The Art of Self-Care

The Art of Self-Care

Hands cupped holding a big heart. My original hand painted illustration.

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.

Excerpted from The Self-Care Solution, now available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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

 

 

 

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Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents: A Book Review

By Julie Burton

strengths-based-parenting-9781595621009_hrIn today’s world, so many parents feel the mounting pressure to not only “do it all,” but to be good everything they do. To top it off, doing it all often includes raising kids who also can do it all, and, of course, do it all well.

Thank goodness Mary Reckmeyer’s new book Strengths Based Parenting—Developing Your Child’s Innate Talents offers an alternate approach for parents to raise happy, confident children who become joyful, fulfilled adults. Reckmeyer, Executive Director of Gallup’s Donald O. Clifton Child Development Center, gives parents permission to let go of the “all” and urges them to focus on discovering and nurturing their child’s innate talents, instead of trying to fix their weaknesses. Strengths Based Parenting suggests that parents need to embark on this journey along with their children in order to gain a better understanding of how to utilize their own strengths in their parenting, and to model this behavior.

Reckmeyer draws the reader in by presenting heartwarming stories about parents who utilized strengths based parenting principles. Take Steve, a boy who did not perform well in school, was bullied by his peers, and had trouble finishing projects that didn’t interest him. As it turns out, Steve had dyslexia that went undiagnosed for years. But Steve’s mother, instead of parenting him by the “deficit model” noticed that he loved photography and making movies. I won’t ruin the surprise and tell the last name of this boy and how he continued to use his strengths to become a very famous man,  (it’s in the book), but let’s just say, he has made some of the biggest blockbuster movies of our time.

As a mother of four, ages 21 to 11, I processed Reckmeyer’s anecdotal stories, interviews, research, and advice through the lens of my personal experiences. My son, a college freshman, despised writing all through middle school and his first year of high school. It didn’t come naturally to him, he did not feel successful as a writer, received low marks on his papers, and basically stopped trying to improve. While my husband and I nurtured his strengths (he currently plays college baseball and studies economics and Spanish), I did feel the need to address his issues with writing. With a tremendous amount of effort on my part, met with equal amounts of pushback from him, we worked on strengthening his writing, and he was very happy to become a strong and confident writer by the time he left for college.

While I agree with Reckmeyer’s strengths based approach as one method for parents to utilize in their attempt to help their child thrive, I think there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, how a person expresses them, and how they are interpreted. Chapter Two, “Can Weaknesses be Fixed?” gave me pause as I thought about my experiences with my own children. Over time, my husband and I realized that my son’s issue with writing was not that he was necessarily a weak writer, but his under-par writing stemmed from behavioral issues relating to frustration and defiance, which were blocking him from success.

Laurie Hollman, psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence—Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, would most likely say that my husband and I used “parental intelligence” to help our son through these challenges. I only wish I would have read Hollman’s book earlier in my parenting journey, but it is not too late! Thanks to Hollman’s book, my two children who still live at home, and my two children who I parent from afar, will benefit from my clearer understanding of what parental intelligence means, how essential it is for a healthy parent-child relationship, and how to put it into practice.

To help parents like me clearly identify their own and their children’s strengths, Strengths Based Parenting contains two unique access codes (valid for one use only) that can be used to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 (for ages 15 and older) and the Clifton Youth StrengthExplorer (ages 10-14) assessments for free (you can also take these on-line assessments without the access codes for a fee). These assessments, originally developed by Reckmeyer’s father, Donald O. Clifton (now deceased), who was known as the Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, are used to identify your and your child’s top “themes of talent” (top five for adults and top three for kids), which you receive in a report of the findings. Reading this book without having taken the assessments (although I do plan to do so and would love my kids to do so as well) was still worthwhile and provided me with some new, exciting, and useful information to add to my parenting toolbox. I was, however, a bit deflated when I realized that pages 89-329 (the end of the book) is the “Clifton StrengthsFinder” section, which contains the definitions, action items, and questions to consider for all 44 themes of talent that are included in the assessment. I found myself skimming through them, trying to figure out which ones sounded like me, my husband, my kids, and grabbing nuggets of helpful information when something resonated with me. Truthfully, I was craving more of Reckmeyer’s stories.

But my biggest take away from both Reckmeyer’s and Hollman’s book is inspiration. Spending the past several years studying motherhood and self-care for a forthcoming book, I believe that both of these approaches are empowering for mothers. While the authors do put the onus on the parents to be thoughtful, engaged, and aware, they provide manageable roadmaps for how to help you and your child be your best self.  

Julie Burton is a freelance writer, blogger, co-founder of the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a yoga instructor, and a wife and mother. Her first book, “The Self-Care Solution—A Modern Mother’s Essential Guide to Health and Well-Being,” will be published in May 2016.

A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old Secret

A Mother’s Seventeen-Year-Old Secret

By Julie Burton

IMG_6396I had recently begun to mother my 17-year-old daughter Sophie with a suffocating intensity. I’d hover over her shoulder while she checked Facebook, and ask prodding questions. I’d interrogate her when she returned home from social outings, craving every detail.

