Self-care. This is a relatively new buzzword, much used but I think not always understood. I’d like to share my story about the amazing ups and downs life has thrown at me over the last 4 years and how I am learning to cope with this rollercoaster ride via some easy and cheap self-care tips.
So to introduce myself, my name is Abi. I’m 36 and live in Cheltenham with my two children (Jess 5 and Max 2) and my husband Kev. We moved to Cheltenham 4 years ago and the last year has been pretty normal… wow how I have appreciated every single day of seemingly ordinary life! You see in stark contrast, the previous 3 years were a stomach churning ride of extreme highs and deep lows, sometimes with little time to catch our breath in-between or to enjoy the good times.
I lost my Mum to cancer at the end of 2014. There is never a good time to lose a loved one but Mum’s passing felt particularly cruel as she was rediagnosed the day we relocated to Cheltenham and she died a mere 8 weeks later on Christmas Day. Being closer to Mum was a key part of our relocation as she had already been fighting cancer intermittently for two years. The fact she wasn’t well enough to visit our new home even once was a bitter pill to swallow, as was not having her at our wedding in 2015 or the fact she never got to meet our son Max.
I’m starting to feel sad writing this but if I’ve learnt anything over the past few years it is to grab life with both hands, accept the cards you are dealt and get out and enjoy it. We spent as much time as we could with Mum in those final few weeks, we reminisced about old memories, she helped me plan parts of our wedding and very importantly we organised a wedding blessing at the hospice with just 2 days’ notice so Mum could see Kev and I exchange our vows.
I had a new house to unpack, a 1 year old to look after, a part-time job and no nearby friends. Life was totally overwhelming but with Mum’s encouragement we took each day at a time and tried to stay positive. She was a true inspiration in terms of her determination to fight this wretched disease and then ultimately her grace and acceptance to death. Love you Mum.
Whilst I tried to be brave, I was numb to my own physical and mental needs and it was hard to remember to eat, drink and sleep. In the end my body forced me to stop by having a couple of migraines. When I got home late from the hospital or hospice, I drank to calm my nerves and sorrow. I knew it would be better to sleep but I needed time to sit and think, to process the ever changing set of circumstances, and to cry when my daughter wasn’t around. That’s ok, I was doing the best I could and was in total survival mode. No judgement.
When Mum died it was a huge relief. Ironically her heart would not give up when the rest of her body had faded and it was very difficult to witness those last few days. When my brother rung in the early hours of Christmas Day to say she had passed away, I cried tears of relief and not immediately of sadness. It was a surreal day, I went to the hospice to say a final goodbye and was home by 7am to be greeted by my excited daughter waiting to open her stocking. We gathered at my sister’s house for Christmas lunch, all the adults were in a stunned daze and the kids obliviously played with their new toys. We tried to keep things normal and to enjoy Christmas together as that is what Mum would have wanted.
Everyone deals with challenging situations differently. The week after Mum died my brother took a road trip round the country visiting old family holiday spots to reminisce and I imagine to enjoy some freedom after so much time in a medical setting. I went to Mum’s house and started going through her personal and business paperwork. People told me to rest, that it could wait but I didn’t listen. I knew Mum’s business was struggling and felt there was no time to rest or grieve. Big mistake. In fact, it took nearly 18 months to sort out and ultimately close Mum’s business and clear out her home. In hindsight resting for a few weeks would not have changed this but it would have benefitted me immensely.
A further 10 months sped past, the highs were Kev and I getting married but there was no let up from trying to get to grips with Mum’s business and firefighting problems and overdue bills. Wedding planning was done in a rush, I was constantly working between my part-time job and Mum’s business and in the background my daughter Jess got a year older. I was around but not properly present in family life and that is a big regret. That said, I don’t hold onto guilt about this because I was doing the best I could. I felt that if I stopped I would drown. My friends and family provided amazing support but none of my friends were local which I found difficult. I put on a brave face and tried to meet people in our new hometown to find Jess some playmates but on the inside I was really struggling.
Then finally in October 2015 I broke, nearly a whole year after this downward spiral in my life had started. I had been on holiday with a friend and our children and returned feeling like an emotional and exhausted mess. Now I had stopped I couldn’t get going again. I went to see my GP who was great and told me all I needed to do was rest and my stress and anxiety would subside. I did rest but only for 2 weeks, really I needed much longer but my work had been so understanding when Mum died I felt I couldn’t ask for more time off.
I limped on for another 6 months and then stopped working for a while at my husband’s suggestion. It was proving difficult to juggle both of us travelling to London for work and more importantly I was pregnant and needed to look after myself better. I didn’t want to give up work and admit I was struggling but l had no fight left and deep down I knew my husband was right. Finally I got to rest.
Having this break was the best decision ever, thank goodness I listened to my husband. I re-trained as a massage therapist a few years ago when I was sick of living the London commuting life and understood the importance of living a balanced life so why did I find it so hard to be kind to myself?!
Max arrived with a bang in December 2016 and feeling relatively rested Kev and I were ready to face the next series of dramas. We weathered 6 months of bad health for Max and I. My poor baby had to recover from having his neck muscles torn by forceps during the delivery which impacted on everything – holding him, feeding, changing and sleep. He also had tongue tie, an unexplained dent in his skull and despite physio since birth he still doesn’t walk yet, but we know he will when he is ready and that medically everything is fine.
