On Mothering Yourself
Mother’s Day is a day of celebrating and honoring our mothers. The work moms do is remarkable and hard and often thankless. The labor is not counted in the economy as part of the gross national product, but it should be. Moms do second shifts of long hours in the home, unpaid. Economic output would be boosted 26% if household production (the work in the home) was included in the GDP. (See videos below.)
And while we all at some point had mothers, not all of us do today. And not all of us had good mothers. And some are grieving never becoming a mother - either due to infertility, or sickness, or life circumstances. So tread carefully around those who are grieving, while we honor the amazing sacrifices and enormous responsibilities of rearing and nurturing other humans. Motherhood is a treasured and sacred role.
For me, my illness stole from me the chance to be a mom - something I desperately wanted ever since I was conscious of what being a mother was. All my childhood, I played mom to my many, many dolls. They each had distinct personalities and lived large in my active imagination; and I cared for them. As a very little girl, I would line up my six dolls next to me in bed until my father, worried I had no room for myself and might fall out of bed, convinced me they’d be safe at the foot of the bed tucked up under my folded bedspread. I still remember the separation trauma.
I am the eldest of a slew of younger sisters who are close to me in age, and I clearly remember my own mom mothering them. When she returned from the hospital, my dad had set up a bed for her in the dining room. And I remember being the one who rushed to successfully pick up the phone when my dad called with the news of my youngest sister’s birth - because I was so excited about a new baby.
All through my teens, I babysat often and with enthusiasm, organizing games and activities. And as a young adult, I would joke (sort of) with prospective lovers that I wanted a slew of children and declared breezily, “Let’s get going!” as a form of birth control and sex aversion!
It’s been well over a decade since I could have physically bred a child. Still, the void turns my breath into sharp blades. I do not know if that pain will ever go away. It’s a wound that I try to absorb and grow around and beyond. My own mother died around the same time as my chance to become a mother. They together feel like an intrinsically broken link leaving me untethered.
Unfortunately, adding to the raw wound, my family of origin financially rewards those with offspring. The discrimination magnifies the loss and shame and worthlessness.
Because I am not a mother, I am not as worthy of the same level of support as those whose kids need education.
And ironically, the same sickness that robbed me of motherhood also deprived me of enjoying a livelihood with the rewards of meaning, purpose and financial security.
Our illnesses are expensive requiring care not usually covered by insurance. And we have added costs for the help we need with every day tasks. Being sick has puts all of us under immense financial strain.
Yet, had I been blessed with a child I would have been blessed again with extra support.
And one way to heal from these types of deep wounds is to learn how to mother yourself. Or to at least assiduously try.
This posture is especially helpful, necessary even, as you navigate living with a chronic illness. And when symptoms flare and emotions roil, then especially. You are worthy of some TLC and mothering.
Here are ten aspects of mothering and how you can mothering yourself ::
My mom entertained us by making up stories during long road trips, by drawing towns on the back of cut up grocery bags, by writing plays for us to act in. A key element of motherhood is being like a cruise director, responsible for all hospitality, entertainment and social events. We often neglect this amid our lives of sickness, but having fun is an essential part of life.
Laughter and fun can not co-exist with fear and anxiety, and so directing and planning our fun is critical to our health. So are our connections to our friends. Do not let fun fall by the wayside.
Yes, much energy has to be devoted to merely surviving. One strategy I have is to keep a bucket list that I refresh every few months in my bullet journal.
This list reminds me of activities that inspire and attract me, so that when I do have some energy to spare I am not scrambling to figure out what can I can do that would be fun. My current summer bucket list includes a picnic, an outdoor movie, a kayak excursion on the Potomac and seeing the Tintoretto exhibit at the National Gallery.
I also live in one of the top tourism cities in the United States, so I try to embrace the fresh eye of a tourist so I do not take the beautiful features of my home town for granted. To help, I also keep a list of ideas of things to see and experience in Washington DC in my bullet journal. (Here’s why I love DC).
We can nourish and sustain ourselves with the most delicious, pleasurable food possible. Many believe, living alone, that the effort to prepare a meal is not worth the effort. Think about what that message conveys - that you’re not worth the effort. But you are. So take time to prepare meals.
In Ayurveda, reheating leftovers is not considered ideal. However, you can “re-animate” the food by mixing with additional ingredients and other foods. And that’s the idea behind creating a “buffet” in my fridge.
I try to prepare foods for my refrigerator so that I have a buffet of options and combinations in there and at the ready. Obviously, I do not accomplish this every week. But I’m always mindful of how I can extend what I prepare when I do have the energy into fresh, additional meals.
One of the most helpful and inspiring YouTube channels is the one created by Downshiftology’s Lisa Bryan. I have upped my game in the kitchen with her help. Her meal prep videos educate and organize all you need so you can eat healthy very easily. I highly recommend!
