Self-Care

For some reason I have been a bit reluctant to write about self-care, perhaps because it is well-documented already? I don’t know. Maybe because I haven’t always been brilliant at it and I have had to work at seeing the importance of it (for me). I suppose it can seem like quite an abstract, self-indulgent concept.

More recently the penny has finally dropped. Self-care is essential. It is not a pleasant add-on or luxury. It is crucial to our good mental health and to us being able to manage the myriad demands thrown at us in our day to day lives. I think when I spotted ‘Looking after yourself’ as one of the blocks in Kim Golding’s House Model of Parenting (an essential block, without which the house would fall down and upon which many other vital blocks sit) I got the message.

Self-care is a subject fairly widely bandied around by adopters (with good reason) but I truly believe it is a necessity for everyone. We are all busy, under pressure and juggling many-a-ball. If we are not mentally and emotionally well, we can’t function to the best of our abilities. We can’t support those around us who need us and we leave ourselves open to illness.

With my professional hat on I have been working with a young person who is currently under a lot of exam stress. A diligent and bright pupil, they are working extremely hard, leaving little to no time for rest and relaxation. As a consequence their stammer has worsened significantly. My main therapy has been around teaching the need for self-care, much to their surprise.

We are not designed to be under permanent stress, though modern life does tend to lead to it. We know, because of our children and how they have been impacted by their adverse starts in life that Cortisol (the stress hormone) wreaks havoc. A quick Google indicates it can impact on blood sugar levels, cause weight gain, suppress the immune system, affect the gut, damage the heart and even impact on fertility. Cortisol is meant for special occasions when we really need it, it is not something our bodies should be flooded with all the time.

We can juggle all the balls, work hard, play hard, look after others and achieve all we want to but, crucially, only if we look after ourselves. If we don’t make time for self-care activities, take the breaks, listen to our inner wellbeing voice, the consequences can be dire. A close friend experienced just what can happen when you forget yourself. I’ll let her tell you, in her own words:

“Self-care is life-saving. I do not say this lightly. Around ten years ago I had a very severe mental health crisis, resulting in me being in hospital for 7 weeks. It was horrible. It was caused by depression and exacerbated by me not taking care of myself. Forgetting myself. Putting everyone above myself. I worked solidly, because I felt so sad. If I was at work I was busy, if I was busy I wasn’t thinking. There is only so long you can do that, and then you crash. I crashed. When I was well again I had to make dramatic changes to my life, and the major one was how to actually look after myself.

The most life changing aspect of self-care for me has been learning to say no. Knowing my own limitations and not being afraid to voice them. You are not a bad person because you put yourself first. If you cannot take care of you, you can’t take care of anyone else.

Also, keeping lines of communication open. Keep talking to those around you, even when it’s a difficult conversation. Silence is a killer. When I was ill I was the most scared I have ever been, and had to have hideous conversations with people, which ultimately led to me getting the help I needed. It’s ok not to be ok. There is something incredibly freeing about being so open and honest. It was so hard to talk, but ultimately has only improved my relationships with everyone around me.

Baby steps. Find what makes you happy. Do it a lot. It sounds simple but life is hectic. Work, family, kids, school runs. But you know what, that ironing pile will still be there tomorrow. The house looks like a bomb hit it but you’ve kept your kids alive and fed and so now you are going to watch strictly come dancing and admire the, erm, dancing skills of Gorka, and just relax. There will be time for the ironing. It is not tonight. Equally, if ironing is your happy place, then good luck to you!”

I’m very proud of my friend for being brave enough to write this for me and letting me share it. Having visited her on the mental health ward, hidden away down the interminably long corridor, I can vouch that it is not a place you would want to end up (though my friend did feel safe there for which I am grateful).

Self-care is life-saving. It is essential. But how the bloody hell do you do it? If it was that easy and straightforward, people up and down the country wouldn’t be ending up in crisis. I suspect the first challenge of self-care is knowing what you need. After that, you need to value yourself enough to allow yourself to have it and then actively make it happen.