I had retained placenta for 3 months postnatally which was missed despite being rushed into hospital five days after giving birth with a second phantom labour. Having two labours in one week was seriously awful, as was having to have an operation to remove the placenta which stopped my milk production and reignited my back and pelvis problems which had been bad when I was pregnant. Despite everything that life threw at us, by then I had learnt the importance of looking after myself and practising self-care, no matter how small my window was, I would find time to do things for me as well as my children. Exercising was really key to stay positive and brighten my mood.
When we were through that s**tstorm and life settled I found myself feeling depressed and empty. Since Max had been born all I had wanted to do was be at home and cuddle my children, to be left in peace. The reality had been we were always rushing to a stream of medical appointments so this time around I recognised the need to slow down. We had a quiet few months at home and Jess was at pre-school some days which gave me quiet quality time with Max. It felt good to say no to invitations to do things and to put my family and I first. This was also precious time with Jess before she started school.
Four years on from losing Mum, I can say it is true that you learn to live with grief and that it gets easier with time. Talking to others I am reminded of the fact that it hasn’t been that long since we lost Mum but I definitely find each Christmas a little bit easier. My problem is hearing Christmas songs often makes me feel really sad. It transports me back to that time of darkness when I was constantly driving to visit Mum in hospital. I also find it hard to stomach people’s general gaiety and excitement about Christmas. I’m lucky I have children and their excitement distracts me from thinking about the fact Christmas is also the anniversary of Mum’s death. I do want to find a solution to this transference problem so I think 2019 will be the year I try counselling to see if that helps.
Top tips for self-care
1. Slow down and be kind to yourself. As a parent you have to be pretty resilient but it is really important to find time to relax and let your guard down. You can’t always be in survival mode. Don’t leave your needs at the bottom of the pile as you need to be feeling positive and well to be able to look after your family. (Note – I’m still working on this one myself!)
Try treating yourself to an early night or create some mental space by ignoring your phone and going for a walk or having a bath. Of course it is really hard to find the time to do this but when I was at breaking point sometimes my body would make the decision for me so try to listen to your body. If you feel so frazzled you can’t think straight switch off from everything for 15 minutes with a cup of tea or a quiet walk and then try again with a refreshed sense of balance. If you have little ones in tow, ask a friend or family member for help to allow you to have some time to yourself and savour it. You can return the favour another time.
2. Don’t forget to breathe. When you are feeling stressed or are trying to do 3 things at once and get the kids to school on time. Just pause for a minute and breathe deeply, ideally take 10 slow deep breathes if you have time. Breathe in for the count of 5, pause for 5, breathe out for 5 and again pause for 5. This mindful breath will slow your heart rate, calm your nerves and help clarify your mind.
3. Talk. Find the time to talk properly to your family and friends. Be honest about how you feel. It can be really hard to reach out and ask for help but once we do this and offload our inner worries and anxieties you can guarantee you will instantly feel better. It can be difficult to finish conversations with children around so try and have a proper talk at a time or place where there aren’t distractions so it allows you to properly open up about how you feel rather than having a rushed conversation that concludes with you saying “I’m fine…”.
4. Try not to put pressure on yourself and banish the mum guilt! Think positively and remind yourself why you are an amazing parent, partner, friend and colleague.
5. Move. Exercise is important for us mentally as well as physically and promotes the release of feel-good brain chemicals such as serotonin which helps to regulate our mood and endorphins which relieve pain and stress. I love doing running and yoga to give myself space and relaxation but any form of exercise will have the same effect e.g. walking, swimming, dancing round your living room or an exercise class.
6. Have perspective – try to have a positive and grateful attitude to life but don’t belittle the importance of your own feelings, particularly if you are finding something challenging. When I have been at a low point in life I have normally been surrounded by people who were in even worse situations and hearing their stories helped me to try to find some positives in my own bad situation.
7. Take social media with a big pinch of salt and try not to compare yourself to others. We only share the good bits right?
8. Laugh and let go. Try taking a step back from anything that is worrying you or the general busyness of life and just let go of your emotions for a moment. I love listening to loud music and singing very badly in the car! Notice how you feel lighter afterwards.
9. Go for a massage. Yes this costs money but it is a great physical and mental stress reliever and a fast way to rebalance yourself. Skip a night out or a takeaway and invest the money saved in a massage instead, you will feel the benefit for weeks after.
10. Open your eyes and appreciate what you have. Be it family, friends, your home, pets. Life moves at such a fast pace it is so easy to lose focus of what is truly important to us.
How am I doing now?
Now I feel much more balanced and in control of my life, though it still flies at an alarming pace. Setting up my massage business in 2018 has been so exciting. Through doing this I also realised I had lost my identify since becoming a Mum and hadn’t even realised it.
Now days when I feel overwhelmed I hug my children or my husband. They are the centre of my universe and everything I do in life links back to them. When life gets so god damn busy or something bad happens – I simply breathe deeply and reassure myself that things will calm down soon. It sounds hippish but it really works.
I’m no saint. I have worked way too much over the past few months to get my business launched but there is no way I’m repeating being a non-present parent so I am dropping my work hours from January to spend more time with Max.
So, to finish. The next time you feel sad or stressed, just stop and breathe for a moment. Give yourself a break and think about something you are good at, rather than putting yourself down about the things you haven’t done or wish you were better at. Don’t forget what is truly important in life.
Wishing you a happy and healthy Christmas xx
A Guest Blog from Abi McPherson (A Member of The MumBoss Club)
Abi McPherson runs a part-time holistic massage practice from her home in Charlton Kings. To find out more go to www.facebook.com/glenfallmassage. Treatments start from £28 and Abi’s treatment menu includes some clothed massages such as Indian Head and Thai Yoga Stretch as well as more traditional oil based massages.