The best mothers prop us up and believe in us. Because of that, we grow with self-respect and self-confidence. Our moms take pleasure in tasks well done and rejoice in our achievements.
Do you do that for yourself? Or are you quickly off to the next chore, next goal, or next destination?
We don’t stop often enough to acknowledge what we have accomplished, what we have attained, what we have fulfilled. To counter this, I often will create a “Nicely Done List” in my bullet journal for the week. By listing what I have done, I feel a sense of pride in seeing the tasks, big and small, that I managed to accomplish despite a week of awful symptoms.
Our minds default to the negative, and we tend to forget or discredit our achievements unless we make a concerted effort to take a moment, like our moms did, to acknowledge what we’ve nicely done.
No one cares about you as much as your mother. No one. Ideally, her love is a source of reassurance and retreat. As Erich Fromm wrote, "Mother's love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved."
I love that quote because I turn it around into self-love. How can we create that sense of safety for ourselves absent a loving mother? Love for yourself does not need to be acquired. Self-love does not need to be deserved.
But when you’re sick, chronically sick, you don’t love yourself as easily. You’re often angry at yourself. Disappointed in yourself. Scolding yourself.
To create a refuge for yourself, we have to stop the inner bully narrative and remind ourselves as often as necessary - we are worthy and lovable without working for it, without deserving it. Simply by existing, we are worthy of love.
Moms can be the best cheerleaders. Many times when I doubted my abilities, my strength, my perseverance my mom could be relied on to remind me that I could do it. She encouraged me and gave me hope and emotional support.
And in this critical way, she contributed to my growth and progress - in my studies after a near failing grade, in my career after getting fired from a job, and yes in my romantic life after a broken heart.
Now, I am blessed with an essential network, a weaved net, of safety and support. By showing up and being a good friend to others, I have numerous loving friends - men and women - I can call on to be cheerleaders for me when I am low, scared, and broken. They are my ballast in the shit storms of shame and doubt and anxiety that are invariably a part of living with illness. They can and do remind me of my best qualities when I am in a fog of fear. They tell me they need me. They boost me when I need it most to hang on and ask me to stay around.
Mothers establish rituals and routines to commemorate our life passages and achievements and to embody our values. My mom created many marvelous religious rituals which echo in my life still today. Those rituals were imbued with her and my father’s values and kept them alive and active in our lives.
We also had a routines that guided our meals, our schedules, our sleep and even our play. I was one of five kids, and without those routines there would have been even more chaos than there was!
As an adult I’ve struggled with establishing routines. My efforts always seem foiled by my body which does not appear to wish me to keep to a schedule. I comfort myself by reminding myself that creative people generally have very atypical routines. Hemingway drank. William James procrastinated. Kierkegaard downed coffee.
But still I try because routines help us by eliminating decision making. They also support our body clocks and rhythms.
After many years of struggling with this, I take an attitude of not too tight, not too loose. I have an “ideal” morning and evening routine, but I don’t go berserk or berate myself if - for whatever reason - I don’t maintain the routine here and there. Same for mealtimes.
And I do have rituals around my meditation practice; I just do not (yet?) meditate at the same time every day. I treasure how that ritual honors the magic and wonder of religious spirit that my mom seeded in me long ago. Marching in political protests is another part of her legacy which is increasingly part of my routine too!
I can still remember when my mother pointed out to me in the late 70s (when I was 13 or 14) that the sexual permissiveness of the late 60s was not new. She explained to me that there were libertine times in other centuries and earlier decades, and that what was I was perceiving in sexual mores was nothing new. She gave me a broader historical context I did not know and thereby opened up my perspective.
I used to shift my perspective by traveling. Nothing opens your eyes more than traveling. When you return home, you see your home, your life, your values, and your routines with a fresh eye. As T.S. Eliot beautifully said in one of my most favorite poems, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” (Little Gidding, Four Quartets)
But I have not been well enough to travel. In fact, I haven’t been out of the DC area in three years. So now what do I do?
Opening yourself up and shifting your viewpoint yourself is very hard because we all have our illusions and delusions. But I have found one tool especially useful to break me out out of my blinders is the work of Byron Katie.
I’ve been a fan of hers for two decades, and her work was critically helpful when I realized I was never going to get better. Her seminal book is “Loving What Is,” and in it she introduces her four questions that help us see that we have nothing to fear. The questions are hard and probing, more so if you are emotional, invested and/or highly reactive to whatever it about your life you’re not loving. But they work. (See below for resources.)
Moms set expectations and keep us accountable to our commitments. Be they chores or bedtimes, mothers make the rules and enforce them. At least mine did.
When you’re an adult, you have to hold yourself accountable. And that’s even more true when you’re sick because the things you need to do for your best health, things we all know we need, are that much more critical.
