Self-care and other gremlins

not an easy way down

As someone with ‘a mother’s heart’ you’d think that nurturing myself would be easy. After all, I spend 15 years longing to nurture a child. But you’d be wrong.

In my continuing recovery from the heartbreak of childlessness, I’ve found that nurturing myself has turned out to be one of my biggest challenges.

It seems I’d rather be of service to just about anyone other than myself. When I was married, this found its perfect home in something called ‘codependency’  – which in my case was a perfect energetic two-step between my ex-husband’s addictions and my own obsessive over-involvement in his condition. It looked like love and devotion, it was love and devotion, but as there were no limits as to what I would do to ‘save’ him it became pretty nutty on my part too.

After a lifetime of long-term relationships from the age of fifteen until a few years ago, it’s been quite a new thing for me to experience the single life. Although terrifying at first, I found that once I got used to it, it gave me the time, space and desire to upgrade a number of old personal programmes. I’ve relearned to enjoy my own company the way I did as a child, rediscovered my creativity and have become comfortable doing long-distance driving trips alone. When I look in the mirror, I see a woman who I know and trust deeply. It’s a good, simple feeling, knowing that.

But, as with all renovations, it’s not until you start knocking down the walls that you find the real structural stuff that needs fixing.

A lack of self-care (or to call it by its proper scary name ‘self neglect’) is proving to be a stubborn programme to upgrade. I understand why it’s an issue for me (like all of us humans, it’s a complex mixture of nature, nurture and life experience) but I’m still trying to work out what to do about it!  To the outside world, it’s pretty invisible as an issue – it’s not like I’m starving or not washing myself or anything gruesome. No, this is subtle emotional neglect I’m talking about. It’s much harder to spot and has deep, silent roots. I’ve written a chapter on it in my forthcoming book and my insights into it have helped a lot of women in my workshops, but as we always teach what we need to learn, this is definitely the lesson I’m finding hardest.

So last month I set myself a challenge called ’30 Days of Self-Care’ inspired by a mashup of John Williams’ book ‘Screw Work Let’s Play’ and Kristin Neff’s ‘Self Compassion’. I’d set something similar as a project to the participants on my Plan B Mentorship Programme as I knew it’d be a great way to flush out the gremlins we each have that pop up when we attempt to change a pattern. So, in order to silently support them, I chose to do my own project and see what came up for me.

And what came up for me was nothing. Nada. A void. What happened instead was that I simply kept ‘forgetting’ to do my daily self-care task. My email reminder from would go off at 9pm and I’d realise that I’d completely forgotten to do any self-care that day. And it being 9pm there wasn’t much time left to do much except to have a hot bath (without listening to/reading to anything work-related) and meditate before bed. These are not things I would ‘normally’ do. I did them. They felt good.

Although sometimes forgetting can be purely a memory lapse (I am prone to forget things if I haven’t slept well), there is also what Nietzsche (and Freud before him) thought of as ‘motivated forgetting’ – a defence mechanism for suppressing something we don’t want to remember or feel.  When my email reminder went off several days in a row and I’d ‘forgotten’ about my self-care project, I knew that this particular gremlin was so entrenched it wasn’t even on view – my subconscious was whisking it out of sight, out of awareness.

And then, gradually I got into the routine and started to enjoy it. There were even several days when I found to my surprise and pleasure that I’d taken two or three self-care actions by 9pm which might include such things as:

  • taking an afternoon nap
  • painting my toenails
  • calling a friend
  • cooking something nourishing
  • having a bath just for the hell of it
  • going to yoga
  • reading in bed instead of working

I’m on a roll here, I thought. Maybe I’ve cracked it!

And then round about the 3 week mark I started forgetting again. Or, even more deviously, started finding ways to turn things in the day that I’d already done but which hadn’t really been about self-care at the time into items I could put on my list at 9pm. Cheating basically!

It turns out that even though self-care feels great physically, mentally and emotionally, I’ll rather do almost anything else if given a chance. I’ll ‘forget’, I’ll ‘cheat’.

And then I began to realise why I was experiencing so much resistance. What it was that working so hard and keeping busy and not nurturing myself was keeping at bay. My old companion – grief.

  • Grief that I’ll never be able to nurture my own daughter
  • Grief that I’m almost 50 and yet this stuff is still so hard
  • Grief that I don’t have a partner and the daily side-by-side domestic companionship that comes with that
  • Grief that I didn’t get the consistent and safe nurturing I needed when a young girl and woman
  • Grief that I’m ageing and no longer turn heads in the street
  • Grief that I have so much tenderness to offer and yet no intimacy in my life
  • Grief that some of the decisions I made when younger and didn’t know better have had consequences that last a lifetime
  • Etc

I think of this as ‘life grief’ and moreover that it’s a pervasive undercurrent that runs through all of our lives. But because we live busy lives and often fear the heavy presence of such deep feelings, we run from them. But grief is not a mistake, it doesn’t mean we’ve got something wrong. It’s just the shadow side of change.

