, they cleaned, they held the little man, and I got to actually finish drinking a cup of tea before it went cold. It gave me some much-needed time for a little self-care without me actually having to be separated from my baby before I was ready. Pity it only lasted for a few days.

With the aide of a baby sling (all hail baby wearing!) and semi-regular visits from family, I muddled through that first year. Ultimately my partner’s work hours shifted, my baby got a little bit older and a little less demanding, and my intense need to be with him 24/7 slowly changed (at a glacial rate). I eventually took more and more time to do things I enjoy, like go to the gym, see my friends, read books and write.

But I am very careful with what I say to my fellow parents, because I am hyper-aware that not all of them have the ability to leave their little darlings with a partner or grandparent on the regular. And that not all of them want to, either.

A friend of mine recently had a child. She’s tired and overwhelmed. She could use a little self-care. But when I visited I refrained from giving her the “make time for you” speech – I didn’t want to get bitch slapped, after all. Instead, I asked what I could do to help out. She frowned and thought for a minute. “Some days it’s just really hard to have a shower if he cries when I put him down. I might get you to come over and hold him so I can shower.”

“Of course,” I replied.

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