So how do I maintain a good bedtime? How do I keep up the habits to live my best life possible? One technique that works for me is tracking. I actually use a combination of analogue and digital tracking.
I keep a habit tracker in my bullet journal. The habits I track shift slightly every month. I love checking off each habits each day, and knowing that I am observing and tracking myself often times motivates me to do the very things I’ve outlined.
Every day, I basically witness the quantum theory in action - the observer effect that holds that mere observation of a phenomenon affects the phenomenon. It’s phenomenal! And it works for me.
For my meditation habit, I use Insight Timer. Because of their tracking feature, I yesterday hit 260 consecutive days of meditation. Now I have to keep going so I can hit a full year! Only 105 days to go.
And the last few weeks, I have been using another app, Streaks, to track my most important habits and have set up notifications on my phone. I’ve learned from Insight Timer’s tracking feature that I am motivated by streaks. With the reminders, I able to be consistent, and the little ping I get when I click it done on my phone encourages me.
Tracking for consistency deepens and boosts the habits I know I want to live to cultivate my wellbeing and keeps me accountable.
One of the best gifts our parents give us is education. Many sacrifice in many ways so that we can be challenged and discover more. They also taught us how to live by how they lived. My mom especially valued the life of the mind, and she got that from her mother.
When my maternal grandmother died, much was made of her pride that all four of her daughters graduated from college as my grandmother did not. I didn’t truly grasp why that was so critical to her, or why she considered that the mission of her life. That achievement was celebrated decades later at her funeral.
But when I read and saw the adaption of My Brilliant Friend, I finally understood why: education was the way out of poverty and a way into power - especially for women. My grandmother lived to see me graduate from Vassar College, and now I know why she was such a cheerleader for me that day.
So today, I try to honor them by nurturing the life of the mind in dedicated ways. I take online courses. I read books. I attend lectures and book talks when I can. I listen to podcasts on history, literature and the arts. I make an effort to continue to learn and keep my mind active whenever my brain fog allows.
No one can soothe a boo-boo like a mom. Just hearing her voice say, “You’re going to be okay,” helped me to believe I was, in fact, going to be okay.
So how do we self-soothe? To be honest, not always in the best ways. At times, I’ve soothed myself with alcohol or food or Netflix binges.
These past few weeks, I’ve been navigating levels of fear and anxiety I’ve never before encountered. Even my typical go-to tool for self-soothing, meditation, challenged me because each breath felt like saw blades in my chest with each intake of air. The very air felt ragged and painful. That’s how intense the fear was.
So in addition trying meditation and reaching out to my safety network of friends, I implemented a few other strategies as well.
First, I tried to feel the feeling purely, without layering onto it another story about what should or should not be. I managed to step out of the riptide of fear to reassure myself that I am not the fear. I feel the fear, but I am not the fear. I tried not to over-identify with the feeling and to reassure myself that the wave and intensity would pass if I can just hang on. And it did.
Second, I tried to keep the inner bully that was telling me the fear was not justified at bay so I wasn’t overwhelmed and overtaken by shame. And then I tried to figure out something that would make me laugh or find fun that I could do.
Finally, I implemented what I call extreme self-care - that entails strict boundaries about who I communicate with and what I watch (like not the news); aromatherapy blends such as this one to mitigate the panic; and I seek out a program that will make me laugh (The Graham Norton Show and Last Week Tonight are usually reliable for me).
This past week, Master Archie arrived, and Prince Harry spoke briefly and endearingly at some stables on the grounds of Windsor Castle. As appealing as his words were, they brought up both of my “mother griefs.” I felt sad that his own mother Princess Diana was not alive and with him for this monumental day in his life. That made me miss my own mother more.
But he also said, “I haven’t been in many births. This is definitely my first birth. But it was amazing, absolutely incredible.” I was and am so happy for him and for his wife. But then the thought occurred: I will never, ever be at a birth.
I’ve been present at a death - my own mother’s. But I will never witness the miracle of birth.
And the grief of that nothingness, nullity, nihility, in a world and in a family that privileges and values motherhood foremost, brought up intense sadness for me. And in turn prompted this reflection and this writing.
I hope that the ideas and reflections offered here comfort and motivate you to mother yourself. And that you will consider all the multifaceted mothering talents and be tender and loving and nurturing towards yourself.
Who make up your network of support? Who can you cultivate?
How do you self-soothe in constructive ways? Or maybe not so constructive ways?
What rituals or routines are important to you? Or would like to implement?
What is on your bucket list of delight & laughter?
What would be on your “Nicely Done List”?
How can you foster the life of your mind and your imagination?
EXTRA ELEMENTS OF INTEREST
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
The Kindness Method: Changing Habits for Good by Shahroo Izadi
Loving What Is by Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell
My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend
MSNBC, May 11th 2018