By Julie Burton
As a survivor of an eating disorder, I thought my newly strengthened and enlightened self-care voice was infallible. I was certain that with a strong marriage, a good job, a network of friends, and a healthy lifestyle, I had this self-care thing down. And I did—at least, at a time when I felt that I had control over my life, my decisions, and my relationships, and that I could manage what was on my plate. But at the age of twenty-seven, I could never have predicted how much more I would need to learn about self-care, and how challenging it would be to hold on to my sense of self, the moment I locked eyes with my newborn daughter’s wanting and needing eyes. With goose bumps on my arms and my heart exploding with love for this child, I felt the “commitment for life” concept sink heavily and purposefully into the depths of my being. As I held her tightly in my arms, and took in the sight, smell, and feel of her, I promised her, and myself, that I would always protect her, love her, and care for her—that I would become a “baby whisperer,” able to anticipate and accommodate her every need
I basked in the euphoria of my newfound sense of purpose and of the endless supply of powerful, all- consuming unconditional love that I didn’t even know existed within me. I fell almost desperately, addictively in love with the feeling of being needed, revered, and loved by my daughter, and by my three subsequent children. And yet I didn’t know that my motherhood journey would be twofold. Underneath this incredible, illuminating euphoria, there was something deeper—a residual, nagging anxiety that emerged from the scars within my heart, scars that had lain dormant since my recovery. Not until much later in my motherhood journey would I come to understand that the unresolved feelings that gnawed at me, wrestling with the joyous feelings of motherhood, were intricately connected to self-care; and that, as amazingly wonderful as motherhood often is, it is also really, really hard— and that sometimes I was in way over my head.
It would be years until I fully grasped how my almost obsessive desire to protect my daughter and subsequent children was more than just a mama bear’s “I want to keep you safe from harm” sort of quest. It definitely was that. But it also included an unspoken promise to protect them from the pain, the loneliness, and the despair that I had experienced as a child. And despite the fact that I put a lot of pressure on myself to “be there” for my children, in doing so, I continued to heal myself.
When my oldest daughter hit that ever-so-uncomfortable stage known as puberty, she began expressing some negativity toward the changes happening in her body. Initially, I was overcome with a sense of panic and dread. But quickly, I propelled my fear into a plan of action. The buck would stop here! I would take the lessons I had learned through my experience, through healing the wounds I’d endured while intently watching my mother fight her own food and body-image battles as I grew up. I would acknowledge my overwhelming responsibility to teach my daughter about all things related to body image, food, exercise, and nutrition. And after every discussion (and there were hundreds), I made sure she understood that all of the above-mentioned subjects are directly tied to self-love, self- respect, and self-compassion. I made a concerted effort to be a good role model for her in my approach to food and exercise, and kept the lines of communication open, checking in with her regularly to see how she felt about herself as she transitioned from girl to young woman.
I approached this issue with seriousness and intensity, practicing what I came to think of as a kind of double mothering, in which I cared for my daughter by reaching back deeply into my own childhood, providing love and compassion for both my daughter and my younger self. I held her when she cried as hormones surged through her confused preteen mind and body, and I gave her heavy doses of love, acceptance, guidance, and understanding during these trying years. I compassionately and gently helped her establish her foundation for healthy eating habits and body image in the way that I would have wanted to learn them myself. And thankfully, at the age of twenty, she has one of the healthiest attitudes toward food and body image of anyone I know.
All three of my older children hit rough patches in middle school, difficulties that most kids cannot avoid as they are trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in, and who their real friends are, at the same time as they are pulling away from their parents. My kids experienced bullying, academic challenges, and self- esteem issues. As I write this book, in the fall of 2015, I am bracing myself for my youngest daughter’s entry into middle school.
I worried tremendously about my kids during these trying years, as some of the pain of my own adolescence resurfaced. I did my best to give them as much love and attention as I could when they were struggling. But I also was very aware of the points at which I knew I needed to bring in outside support. Whether it was a school counselor, a tutor, a rabbi, a coach, a teacher, or a therapist, I did for them what I did not do for myself when I struggled: I asked for help. I knew I could not handle all of their challenges on my own, and I wanted them to feel that they were not alone in them—and that I wasn’t either.
In mothering all four of my children through their various challenges, I have been able to mother different parts of the wounded child within me. My kids always know that I have their backs. They always know that they are not alone, and that I am able and willing to go down into the deep trenches of their lives and their psyches with them, in order to help them navigate life’s inevitable twists and turns, as well as to help them develop a reflective, connected understanding and acceptance of themselves. They have learned that it is okay to ask for help, to trust in others, and to believe that there is a wide and strong net of people who care about them and who will catch them when they fall. And in doing that for them, I continued to trust that I could rely on the same reinforcements for myself. However, because of my tendency toward extremes, and my deeply rooted “die on the sword” mentality, my “double mothering” would propel me in both positive and negative directions. It served as a constant push for me to become the best mother I could possibly be for my children and for the child within me, but it also provided a breeding ground of opportunities for me to be brutally hard on myself. While it was easy to feel good when the things I did to help my children worked out well, oftentimes my efforts did not yield the results I thought they would or should, or my children’s behavior did not change at the speed at which I expected—as it goes with parenting. The old tapes containing messages of failure and disappointment played back in my head, sometimes even prompting me to look for “evidence” that I was indeed a failure as a mother. If my son got in trouble at school, well, guess whose fault that was? If my daughter didn’t do well on a test, I should have helped her study more.