The fact that I’m feeling this grief doesn’t mean I should stop the self-care. It means the self-care is working.

Life grief, as I call it, is what wisdom is made of. And my self-care challenge is bringing up a lot of it. In fact, I’ve learned so much about self-care and self-compassion during my 30 Day Project last month that I’m doing it again this month.

And I’m going to keep doing it till I don’t need an email reminder to check that I’ve done it. I’m going to keep going till I feel nurtured, nourished and cherished,  right down to the bone. I want to make space in my heart for the residual sadness that I carry for all the things that haven’t worked out in my life rather than pushing them out of my mind by ‘forgetting’ them. I want to wash my body clean of broken dreams. I want to nurture myself as if I were that cherished other.

I will cherish myself. Nourish myself. Love myself.

This could take a while. And a lot of hot baths, long chats with friends, afternoon naps, soulful thoughts, sitting meditations, yoga moves and sunny holidays. Now you’d think that’d be something to look forward to, wouldn’t you?  

But then grieving for the life unlived is harder than it looks and requires a lot of courage, patience and gentleness. Luckily I’ve got deep reserves of all these qualities should anyone else need them. Using them for myself though? Really hard.

It’s almost 10pm. I’ve been writing a blog instead of doing my self-care which I’ve been putting off all day. I’ll go meditate now. I’ll let you know in a year if I’ve really cracked it. Unless I forget of course…


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Photo of Jody Day, Founder of Gateway Women (UK)

Jody Day is a London-based writer, social entrepreneur and training psychotherapist. She set up the Gateway Women network in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless by circumstance women (like herself) as they develop meaningful and fulfilling lives without children. Jody runs groups, workshops and retreats for women reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that motherhood didn’t happen for them. Jody also consults with individuals and organisations and she regularly speaks out in public, in the media and online about issues and prejudices facing childless women in our society today. Neither a bitter spinster nor a dried up old hag, Jody puts her heart, mind, and soul into lovingly and mischievously subverting the stereotype of the ‘childless woman’. She is living proof that your Plan B can rock too! Watch her talk at the Women of the World Festival in March 2013 on “Creating a Meaningful & Fulfilling Life Without Children” in under 10-mins, with jokes!

Click here for the latest schedule of Gateway Women events including talks & drinks, workshops & groups.

24 Comments on Self-care and other gremlins

  1. Self care. Especially hard at this time of year — Christmas. Fortunately, I am not religious, so I can more easily avoid the gatherings others may feel obligated to participate in where there are little ones about. At least, I think it is fortunate. Perhaps I’m missing out on comfort (or a scapegoat to blame) for my childlessness.

    Motivated to write tonight, for the first time, because of an email of a coworker. A picture of her young son. It is always bad with others who have the life I wanted, but somehow it is worse when I don’t like the person.

    I spent the day reading “I hate being a mom” blogs. This usually helps, at least for short periods of time. Although, the end result is typically confusion because I don’t know why it helps. Do I not really want a kid? Does the focus on the bad parts help “trick” me for short bursts or has society fooled me somehow into wanting a child (as some of these women claim) and I see the truth until I’m brainwashed yet again?

    Oh, how helpful it would be if the coworker regretted having her baby. Yet, as soon as I think it, the need to protect the unprotected floods in — and I don’t want that for her son. There are too many unwanted children that I want to help (and would if it weren’t for an unwilling, but loving, partner who I think about leaving on a near daily basis because of this “issue”).

    Maybe I’ll end the night thinking of how awful it is people have the baby I am desperate for — can’t they see that the world is overpopulated and in desperate state with mass extensions on the horizon? How dare they bring more injury to the world for their selfish want of a child. I am better than them, yes, sure, by no choice of my own, but better than them nonetheless. This does wonders to help me feel something other than intense grief for my loss: self-righteousness saves the day! Add in thoughts of the sun exploding to devour the earth (with the implication that everything is really and truly ultimately pointless) and I have the perfect holiday thoughts to desperately hold on to — it just might help me survive until January without tears.

    Yes, I am in great need of a different type of self-care since that button that would bring forth a “redo” of my entire life remains hidden and I remain stuck with this one that sucks so badly.

  2. Hi, Jody!

    Just wanna let you know that I think the podcast of your interview in Radio Gorgeous is BRILLIANT!!!! I just shared it in my FB, hoping that it’d help some people who’re in similar situations and that it may open up some other people’s POV about childlessness. 🙂 THANK YOU for your voice!!!!

    P.S. Found the podcast link from Loribeth’s “The Road Less Travelled” blog post.

