Updated: Mar 21
I don’t know about you, but the phrase ‘self care’ just doesn’t do it for me. I wish it was called something different that didn’t give me ‘the ick’ because I truly believe that looking after ourselves is one of the most important things we can do – and at times (like returning to work after maternity leave) one of the hardest!
There’s something about the phrase ‘self care’ that makes it seem indulgent rather than essential. If we don’t look after our belongings they’ll wear out and we’ll need to replace them. It’s the same with ourselves, only we’re much harder to replace! Imagine thinking of washing your clothes as self-indulgent, or taking your car for a service as selfish… it doesn’t make any sense. And neither does thinking of taking care of your own needs in the same way.
Why is it important to look after ourselves?
The Oxford Dictionary definition of self-care is “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress”.
When we have a baby it’s very natural for them to become the focal point. Everything we do in the early days, weeks and months is driven by the needs and comfort of our child. I’ve seen how this natural process can grow and become an ingrained habit where we put others, including our children, our partners, friends and colleagues needs ahead of our own.
If this continues and becomes a pattern of behaviour, we can become resentful, burnt out, and stressed. Our self worth and confidence diminishes and we can find it hard to enjoy life.
How can you start to look after yourself?
You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve heard about how Mums should look after themselves. Just google ‘self care for Mums’ and you’ll be blown away with suggestions like these:
Get 7 to 8 hours sleep a night…. Errrrrr, yes please!
Make sure you do 2 hours a week of physical activity…. I’d love to… when?!
Light a candle and take a nice relaxing bath
All of these suggestions sound lovely, but they’re not always that realistic or within your control.
Finding time for ourselves when we’re new parents can be a struggle, then factor in returning to work at the same time and it can seem impossible.
In my experience supporting maternity returners, the best approach to this is to start small. If we consider the act of looking after ourselves as a continuum and at one end, we have big acts of self care which might include a weekend away or the full nights sleep mentioned above and at the other we have small day to day actions like finding a moments peace or drinking a cup of tea while it’s still warm.
All of these have a place, and I’m not ruling out the benefits of a child free weekend, but we should also take into account that in periods of stress, like returning to work after having a child, we don’t have the headspace or time to plan for these.
Using this approach with clients, here are some of the more realistic options they’ve come up with after reframing ‘self care’ to ‘essential acts that look after my own needs’:
Close the door for 5 minutes to drink a cup of coffee
Listen to an uplifting song
Read a page of a book
Sit in the garden for 5 minutes
Contact a friend
Go for a walk
Tidy a drawer
Close my eyes for 5 minutes
Ask my partner to cook dinner
In a conversation with Elaine Minett-Smith from Source Business Support on her birthday, she told me she’d had an afternoon of self care,I couldn’t resist asking her what she’d done. She told me she’d listened to music, tidied her hair and put on some make up ready for a meal out in the evening. It sounded like bliss!
Benefits of looking after ourselves
When we notice these small acts of kindness towards ourselves, we start building a new story and neural pathways that tell us we are as important as the other people in our lives. It becomes easier to ask for help and support, our stress levels reduce and life becomes more enjoyable.
As a side effect, we’re also role modelling and showing our children how much we value ourselves, and that will give them permission, when they’re parents themselves, to do the same.
If you’d like to explore any of the themes in this blog more here are some resources I recommend:
The book ‘Know Your Worth’ by Anna Mathur – this is easy to read and has some coaching activities you can do yourself, written by a psychotherapist specialising in the experience of parents.
The PERMA wellbeing model from Positive Psychology, which you can find some information about here.
My colleague Sarah Turner and I have been busy creating content highlighting the importance of organisations providing support for working parents. As part of this, we created this video series exploring the entire journey of maternity leave, from before the leave starts, through to preparing to return and then the first few months back at work. In our most recent video we talk about maternity coaching and mental health.
If your organisation would like to understand more about how to support line managers in managing their employees as they take parental leave, please get in touch.
This blog post is a collaboration between Maternity Coaches Laura Duggal and Sarah Turner. They are working together, sharing their experiences and bringing the best of their joint advice and knowledge to you.