I’ve never been a fan of the term “self-care”. It always seems to have a whiff of affirmations, floaty white tunics and the giving up of caffeine and alcohol about it. None of those things would ever fly in my life, because I have two small children and they’d get Nutella all over my affirmations within seconds.
As parents, we’re always reminded not to miss our own wellbeing off the to-do list, and while that’s good advice, it can sometimes feel – at least, to me – like another stick to beat myself with. “Give yourself a break,” the websites and newsletters tell us. “Take time out to read a favourite novel or enjoy a nice relaxing bath.” As though a “time out” isn’t a just a thing you put your kids in when they’re naughty, you’ve managed to read more than half a novel since your eldest was born and taking a bath doesn’t involve scrubbing the bath clean, then trying very hard to forget that, not even two hours ago, your baby took a big porridgey dump right where your loofah is floating.
It’s not that I don’t want to take care of myself – it’s just that I don’t possess the mental stamina to make it happen.
That said, something has to change. My days consist of working, parenting a two-year-old and a five-month-old, and conking out on the sofa as soon as the kids are asleep – and that’s it. And laundry. I can’t go to the loo without half the household wanting to come with me (and I’ve always been a bit shy about loos). My own sleep is minimal and fractured. Most of my conversations with my husband involve the bins, poo or dinner. Every two days, I’ll have a three-minute shower while the kids are in front of the TV. Every three days, I’ll try and fail to drag a brush through my gradually dreadlocking hair. Life is turning into a grind and I’m weighed down with guilt about that – because I chose this life. And I’m beginning to become upset about the tiniest things. Today, it was some frozen broccoli. I’ll spare you the details.
Most of all, though, I have just surrendered. Surrendered to the mess I’m always trying to clear up, but never quite manage. Surrendered to stopping telling my son no all the time and just join in with whatever he’s doing
This is not a complaint, really, so much as just the lot of someone who went back to work within two weeks of giving birth to her second baby. But, five months on, I am approaching burnout.
So I have a new strategy: crowbarring tiny bits of slow-living into my day.
Lacking as I do a Harry Potter-style Time-Turner, I’m having to be creative with the time I already have. Obviously, this just means going to bed. At 6pm. Just hoiking the baby under my arm (we co-sleep) and marching up the wooden stairs to Bedfordshire, sometimes when it’s still light out (and it’s winter). Seriously. If I’m so tired I’m not making sense then, provided I’m not dumping on my husband too much, it’s best to take myself out of the equation and just rest. I do this once a week and, honestly, it’s helping my energy levels overall (and I often get half an hour of reading in, too).
I have also started rejecting the concept of “bad weather”. Theoretically, I take the kids out in all weathers now, as soon as it’s light outside (although full disclosure: a stream of stomach and respiratory viruses, plus the high winds, have put this venture on temporary hiatus). With the baby safe in a wrap under my mackintosh, my toddler and I jump in puddles, taste the rain and throw soggy sticks off bridges. All before breakfast; all messy and life-affirming.
I’ve also started keeping a “to-done” list at the end of the day to drive home the fact that, even when the day has seemed like a mindless slog, something has been achieved – I booked an appointment or completed a piece of work or my toddler started using prepositions.
Most of all, though, I have just surrendered. Surrendered to the mess I’m always trying to clear up, but never quite manage. Surrendered to stopping telling my son no all the time and just join in with whatever he’s doing. Surrendered to my wish to have a 4pm glass of wine, to listen to a podcast while cooking dinner and then having to pause that podcast indefinitely because my older son has marched into the kitchen and wants to listen to Old MacDonald Had A Farm instead.
In another Sliding Doors-style universe, I would have got het up and told my son no and gone back to cooking. In this one, what I do now is say yes and we have a kitchen-based dance party while dinner’s on. As stressbusters go, I can recommend doing the hustle with a two-year-old who’s pulling a face like Boris Johnson on the toilet. It really does lift the spirits, particularly when combined with a 4pm glass of wine and a 6pm bedtime.
I’m still not down with baths, though. Not while my bathroom is haunted by the ghosts of my kids’ poos.