CommunityLeadershipMental healthWellness

Self-care is not the be-all and end-all

By March 3, 2020 No Comments
Woman relieving stress by meditation in the countryside

Photograph: Alex Tihonov/PR

While I’m a big advocate of self-care, there are a few problems with this idea. In a nutshell, it can be too easy to judge those who are struggling as not looking after themselves. We are in danger of blaming others for being strung out and for not ‘having their sh*t together’.

I remember a friend of mine telling me she went to a doctor when she was parenting a toddler–who as it turned out was later diagnosed with severe ADHD–and discussed with him that she was finding things incredibly difficult.

His response was something along the lines of, “you’ve just let yourself go. You’ve let motherhood get the better of you”. Really…?

This story is truly horrifying and, thankfully, most GP’s are much more insightful, compassionate and less chauvinistic.

Don’t get me wrong. Self-care is important. But let’s face it, when things get really tough it’s often the first thing that goes. We go into survival mode, where all we can manage is getting the essentials done. Time and energy for nurturing our own needs is nowhere to be found.

In reality, it is very challenging for many of us juggling family and work to find time to exercise, eat healthy meals, read a good book or get into the garden, let alone meditate. And as I found out the hard way, all the self-care in the world is not enough when parenting one child or more with special needs, and things are super tricky.

For many parenting solo, all or even part of the time, or if your child has additional care needs, it’s virtually impossible to self-care.

This is where community-care comes in.

Caring for one another, reaching out when someone is having a rough time, offering to cook a meal, donating goods or time to good causes, looking out for neighbours who are elderly or live alone.

Woman reading for relaxation

Photo by Amanda Vick on Unsplash

Self-care as self-preservation

The concept of self-care is, unsurprisingly, very self-oriented, very individualistic, and has a fascinating history as this Guardian article explains:

“It was first used in 1988 by black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, while fighting against cancer and the political status quo. She wrote ‘caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’”.

This is how I thought of self-care – putting your own oxygen mask on first so you can positively impact the world around you – until I researched the popular use of the term further.

The article goes on.

“Self-care was very appealing for women who were overwhelmed, women who were sick, women who were crushed under the weight of the emotional and physical labour of running a household and working and maintaining a family and friendship, women who were burning out. Which is basically most women.” Oh yeah, I sure can relate to this.

However, in the contemporary context it appears to have morphed into something else. When I checked Instagram just now, there are 24 million posts (!) with #selfcare mentions.

Scrolling through the top posts there are dozens of inspirational quotes of the self-improvement kind and a whole host of young women posing provocative selfies, a few face-mask shots and, refreshingly, one with two men in it. But, otherwise, the theme here is clear. #Selfcare means women should strive to be youthful and flawless inside and out.

So, in fact, what I’m often on about—caring for yourself as if you were caring for a treasured loved one—is perhaps better described as self-preservation. Although even this makes me think of eternal youth as being the goal, but it’ll do.

My little family has been through some tough times over the last few years and self-preservation has been entirely necessary or I seriously have zero idea how I’d have got through it. But, really, what I needed more of in these times was community care—or what The Guardian article quoted above refers to as ‘collective care’.

Things are so much better for my little family these days. Harry, my autistic son, sleeps through instead of waking at 1, 2 or 3am and not getting back to sleep, night after night. He’s not having up to fifteen major meltdowns a day and spitting, kicking, biting and shitting everywhere.

I needed my community to step in so badly in at times. Sadly, it was thin on the ground when I really needed support—someone to help with my son when I had had no sleep and his behaviour was horrendous day after day after day.

It was an extremely traumatic time and the stress I was under is hard to put into words. I didn’t even know it at the time but I had become a carer of a pre-schooler with complex special needs. All the while I was also turning up in my business, trying to convince myself as well as everyone else that I was fine.

There was good reason for why I didn’t get much help. Half my family lives out of town, my dad was very unwell and my mum, who was caring for him, was the priority for the one sister who does live nearby.

When Harry was ill, sometimes for weeks or even months on end—the worst times in which he had a number of large seizures—we’d be almost quarantined, barely seeing a sole. Even though I had family nearby, I was incredibly isolated.