Grizzly has recently moved to a more senior post which is highly stressful with long hours and quite a bit of travel. He shoulders a lot of responsibility at work. Thankfully, this was acknowledged during his induction and he was warned of the need to manage his timetable proactively to ensure it contains time for self-care. It is an ongoing challenge for him, as there are only so many hours in the day, but he is good at knowing what he needs at least (half the battle) and as long as he can run several times per week all is well. Running is not a negotiable activity: it is an essential part of his week.

Whilst running works its magic for Grizzly, I personally can’t think of a less desirable way to spend my down time.

Thinking about what works for me has been enlightening. I think it has taken me quite a long time to figure it out. However, it turns out that I’m a right unsociable so and so and find nothing more restorative than a day alone. Interestingly I don’t tend to stay at home for a self-care day (probably because it is good to escape the washing pile). I tend to find a coffee shop, sit with my back to the other customers (I know, miserable!) and read, write or draw, while consuming a massive cup of tea. I’ll generally write a blog post – in itself an act of self-care it turns out. Sometimes it isn’t just that I want to write but that I need to, just as Grizzly physically needs to run.

Blogging has certainly helped with keeping my adopter/ parenting worries in check – it gets them out of my head but doesn’t involve the discomfort of having to actually explain them to someone face to face (though I do a bit of that too).

The main self-care challenge for me has been identifying when I need it. Sometimes I can do a million and one things at the same time and be fine. At other times, one small thing can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I have had to listen harder to the little voice inside that tells you when everything is getting a bit much. It turns out it is much better to heed the whisper than to allow things to get on top of you, as you will undoubtedly snap and lose your temper with the children. I don’t like to shout at them so I have had to get better at identifying the times I might (otherwise you get the joy of dealing with the guilt afterwards). I have to be particularly mindful of my hormonal state (see PMS and Adoption) and be a little kinder to myself at those points.

I think Mum’s in particular (sorry Dad’s and everyone else, I’m allowed a sweeping statement once in a while) are adept at ‘getting on with it’ – pushing through the home and childcare duties, work and the never-ending to-do list whether they feel like it or not. Things would quite possibly collapse around you if you didn’t. However, there is a skill in knowing when pushing through is ok and when you are rapidly closing in on your limit. I’m still working on it but after a busy few weeks of going from work to sorting out the builders who have been re-doing our bathroom to the children (especially Little Bear’s growing Christmas-related mania) to making Christmas decorations and selling them at craft fayres to Christmas shopping to planning & liaising over our next project (a pod in the garden since you ask) as well as a few other things, today’s yoga class felt like one ask too many. I usually love yoga but after a lot of rushing about and being in specific places at specific times, my little inner voice was asking in a stage whisper for a day off. There are times when I would have just made myself go anyway, ignoring that little voice, but I feel so much better for having listened. A whole day off, being unsociable, having some peace. Just what my inner wellbeing guru ordered.

As well as the crucial self-care we all need, there are also acts of self-kindness: finding ways to spoil yourself a little; ways to make life easier; adding things in just because you like them or they make you happy. Here are some of the things that work for me:

  • Wandering around my garden. It is not a big garden but I love looking at how my plants are growing, watering them in the summer and generally enjoying my little bit of outside.
  • I also like going to look at the fish in our tiny pond. I have no idea why that is so relaxing but it is.
  • I seem to be getting quite into the indoor gardening too. I also wander about the house tending my indoor charges.
  • I feel particularly happy when the sun shines in on the melon seedlings and I think they might just grow some melons.
  • Shopping. Sometimes you just need to buy yourself a little gift. I have to be careful though, shopping can lead to guilt.
  • A little taste of something carbohydrate-y as I’m not really eating them at the moment but a girl needs a treat every now and again.
  • All snuggles with my boys are lovely. Giving up on all jobs and lying on the sofa for a whole afternoon of snuggly TV can be just what the doctor ordered.
  • Any sort of gift that arrives in subscription form. My friend got me a Papergang subscription from @Ohhdeer so beautiful stationery landed on the mat every month. It was amazing.
  • A good book on the rare occasions I manage to read one. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan is a very wholesome and uplifting read.
  • A good rummage in a charity shop, especially if there are retro coffee pots to be found.
  • Low-maintenance hosting. I rarely bother killing myself preparing a fancy meal to impress people with. You are just as likely to get a takeaway here but I will sit and chat and pay you my full attention. I’d rather give my energy to you than to the cooking.
  • Ditto children’s lunches. No slaving over packed lunches every night – school dinners all the way.
  • A cheeky lunch out with Grizzly when he is working from home – dating without the need for babysitting.
  • When all else fails, putting on my fluffy onesie, lying on the sofa and watching an episode of First Dates.

