• Allie Atkinson

Looking After Me Is Key

When we think of mental health, we often think of illness. Anxiety. Depression. But in fact, as I learnt on a mental health course recently, the term ‘mental health’ refers to everyone. Some of us live mentally healthy, some are passing through a state of reaction, others are injured and some of us are struggling with illness on a day to day basis. We all travel up and down the mental health continuum throughout our life as we live through different experiences, including motherhood.

I became a mum for the first time just over six years ago, and, like many of you I’m guessing, I read all of the baby books, scanned the articles and attended the antenatal classes. I learnt about the pregnancy stages, the development of my baby, feeding schedules, sleeping schedules, and nappy changes amongst other things. But nowhere do I remember reading how to look after myself during that huge life change. No one told me how important having my own goals and aspirations would be, or how to cope with the social pressure of always being available for my baby whilst maintaining a clean house or how to manage the shift from being a full time professional to a stay-at-home mummy. All of that I have had to discover for myself. (And I continue to discover the answers today!)

And if there is one thing I’ve learnt on my motherhood journey so far, it’s that looking after me is key.

But what exactly does that mean?

Is it straightening my hair, or taking the time to apply a full face of make-up in the mornings, as we may have done before we became a mum?

Is it having a child-free coffee with a friend?

Is that all it means?

There was a time when I thought so. I’d long for just one afternoon to myself to wander round the shops aimlessly or time to get ready without being asked twenty-one questions.

But the fact was, even when I got that one afternoon to myself or that time alone to get changed, it wasn’t enough. Sure, it was lovely at the time but that sugar coating wore off pretty quickly afterwards.

For me, looking after myself goes much deeper than that. It’s being a mum to myself in some way too. It’s examining what I offer to my children as a way of looking after them and considering how that could translate to looking after me.

Do I just offer my children a bath and time to get dressed and consider that job done? No, of course not. Children need love, compassion, empathy, freedom to express themselves, freedom to explore their interests, space to make mistakes, opportunities to play and exercise, healthy food choices, goals and achievements. You’re their cheerleader. Their teacher. Their chef. Their companion.

If looking after our children involves all of those skills - and probably more - then it stands to reason that mums need that too.

Love, Compassion and Empathy

We can show ourselves love by listening to our own needs and desires. Often when we think about self-love, we either think of our relationship with our body, or pampering ourselves in some way like a face mask or a new bubble bath.

But if I think about what love means when it comes to my children, it isn’t that at all. It’s connecting with them and being present with them.

And surely that is part of loving ourselves too. It’s following through on the things you need rather than changing plans to make others happy. It’s saying ‘I matter too’ and living by that.

But it is also showing kindness and understanding to ourselves when something does go wrong or we mess something up, which we all do. One of the most loving things I can do for myself is acknowledge how I’m feeling and ask myself why. And above all, ask for help if I believe I need it.

Freedom To Be Ourselves

This is a big one for me. The freedom to express themselves is something we all want for our children. We want them to be able to be exactly who they are, whether that is creative or academic, or both. Perhaps they are reserved or possibly outgoing. We give them space to explore new interests and develop new skills and find out what motivates them.

But as a mum, I realised that I naturally restrict that freedom for myself. When it felt as though there were too many jobs to do and a mountain of things to organise, my interests and my passions, the things that make me who I am, slowly got pushed to the side. They had gradually disappeared until I believed my whole purpose was just to organise everything for other people to have fun, creating resentment and frustration. I was an observer in my own life, rather than actively taking part.

But stepping back, and considering what I’m interested in and what changes I can make to fit them into my life has made a huge difference for me. I don’t always get it right, sometimes the balance is still off, but I try my best to prioritise my interests too. I plan my weeks and make sure I have space to express who I am as an individual, as well as being somebody's mum.

Goals And Achievements

Almost linked to my last point, is the importance of goals and achievements. Until recently, I believed that I needed feedback and the lack of such feedback in motherhood, particularly positive feedback, led to a drop in my self-esteem. Everywhere I had ever succeeded, from school to being a teacher, I had received consistent feedback such as exam results or observations. I found this reassuring and comforting. I had to impress. I needed others to think well of me. Coming out of work meant I no longer had those pit stops to check how I was doing, and I struggled. I really struggled to navigate my way without external validation.

But a few months ago, I began working with a coach and it was the best decision I made. She introduced me to the idea of creating goals within my everyday life. Some goals are family orientated and some are personal. And in reflection, I think it is the goal that I need rather than the validation. Of course, we all know our children are progressing and learning as they grow which is amazing to watch, but what about me? Am I just meant to stand still?

For years, I couldn’t stand that feeling of not going anywhere, and it led to me longing for my children to grow so that I could claim back some kind of focus outside of being a mummy.

The fact is, my children haven’t grown that much yet, but my mindset has. I now plan my days, ensuring time for me to achieve my goals, and I have a good idea of the targets I am working towards in all areas of my life.

And of course, in addition to the goals, there is achievement. So often, I felt I wasn’t achieving anything. I’d tidy the house for it to be untidy again by lunch time. I had a massive to-do list, none of which were particularly exciting for me, and by the end of the day, there were often a number of things I hadn’t managed to get to. Cue a sense of failure, irritation and low mood.

But setting goals and opportunities for achievements has changed my day in two ways. Firstly, I’m much faster at doing other jobs now because I have a focus that interests and motivates me to look forward to, meaning I actually get more done but also it has meant that there are opportunities for me to reflect positively on my day and improve my self-esteem.

A Final Thought…

Many of us have faced maternal mental struggles since having children. My hope is that we are talking about it more and more, meaning that fewer mums feel isolated and alone, but there is still some way to go. In those early days, when I reached out, even to professionals, I was often met with the same phrases…. ‘You need to be kinder to yourself’, ‘Make sure you look after yourself too’

And those phrases used to fill me with frustration because I didn’t know what that meant in my new role as a mum.

But with small changes, and questioning my understanding of what looking after myself really meant for me as an individual, I have managed to navigate those struggles a little easier and get back on track to find who I am now.

And I hope you can too xx