I’d like to thank Claire Taylor for contributing this article to Mum Life Stories. I know many of you will be able to relate and hopefully glean some insight into your own journey toward ‘Mum Life Self-Care.’
Claire Taylor is a mother, writer, and Licensed Massage Therapist. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Yellow Arrow Journal, The Loch Raven Review, Capsule Stories, American Writer’s Review, and Canary Literary Journal. Her writing about motherhood and depression has appeared on Scary Mommy. She is the creator of Little Thoughts, a monthly newsletter of original stories and poetry for children. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland (United States), and can be found online at clairemtaylor.com.
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In Search of Self Destruction
I am the person who performs your self care.
With my hands and fingers, elbows and thumbs. An anatomical toolkit of relief. With my heated massage table and scented eye pillows, and an impeccable ability, honed over many years and countless bodies, to instantly find the spot you didn’t realize was so tender, to release the knot you didn’t even know you had.
For a long time, I relished the challenge of softening tight muscles, correcting harmful postural patterns, and bringing release and relaxation to the people who sought my care. I loved feeling useful and needed. Then I had a baby, and like many new moms, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the neediness of my newborn. I grew weary of constant daily touch. I would shift from an infant plastered to my chest, to my hands plastered to strangers for hours straight, then back to the infant pressed warm and helpless against me late into the night.
The feeling of being all touched out didn’t dissipate as my baby grew into a toddler, and I added to it a collection of physical ailments that no amount of stretching or self care of my own was able to alleviate. A deep, sharp pain settled into the muscles along my spine. I felt it whenever my son stretched his tiny hands out to me. “Carry you,” he’d say, and I’d lift him into my arms with a wince. “Carry me,” I’d correct him. My wrists ached. My thumbs throbbed. A hot, aching spark shot through my arm whenever I turned a doorknob, or twisted the cap onto a sippy cup.
Massage therapists are encouraged to practice regular self care. It improves the long term viability of our careers, prevents burnout, and allows us to work with the energy and flexibility needed to reduce injury and fatigue. We’re supposed to routinely stretch our forearms, backs and shoulders. We should ice our hands. Schedule breaks between sessions to rest and refuel. I do all of my appointments back-to-back to reduce the time that I’m away from my young child. I skip lunch, stuffing small handfuls of trail mix into my mouth between sessions whenever my vision goes blurry, my blood sugar about to crater. I collapse onto the couch at the end of the day and don’t give a moment’s thought to stretching or icing. When I’m worn down from working the last thing I want to do is anything even loosely resembling more work. Even if it would be to my benefit.
Mothers are similarly encouraged to make time for self care. Our doctors and doulas, the moms who came before us, those alongside us in the trenches, everyone asking: are you making any time for yourself? Are you getting out of the house? Finding time to rest? Sleep when the baby is sleeping. Don’t forget to exercise and eat well. Be sure you’re still socializing. Talk about something other than your children. Carve out opportunities to relax and restore. Treat yourself to something special. Take a step back and reconnect to the person you were before you became someone’s mom.
I understand intimately the aches and pains of my clients who are new mothers. Sore backs, curved and curled from breastfeeding and baby cradling. Neck tension from long hours of staring lovingly down at your tiny creation. Feet, knees, and hips fatigued from bearing the full weight of a body with limited core stability. Good for you, I tell them. You did it! You spent an hour taking care of yourself for a change. Or rather, you dedicated an hour to letting me take care of you.
The trouble with self care is that yours is yet another name to add to the list of people you’re responsible for taking care of. I’m tired of taking care of people, myself included. We tell new parents that it gets easier, and it’s true that with time you regain some capacity to care for yourself again. It’s not the ability to feel better that I long for, so much as the permission to fall apart.
During my freshman year of college, I presented a film I made at a conference on depression. One of the first presentations I attended while there was from a young Black professor who asserted that Black women were denied the privilege of experiencing depression. Because of the vital roles they played in their families and communities, she argued, because of limited resources and inflexible schedules, Black women were not afforded the option of succumbing to their own despair. They were the engines that kept the lives around them chugging along. If they stopped, everything stopped, and so they just kept pushing forward, depression be damned.
As a lifelong depression sufferer, I was baffled that anyone could consider this disease a privilege. It’s a privilege to slip into a hole of unshakeable despair? A privilege to not be able to pull yourself out of bed in the morning? To collapse onto your living room floor and stay there for hours because you have neither the strength nor energy to pick yourself up? Depression is a curse, not a privilege. Or so I thought. Now, so many years later, with the benefit of age and experience, and the daily demands of raising a young child, I’m better able to see the truth in the point she was making.
The experiences of my depressed self pre-motherhood were ones of despair and exhaustion, yes, but also indulgence. I could call out sick from work if I absolutely could not gather the energy to get up in the morning. I could go home at the end of a long day and sit in total silence, left alone to fixate on my irrational, self-abusing thoughts. I could stare mindlessly at the television and fall asleep on the couch. I could cry, loudly and outwardly, give myself over entirely to wallowing in my own despair. I can’t do any of those things anymore.
Now the little person I gave life to forces me out of bed in the morning whether I like it or not. There are waffles to be made and cups of milk to be poured. There are games to be played as the sun comes up, and more questions to answer than is reasonable to be asked in a lifetime, much less in the span of an hour before the coffee has even finished percolating. If I cry, my son immediately bursts into tears and shouts, “I don’t like it when you’re sad!” If I let my eyelids droop, heavy with the emotional weight I’ve been dragging around for days, weeks, my whole life, I’m immediately commanded to wake up and keep playing. One day I allowed myself to surrender to my low mood and moved through every interaction with him like a zombie. At one point, he rested his head in my lap and told me he felt sad that “something’s wrong with Mommy.” I went to bed terrified that I was ruining this sweet, sensitive little boy who was too tuned in to my emotions.
As he grows, I am indeed able to carve out more time for myself. I have gotten back to running regularly. I read daily. I’ve started monthly therapy sessions. Sometimes I even get to sit alone for a glorious hour where no one needs anything from me. But no amount of self care can fully sate my desire for the occasional emotional implosion. It’s not the freedom to care for myself that I lost with motherhood, but the freedom to self-destruct. I didn’t even know it was a privilege until it was gone.
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