When I was 22 I saw a therapist. It was a required component of my school curriculum. I went to the counseling centre on campus and spoke with one of the resident therapists. I didn’t expect it, but as soon as I sat down in that chair and opened my mouth, I began to cry. And cry. And cry.
I began talking about my mother and our relationship. I had moved away from home at 18. University was my key, my means of escaping what felt like an oppressive teenagehood. I had revelled in the freedom of living on my own, but I hadn’t stopped to process the pent-up feelings I had accumulated over the years, living with a mom that felt both absent and overbearing. When I sat in that chair, when I opened my mouth to speak, the pain of years came out. Week after week I cried, so much so that the therapist couldn’t get a handle on why I was crying. So much so that the therapist actually became annoyed by my crying. So much so that she suggested I read a book called Don’t Blame Mother, then passed me off onto one of her students. I did buy the book, I was just too incensed to read it.
My mom did want to be a mom, but she wasn’t ready for it. An immigrant in a new world, the youngest daughter in a strict family, she was young and craved freedom, and marriage was one way to get it. Little did she realize that getting married and having kids would ground her even more. She probably wanted to leave it all behind on several occasions. Because of that, she remained emotionally aloof. She made sure we knew how to wash dishes and fold laundry, she made sure we were well fed, dressed, and groomed, but she wasn’t a nurturing mom in the storybook sense of the word. She was a presence in my life, she was my mother, but the emotional strings that attached us at birth were frayed early on. That is how I ended up on the university-hired therapist’s chair, balling my eyes out in an uncontrollable yet nonsensical way.
Years later I became a mother myself. No one prepared me for the physical and emotional toll that comes with parenthood; how much kids take of your body and soul as a mother. No one warned me how consuming motherhood can be. I wanted to be a good mom, I strove to be a great mom, yet that my kids were so needy of me, wanting me with them to no end, that was both surprising and exhausting to me. I learned to take care of myself from a very young age, it was hard for me to learn boundaries when it came to taking care of them. And yet, over the years, I gave. Each time they asked, I gave. And gave. And gave.
Until one day it dawned on me that I was no longer giving to myself. One day I realized that I was completely depleted. One day I understood that I had nothing left to give.
This began an era of learning to care for myself, too. The primary lesson of self-care is that you cannot give forth to the world if your own cup is not full. I understood that my cup was empty, therefore I had nothing left to give to my family. I began to fill my cup, slowly at first, and with greater intention as I went along. I instated a mom’s night out, where once per week I would sit at Starbucks with a book or my journal and drink herbal tea. Some nights I was productive, some nights I stared out the window watching the traffic pass by. It didn’t matter, it was my night. I instilled weekend getaways, once in the spring and once in the fall, where I would drive to the hotel around the corner from our house and stay from check-in until check-out. Sometimes on these overnights, I would become deep and self-reflective and write pages in my journal, other times I would stay in bed and watch television. I always gave myself what I needed at the time. At home, I began setting my alarm to wake up one hour earlier than everyone else. What I do during this time depends on my mood and energy. Sometimes it means that I read books or go for walks, and sometimes it means that I Netflix. But just having that time at the start of each day, quiet time, without chaos, without anybody needing from me, sets me up for the rest of the day.
As time went on, self-care continued to evolve. More exercise. More boundaries. More finding of my voice and inner strength. Less desire for drama, less patience for anything that did not ring as authentically true. More of what either my body or spirit needed. It was and is an ever evolving process as the more you give to yourself, the more your needs change. If what I needed most five years ago was a strict bedtime routine and more hydration, what I need now might be an exercise regimen or meditation practice. The path of self-care is like building a block tower: Start with the basic foundation, and add one block at a time when the moment is right.
I realized only recently, however, that what I have actually been doing is mothering myself. I spent much of my life struggling with my need for a nurturing mother, when I realized that I can be my own mother, that I can nurture myself, my self-care took on an entirely different dimension. By realizing that I could be my own mother, that I could fulfill that need for myself, it gave me the allowance to nurture myself in the ways in which I most needed to be nurtured. I knew my needs, and therefore, I could no longer be disappointed in not having my needs met by another. Look inside yourself, and you will find the answers you are looking for, they say.
When I need to be alone, I allow myself to be alone. When I need to be with friends, I find ways to make that happen. When I need cuddles, I communicate that, or when I don’t want to be touched at all, I communicate that, too. When I have projects to work on, projects that are necessary to my soul, I find ways to make that happen. I will schedule my kids’ time around my time, rather than the other way around. They don’t notice, and they don’t seem to mind. And I still get what I need most.
I learned that self-care comes from within. Self-care is literally caring for yourself. It is not a chore to be added to your day. It is not saving time for meditation or taking on a yoga practice or finding time to sit in a cafe on your own once per week. It can look like these things, but these are merely tools. Self-care is about mothering yourself, in the same way that you take care of the rest of your household, your children, your pets, and perhaps even your partner. Include yourself on that list, allow yourself and your energy to matter as much as they matter to you.
My kids are getting bigger. My daughter, my eldest, has begun displaying pre-teen attitude to an extent that makes me afraid for when she actually reaches those teenage years. But there are moments when she still needs her mama, where my role as mom is still clearly carved out. We were walking home recently, and as we walked she held my hand. My son was on the other side of me, chatting and vying for my attention, and my daughter contentedly listened on. I, as Mom was walking in the centre, feeling grateful and whole. Not all moments as a parent feel as magical, but for me this was one of them.
(originally written September, 2020)