“Why are you like this?” she asked one evening, her voice, already filled with irritation as she interrupted my line of questioning. “It’s not normal. You…are…smothering… me!” The volume and intensity of her voice escalated, “What happened to you that makes you act like this?”

All of my breath exited my body. My stomach had tied itself into a knot and a goiter-sized lump had developed in my throat. I looked back into her keenly perceptive eyes that darted into me with intense scrutiny.

How could I possibly tell her the truth?

Almost immediately after giving birth to my daughter, I felt the need to protect her from the awfulness buried within me. If I safeguarded her from my secret, she would not follow in my path of self-destruction, and my scars would not become hers. She would have no reason to be ashamed of me, or to view me with pity and disgust. She could think of me as good and pure, worthy of her love and respect.

I promised myself her path would not resemble mine—that I would dedicate every ounce of my being to mothering her in way that would help her become the self-assured person I so desperately had wanted to be and have spent much of my adult life trying to reclaim.

As we sat on the floor of her room, the silence lingering between us, I felt trapped within myself. My daughter must not know the real me…she couldn’t know. Because within the real me was a secret box, and within the box was shame—the shame that accompanied a four-year, life-threatening battle with anorexia, that began 13 years before she was born.

How could I serve as a source of strength and inspiration for my daughter if she knew I had starved myself for nearly two years, was hospitalized twice, thought about killing myself, ran away from home? How could she respect me when, at her age, my self-worth was almost non-existent?

A daughter should not know these things about her mother.

Yet, as Sophie inched closer to turning 17, the memories of my 17-year-old emaciated self became more prevalent and my anxiety sky-rocketed, propelling me to become so overly involved in her life that I literally started to feel her feelings. The boundaries between us became blurred and I could not get enough of her life.

I tried to avert her suspicious gaze by searching for a sign in the Aspen tree standing unwittingly outside her bedroom window. I felt in my core she knew I was damaged goods. And that I had a secret that was intricately linked to my almost obsessive need to be close to her.

Our eyes locked and connected us—mother to daughter, daughter to mother—and at that moment I knew it was time to open the secret box.

My whole body ached as the memories mixed with shame were released from that locked place within. As I closed my eyes, I could hear the distinct click of the automatic lock that triggered every time the door to the adolescent mental health unit closed. The door that kept us “crazies” locked up—purposely removed from the outside world because some of us were “dangerous” to ourselves, or to others. I could smell the too familiar antiseptic hospital aroma that filled my nose for nearly two months; I could feel the scratchy, cold bed sheets on my skin, which perpetuated the continual feelings of loneliness and loss that burned inside my heart. I could hear the steady breathing of my sleeping roommate, whose stories of abuse and abandonment still haunt me to this day.

As I peeled my eyes open again, there she was, my beautiful daughter, her head tilted to the side and her piercing love-filled eyes pulling me out of that sad and lonely place, as she had done, unbeknownst to her, since I first held her in my arms.

Yet in this moment, she was demanding to understand more about that far-away place to which she had determined was a scary place for me.

“Mom, will you please tell me what happened to you?”

Was she ready to hear my story? What would our relationship look and feel like when she learned about my scary, unstable “crazy” past? Would she think differently of me, of herself?

“It’s okay, Mom. I can handle it. Whatever it is.”

I shook my head to dislodge the destructive, shameful demons, the ones that still appear as pop-ups in my brain during times of uncertainty. Her eyes didn’t leave mine as I took a deep breath and began, despite the shakiness in my voice, to painstakingly walk her through my 17-year-old world of anorexia nervosa.

For the next several hours we held each other tight, and through many tears, I tried to provide her with answers to her multitude of questions. I knew I couldn’t make her understand the how’s and why’s of my path toward, through and away from this perplexingly brutal disease. But we could, with the power of our love and trust in each other, examine my hurt, fear, sadness, blame, forgiveness, and journey to healing with honesty and tenderness.

As she nodded her head and opened her eyes even wider, I could see her slowly begin to grasp my answer to her initial question, “Why are you like this?” She now understood how my obsessive hovering, protectiveness and the unclear boundaries between us were directly linked to me bumping up with my past­—that looking at her at 17 prompted a cascade of memories of my 17-year-old withered self, and that I felt an overwhelming, fear-based need to protect her so that she would be safe from the demons that kidnapped my spirit at her age. Together, we came to the realization that in raising my daughter, I was healing myself—nurturing not only her, but the child within me, and that in some ways I was trying to re-live my tortured years through her.

Sharing my secret with Sophie did not make me less of a mother to her. It made me human. And the shame that held my secret locked in place for nearly 17 years slowly began to loosen its grip on me.

As I watched the look in her eyes slowly transform from frustration and confusion to empathy and compassion, I knew that my daughter now knew me—The true version of me. The flawed and imperfect me. The broken me.

And yet, she loved me just the same.

Maybe even more.

Julie Burton is a freelance writer and blogger (unscriptedmom.com), a mother of four and a yoga instructor. She lives in Minnetonka, MN, with her husband of 21 years and her children, and is working on a book on self-care for mothers. 

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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