We’ve been back doing Zoom groups at Happy Mums for a month now. It’s been a crazy month, relaunching everything and adjusting to our brave new COVID-secure world. Our first principle is that first we must keep ourselves well. It’s a really hard principle to stick to when you are close to others who are in distress, but it’s something we have to do. If we give too much of ourselves away, there won’t be enough left to hold ourselves together.
It’s a lesson many mums struggle with: we spend so long prioritising the needs of others that we can’t even recognise our own needs, let alone face the many mini-confrontations that generally occur when we pursue them. It’s been a hard lesson for me: I had just about learnt how to keep myself well before I became pregnant: exercise, sleep, take medication, do something meaningful, eat well. It was all a fairly fragile peace, but I mostly knew how to fend off the bombardment of sadness and despair.
When I was pregnant and later a mum, there was no time or space (physical or mental) to think about myself. Another life-form needed me to survive and her needs were diametrically opposed to my own. I needed to sleep, she needed me awake. I needed control, she wrestled every shred from me. I needed routine and plans; she tolerated neither. And so the spiralling began.
Two years on and I’ve refortified. My walls are thicker, the metaphorical armoury stocked with more weaponry. I have had to fight harder to carve out time for me: to exercise, to eat well, to meditate and attend psychology. My employment is a supportive blend of friendship, therapy and work. I was lucky enough to finally access NHS psychology, I take two kinds of anti-depressants and my daughter is in nursery as much as we can afford. Still, often, I cannot cope. I find myself sliding into resentment, sadness and grief for the life I once imagined before I thought of becoming a parent. Simply, sometimes I don’t have the energy to fight.
And it takes constant energy, a ginormous centripetal force to keep it all afloat. Looking after yourself sometimes means telling other people you cannot help them – and that is really hard. Your guilt mingles with their disappointment, anger and blame. Self-care sounds on the face of it fluffy and sweet – a warm bath, a soft towel, a nice smelling candle – but often when you get down to it, it’s a series of arguments and the feeling you’re letting everyone down.
But at Happy Mums, we have learnt the hard way. If you give too much of yourself away, you can’t carry on. If you sacrifice your own mental health on the altar of others’ needs, nobody wins. Eventually you break down, you crumble and then far from helping, you are more in need of help than anyone.
So as we start to open up to people who need help, we are trying to practise what we preach. We need to make sure we switch off, we have time to do the things we need to do to stay well. That’s the theory anyway – and so far so good.