 

I wonder what other people do to be kind to themselves? Feel free to share.

 

 

 

Self-Care

PMS and Adoption

It is hard to know where to begin with this topic and as I have had so many half-musings about it I’m worried I won’t make much sense but I’m going to give it a go.

I have PMS. There, I’ve said it. I don’t mean that I feel a bit off when I have my period, I mean that I feel really shit: physically and crucially, mentally too. The majority of the time I am a calm, patient and pretty controlled person. However, for about 4 days every six weeks or so, I’m really not. I become short-tempered, rage-y, impatient and very fed-up. I do not enjoy this version of myself and work extremely hard to appear “normal”. I try my best to react as I usually would even though I have burning desires to scream expletives and throw things. It is very tiring.

I try to warn my husband that I’m feeling a little crazy so that he can avoid winding me up/ lessen my load but as I still seem to appear pretty calm on the outside I don’t think he fully understands the depth of my potential wrath. We have been together 15 years and married for 10 of them and he has never witnessed me fully lose it until this month when I kind of did. Although it wasn’t an enjoyable experience for either of us I think it has given him a greater understanding of how I do feel and the effort I’m expending every cycle to keep a lid on it. This is good because in this mix there is also Little Bear who has the ability to try the patience of a saint, let alone a woman suffering PMS.

The last thing I need when my patience is already frayed by my pesky hormones is greater than normal provocation, less than usual compliance and a near constant requirement for attention. Yet, after two years, I’m now seeing a pattern emerging. When I have PMS Little Bear’s behaviour is definitely more difficult to manage. I am certain this is not just because I’m finding everything harder to manage as I can observe others becoming more frustrated with him and we have discussions about why he is behaving the way he is. It is not only this but I’ve observed physical changes in him at these points too. He is more tired, lethargic and generally appears under the weather. All of which makes me wonder: what is my PMS doing to him and why?

Evidently, consciously or not, Little Bear is hypervigilant to the changes in me. Despite putting all my efforts into trying to act normally, am I actually acting differently enough for him to notice? What is it that I’m doing? Is it the short temper? Am I quicker to react? Do I react to things I normally wouldn’t? It is very hard to say with any accuracy because clearly my slightly addled brain is not the best judge at these points. I know I certainly don’t feel serene inside so I’m guessing he can notice something different in my parenting. Why does this cause him to up-the-ante though? Most children, well Big Bear anyway, figure out that Mum is grumpy and do their best to placate, please and stay out of the way. Not Little Bear though, oh no.

I fear that it is because I go from being very predictable to not-so-predictable in my behaviour and this causes him anxiety. He usually knows exactly where he is with me and what I’ll do in any given parenting situation but what I might do on these days blighted by PMS does include shouting and losing my temper, where usually it wouldn’t. Am I scaring him?

Clearly I don’t want to frighten him or push him back to a place of fight/flight but I really am putting in 110% effort to contain myself. I don’t mean to lose my temper with him but in my defence I do have PMS, I feel totally rubbish and he is pushing every single one of my buttons. The other day he was driving me right up the wall and back again at tea time so in order to avoid shouting (or harming him) I took myself out of the room to calm down. I told him I was leaving the room and why. I told him I would come back, I just needed 5 minutes. Most children would be quiet, eat their tea and try to get back in Mum’s good books. Not Little Bear. I had been gone about a second when he started shouting. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. I’ve eaten some more, Mum. Mum. Mum, come here. I want to know if I can have pudding now. Mum.

He doesn’t know when to stop. He can’t read the pragmatics of the situation. He cannot control himself. He doesn’t want me to be away from him because he feels safer if I am close.