I survived this period because of phone calls with sisters and my dearest girlfriend. But when it came to practical support, my closest friends also have incredibly full lives with multiple kids, full-time jobs and some with their own children with additional needs.

The way we live in the Western world, in the nuclear family or in single parent families as is the case with us, and with how busy we all are, is often very isolating. It can be very difficult to get or give the help you or others need.

We all go through periods of grief, trauma or crisis at different times in our lives. Some are more obvious than others. When a family member dies or we are diagnosed with a sinister illness or we get divorced.

Others go on for years and play out under the radar. It’s in these times that we need to try to have the courage to ask for help. However, we also need to ask how people are—like really ask. And when someone replies that they’re struggling, that generally that means things are really bad.

Ask them in these situations: What can I do to help? What do you need? My lovely eldest sister has helped out with my son as much as she could. Once a month or so she will babysit or pick him up from kinder for me. And I am super grateful for this.

But I was so frazzled that more often than not if my sister had Harry for a couple of hours, I’d just go to the supermarket, as it was so much easier to get the shopping without him!

My Godmother has also been a Godsend, having looked after Harry once a week since he was a baby so I can teach yoga. Solo parenting and running a business would be impossible for me to do without my ‘village’.

I am lucky to have had this support during an incredibly trying time, because, the truth is, no amount of self-care is going to be enough when circumstances are so difficult for true wellbeing to be possible. Not without community support.

When I could, I kept up meditation, exercise and tried my best to nurture myself. But no amount of these practices—breathing, yoga, gardening and reading—would have been enough.

As things have gotten a little easier, I’ve found the time and energy to contribute to the community myself. I admit I’m very discerning when it comes to what kind of support I will give. It must align with where I’m at, taking into account my capacity at the time.

I have two causes I’m currently supporting which are both personal endeavours but are also aligned with my businesses philosophy. You can read about them here.

One thing is tree planting, which is such an awesome thing to do with kids and, obviously, supports our beautiful natural environment. I also support women in crisis during the festive season by facilitating the donation of preloved beautiful jewellery.

The cool things is, when we give it is good for us and the recipient! And it’s doesn’t have to be hard. Sticking your hand up to do a good deed once in a while is doable for all of us. And we may be the ones who need a hand one day.

Acts of kindness like volunteering are good for us and others. We are social creatures and our wellbeing is absolutely dependant on the quality of human connection in our lives. So collective care really does make a LOT of sense.

I’m still an advocate of for making time to just be, to meditate, exercise, have fulfilling hobbies and time with loves ones. But I also think that in this world where so many of us are crazy busy a fair whack of the time, we need to consciously make choices that connect us to our communities.

And when we have the capacity, to contribute to our community. Now that my little family is in a much better place, 2020 for me is all about not only contributing to community, but building community.

Women laughing and relaxing together

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Stepping up because community is everything

Some of you will have read that the Director at my son’s kindy, Rose, was killed in a horrific car accident late last year, tragically leaving behind her 10-year-old son. Our kinder community was devastated.

Rose was a community builder through and through. Last weekend was her memorial service, which I MC’d at, along with an educator. While I was very flattered to be asked, I wasn’t sure, at first, that I wanted the role. Then it hit me: she inspired me to step into this leadership role, and to step up in general.

Her untimely death made me see so much more clearly how there are opportunities to build connection and community in small ways every day. I am now the parent rep. at kinder and am attending Co-op. meetings and am getting more involved in the Australian Conservation Foundation activities as my capacity allows.

So how can you step up and contribute to, or even build, community? Or perhaps, especially if you are a primary carer for kids, someone with special needs or an elderly person, how can you reach out to community and ask for support if that’s what you need right now? Perhaps you need to give yourself a little self-preservation.

I share my personal story because I want people to appreciate that even those of us who meditate and dedicate our lives to conscious living, also sometimes have (very) stressful lives. While the skills and practices of conscious living have saved my sanity many times over; as I said earlier, sometimes even they aren’t enough. Not without community. Community is everything.

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