Needless to say, this critical self-care challenge caused me a great deal of angst and confusion before I understood that self-care lies far below the surface, in the place where our most wounded self resides. I realize now that my first decade of mothering provided me with a new platform for my embedded feelings of guilt and self-doubt, and my striving for unattainable perfection, to reappear. Slowly, subconsciously, and unintentionally, as my pattern would go, I began to slip away from who I was. I let go of many of my personal and professional goals, as many moms do (at least for a period of time), and I convinced myself that my only real purpose was to give to my family—until, years later, these feelings finally knocked me down and left me in a heap on my sister’s living room floor.
Although I had worked diligently on solidifying my self- care voice throughout the process of my eating-disorder recovery, and was very grateful that I was even able to bear children (given the damage I had done to my body in my teens), I frequently felt alone, drained, unhappy, and unable to find solid ground. I did not yet realize that mothering them, obsessing about every little detail of their lives, would not bring me the fulfillment I needed to feel whole, nor would the idea that sacrificing my need to care for myself for “their sake” could be a healthy guiding principle for me, or for any mother.
The past two decades of being a mother and studying motherhood have taught me that I am most certainly not alone in this conundrum. Most mothers, while they nobly attempt to care for their children, struggle with defining their boundaries—which often leads mothers to neglect themselves. In a blog post on the website PsychCentral, journalist Margarita Tartakovsky explains why the mother-child relationship can feel so complicated. “Your relationship with your child isn’t just symbiotic,” she writes; “it’s parasitic because it isn’t a mutual relationship.” She illustrates this point further by quoting psychotherapist Ashley Eder, LPC, who says, “Your children are—adorable [and] beloved— parasites, and you are the host, and that’s normal and healthy.” But in the spirit of self-care, the most important aspect of Eder’s mother-child, host-parasite analogy is this: “The survival of a parasite is dependent upon the health of the host.”
When a woman makes the transition to being a mother, and she feels the nurturing cells multiply by the second (or for some mothers who suffer from postpartum depression, it can be fear or even some resentment that kicks in), she is less inclined to be thinking about how to keep herself, “the host,” healthy, and more likely to spend her energy on figuring out how to take care of her new “parasite.
Almost every mom I interviewed could connect with the feelings of frustration that often arise when talking about motherhood and self-care. In fact, if you pull a chair up to any table at Starbucks, an exercise class, park bench, set of bleachers, or office water cooler where a group of mothers are gathered and the topic of self-care comes up, you will hear many moans: “UGH, I just do not know how to do that anymore. Who’s got the time?” “I have been trying to get to this exercise class for two weeks but my kids have been sick, my husband is out of town, and I am beyond exhausted. It is a miracle I am here!” There will be a unanimous consensus that finding ways to care for themselves while mothering children is one of the trickiest things they have ever done. They will compare notes on how much time and attention children demand, and then throw in their partners, work, friends, and other family members as other forces that tug at their energy.
For most moms, the idea of “self-care” can feel like just one more item to add to their already overflowing to-do list. And to some, like those quoted above, it can feel unattainable. For other moms, self-care practices will go in fits and starts. They will try. They will have intentions of taking good care of themselves, but will often get swept up in the needs of others and allow their own needs to fall by the wayside. They will express frustration, and sometimes even resentment: “I wish I had more time for myself but something/someone usually gets in the way. I was planning to go meet my girlfriends last night for dinner but Billy wanted me to stay home and help him with his homework. He didn’t want his dad to help him, and even though I was angry about it, I stayed home to work with him. I feel so trapped.”
In 2012, I attended a workshop for yoga teachers. One teacher, Megan, asked the workshop leader, Matt, a father of three children, including three-year-old twins and an eight- month-old, what we should do if we believe one of our students is battling depression. Megan went on to talk about one of her students who is a mom and is taking care of her young kids and her aging parents as well. The woman confided in Megan that she often felt resentful, anxious, and depressed because she was pulled in so many directions and felt completely tapped out.
Matt paused for a moment and replied, “It’s like this.” He grabbed a marker by one end and handed it to Megan, who took hold of the other end. But Matt did not let go of the marker. As Matt held on to one end of the marker and Megan the other, you could see the push-pull effect between them as they both grappled for the marker.
Then Matt said to Megan, “Maybe I don’t really want to give you this marker and I would rather keep it for myself, but I am not sure how to do this because now you want and expect the marker that I offered you and I can’t really take it back. But I realize I really need it.” He explained how sometimes we give things (or parts of ourselves) to others even though we don’t want to, and truly need to keep these pieces of ourselves intact. So we keep hanging on but feel like we “should” give it away. This can certainly provoke anxiety, and is a reality for many mothers who give of themselves to those who need them (children, partners, parents, bosses), but struggle to hold on to important pieces of themselves.
The fact is that it doesn’t work to give away something that you desperately need for yourself. Mothers’ limbs, hearts, and brains are constantly being pulled in various directions; think of Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s book The Giving Tree, which can be read as a parable of the self-destruction that comes to those who offer too much to others, while keeping nothing for themselves. But your trunk needs to remain steady and strong. You learn about your strengths and weaknesses as your children coerce, push, and challenge you. The only thing you are truly in control of is yourself. By taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you are more likely to be able to be strong for yourself and your kids and to be able to withstand the storms that come through your life and their lives.
Julie Burton is an experienced writer specializing in self-care, parenting, and relationships. She has written for many local and national websites and publications. She blogs at juliebburton.com, is the co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, and teaches writing and wellness workshops to adults and teens. Julie lives in Minnetonka, MN, with her husband and four children. Connect with Julie on her website, on Facebook /unscriptedmom or twitter @juliebburton.
Illustration –© Andreus