I know all this and yet I am being driven slightly mad. Every time he shouts “Mum” it is like a virtual peck to my head. I just need some peace.

Given that we are both trying our best but I am failing at the keeping my temper part it is clear that I am having a negative impact on the little guy’s behaviour. What impact are my failings for 4 days every 6 weeks going to have on him long term? Is the fact that I’m pretty consistent in my calmness the rest of the time enough to wipe out the impact of the bad days? Or am I, due to the blasted PMS, an inconsistent carer?

Or, is this nothing to do with my predictability; is it something to do with regulation? Usually, I help Little Bear to stay calm and not over-excited or angry and upset by co-regulating with him. If he’s getting more and more excited, I don’t get excited with him. I stay calm and through my body language and manner, help him to calm down too. When I have my period I don’t think my own regulation is good at all. I’m furious, whether I’m acting it or not, so my ability to co-regulate is probably rubbish. In fact, is it possible that we are co-regulating, just that he’s coming up to join me in dysregulated land not the other way round?

And how do I explain the physical changes I’ve noticed in him? There is more than regulation at work there. It is as though he is feeling what I’m feeling. The PMS Bible by Katharina Dalton says: “Children who cannot understand their mother’s mood swings, may react by developing psychosomatic or bodily symptoms such as a cough, runny nose, endless crying, temper tantrums or vomiting” but there is no real explanation as to why.

Could it have something to do with Mirror Neurons? Apparently we have neurons which fire not only when we feel something but also when we observe someone else feel it e.g. if we see someone gag because they have eaten something gross, our own stomachs can turn. I can’t find any research on it but is it possible that Little Bear is so reliant on me and tuned in to me because having a reliable parent is still a bit of a novel concept (and actually we are very close) that when I feel rubbish his Mirror Neurons make him feel rubbish too? Is this empathy at work?

Or is there something hormonal going on? I know that one woman’s hormones can affect another’s. In fact one of my friends’ cycles always goes completely awry when she comes to stay with me, probably because my hormones are so crazy there is some sort of hormonal force field surrounding me. Has Little Bear been sucked in? Again I can’t find any research on whether mother’s hormones can impact on their children or not but I’d be really interested to know. There must be a very clever person out there who knows more about such things (if there is I’d love to know your thoughts).

All I do know is that adoption and PMS are a less than desirable combination.

An adopted child needs calm, consistent parenting. When Bruce Perry said “the parent’s mind needs to be the child’s safe base” I don’t think he meant ‘excepting every sixth week when their mind is all over the shop’.

Despite my rageful state, I feel guilty when I lose my temper and I do try to do the repair part. I say that I’m sorry; I try to explain that I’m not feeling good and I try to give him lots of love. We muddle through. I congratulate myself at the end of each hormonally contaminated day that we have survived and that I have not harmed him. Then I collapse in an exhausted heap.

This month has been particularly bad. Note to any fellow PMS sufferers: never start an exercise regime around the time of your period and certainly not in the middle of the summer holidays. It is extremely foolish. Also, when feeling this rubbish, it is wise to abandon usual functioning (who cares if you haven’t tidied up or taught your children anything all day?) and the best and only solution is snuggling on the sofa.

I have been looking for a way to end this post that leaves me with hope rather than despair and as I should have learned by now, the way to turn in these situations is to Dan Hughes. He says this (not specifically about PMS but he might as well have): “You are not a robot. You have ‘bad hair’ days. Accept it, own it, and don’t blame your child for it. But let him know that you have less patience on that day and you might be a bit grumpy”. He goes on to say “if this grumpiness is the worst behaviour that your child will experience from you – and you have not abused, neglected or abandoned him – he is likely to feel more safe rather than less safe after such days”. I’m not sure this is totally true in practise but I shall cling on to it as they are comforting words.

Anyway, by next month the apparently amazing benefits of exercise will have kicked in and no doubt I will float through my period like some sort of serene goddess with nary a frown to blight my glowing complexion.

PMS and Adoption

Resilience

Amongst adopters it is a well-known fact that Adoptive Parenting or Therapeutic Parenting requires a truck load of resilience. You need to be at the peak of your game, have a full quota of patience and the ability to dig deep to overcome whatever challenges might be thrown at you on any given day. I would argue that any parenting requires resilience, but adopted charges do tend to need the supercharged version.

It is unfortunate therefore, that, being human and in this case a woman, I cannot maintain this level of resilience. It’s my hormones’ fault. There are certain days within my monthly cycle that I am a little less than serene. For ‘less than serene’ read ‘completely ragey’. Think furious before you’ve even got up. Think highly irritable to the point of being annoyed by your husband’s breathing. Think too hot, too achey, too hungry. Think totally uncomfortable for no obvious reason and mega grumpy. Think extremely short-tempered and pretty much devoid of resilience. This is how I feel when alone so interacting with others in a civilised manner is pretty difficult. It’s an actual affliction and very much not my usual character.

The way forward on such days is to take things as easy as possible – let Little Bear run off steam in the park, let him play on the Ipad more than I really think is appropriate, let him watch a lot of TV, or even better, let somebody else look after him. And make sure I eat plenty.

However, a BIG problem arises if I’m having an aforementioned bad day, I’m on parenting duty and Little Bear is experiencing poor resilience too….

Little Bear had generally low resilience when we first met him. If he couldn’t do a task IMMEDIATELY he became furious and would not try again. I can remember trying to engage him with Duplo but because he couldn’t get the man to sit in the bus in the first second of trying, the Duplo was kicked/ thrown and that was the end of that. Over time, his general level of resilience has developed though and he can now persevere pretty well with toys and tasks such as dressing. However, a bit like me, the stars need to be in alignment and various factors need to be in place for Little Bear to have his full quota of resilience:

  • He needs to have had a good 12 hours sleep
  • He needs to have eaten well. A hungry bear is a grumpy bear, a full of sugar bear is a wild bear
  • He needs to have had his daily movement. A constipated bear is also a grumpy bear.
  • He needs to have had enough exercise and sensory input, without having been tipped into over-stimulated territory
  • He needs to be feeling well and not under the weather.

Too great a variance in any of these factors = poor resilience. Mostly we know him well enough now that we can tweak things for him to keep everything at an optimum level. However, sometimes circumstances are out of our control.

One day last week, Little Bear just could not get to sleep. The reason became apparent when, at 8pm, a good hour after he should have been asleep, he needed a poo (I’m sorry for the oversharing but you know people poo. And they have monthly cycles). Evidently the change to bowel routine affected his ability to get to sleep afterwards and it was far too late for him when he did eventually settle.

The next morning I woke having one of THOSE days and over-tired, over hungry and bowel all to pot, Little Bear was too. DISASTER.

Evidently, because he was feeling rubbish, Little Bear upped the ante with his behaviour, forgot how to listen and didn’t do anything he was told. In my delicate state I had no patience whatsoever and was quick to rebuke, slow to employ therapeutic strategies and lost my temper several times (something which I can usually go weeks without doing). Little Bear had very low resilience and could not cope with being told off (especially in a shouty way) so his behaviour spiralled.

Somehow we made it to the end of the day without me causing him any physical harm and although when I tried to repair the situation at bedtime by stroking his head, he told me to “get off” I was mainly just relieved that the day was finally over.

Later on, I washed my hair, put on fresh pyjamas, made a cup of tea, watched house programmes and ate an elicit Yorkie (I usually try to avoid sugar to improve the hormone situation but desperate times call for chocolate) and thankfully began to feel more like my usual self.

Resilience is paramount in everything running smoothly. That’s why Self Care is so crucial to us and developing our children’s resilience is such an important part of preparing them for real life. Parenting with resilience at a low ebb is painful, unpleasant and guilt-inducing. I don’t recommend it.

Thankfully I am lucky to have a fabulous husband and support network who will unquestioningly give me a break if I ask. I am also thankful that days such as these are few and far between and getting fewer as I become more experienced at remaining calm no matter what – this is definitely a skill and one that can be honed with practise. But you do need a full quota of resilience behind you. And we need to allow ourselves the acceptance that there will be days when we get it wrong, when our parenting is less than good enough, when we do shout and do not act Nurtured Heart at all. We are human. And tomorrow is another day.

Resilience