  3. I’m on day 5 of the 21 day meditation challenge jody thanks to your gateway suggestion. So reading your blog rings so true. It’s only 15 mins of the day, but nearly ‘forgotten’ to do it 3x! But just spending that short time being quiet and focused is such a great self care. Self care rocks! Xxx

  4. “The fact that I’m feeling this grief doesn’t mean I should stop the self-care. It means the self-care is working.”

    Wow. So powerful.

    This article is so timely for me, as I try and ‘play’ my way to a more fulfilling, balanced life. I set out by choosing to spend more time with friends (which ‘tops me up’), and to play around with the frequency, location & types of events to see what worked. I have had so much fun doing this, but 3 weeks in, finding myself a bit exhausted and life at home getting disorganised, I forgot this is part of the plan – to play around & see what works – and just went straight to ‘beating myself up for not being perfect at everything’! In fact, what I have learnt it I will get more out of life with a bit of (positive) self-imposed structure – I’m off to sign up for as you recommended, and look forward to my reminder emails, and playing with frequency & content. Thanks for the reminder to keep on keeping on, and that discomfort and / or feeling ‘out of the ordinary’ are signs that we are changing, and moving on – it’s all good!

    Love you & your amazing support, beautiful woman 😉


  5. Wow, did this ever hit a nerve! I’m great at keeping busy, if I can tick things of my to-do list I always feel a sense of achievement and can kid myself that it’s enough. Self-care is something so easily dismissed; I’m too busy, it’s too self-indulgent, I don’t need it etc etc. What I recognise now is that avoidance is easier because all too often self-care brings with it an overwhelming tidal wave of sadness, so I dig out my to-do list and do something productive.

    I saw a therapist some time ago and she pointed out how much I avoided self-care, to the point where I was avoiding physical contact with others and had lost weight purely because I saw food as fuel and ate to exist. Food and physical contact – two fundamentals of nurturing according to her (but hey, what did she know?!). I tackled both of these issues in my usual pragmatic way, I saw them as a project whilst ignoring any feelings they brought with them. So now I eat more, and can cope with contact but if I’m honest it’s still all quite functional and can still bring a huge sense of discomfort (and yet a sense of craving too, especially on the physical contact side of things).

    But – there are signs that this is changing. My toenails are currently a fierce shade of red and over the past few months I’ve taken up Pilates and yoga (exercise always had to be about pushing the limits; it had to hurt to be worth it). I love the calm that both these forms of exercise bring, though at times I can feel the grief bubbling away beneath the surface.

    I think it’s hugely brave to acknowledge this Jody – doing so is the first step to making a commitment to change and that can feel scary. I do have a lovely image of all us GW women sat together, wriggling our red toenails though!

  6. Hi Jody,
    I can really identify with what Emily says about being chastised for thinking about myself. However, as I’ve been on holidays for the last 3 weeks, I have been totally committed to self care. It took a lot of effort but I feel as though I have really benefitted. I feel a lot more self assured. However, I also feel that I too am beginning to ‘cheat’ and neglect myself. It feels like I’m still battling the ‘self worth’ gremlin. Being a part of Gateway Women has helped me to express the grief which comes and goes in waves. I feel like the self care calms the waters but then some unresolved grief appears in the mist.But the best thing is that I can now share with other GW and I feel much better. Thanks, Jody! xx

  7. I’m glad you’re committing to self- care Jody because you spend so much time and energy caring for us. We all appreciate the nurturing you show to us- it really isn’t isn’t an over exaggeration to say that your work has been life changing for so many of us. So go and paint those toe nails girl! x

  8. Hi Jody,

    I think there may be another reason why self care is so hard. When we are taking care of others we do not advance and there is a huge benefit. We avoid jealousy. Women non supporting women has been a serious issue and thankfully we are changing that. However, deep inside I expect we are all a little afraid of jealousy. I have noticed that it is an issue for me.

  9. Hi Jody,

    I think that there may be another very deep reason why we do this. If we women spend all of our time on others, there none of us advance ourselves. When we avoid our own progress we also avoid jealousy, which at a very deep level can be very threatening -it certainly is for me.

  10. Hi Jody,
    I think this article was probably very close to the bone for quite a few of us. I defintely struggle with self-care. We certainly weren’t brought up to care for ourselves. Acts of self care were often chastised as selfish and even now I still struggle with feelings of guilt and dare I say it shame if I do things for myself. My parents were very unhappy when we were growing up and I often felt guilty and that there was an expectation not to be too happy as that would be thoughtless and insensitive to them. I was having an Alexander technique lesson the other day for chronic back pain and the teacher said “You are on holiday Emily..think you are on holiday” and I felt the same old feeling of guilt and shame creep up dare I be on holiday! That’s not allowed. I’m sure I’m not alone in having been brought up to feel that doing something for myself is unacceptably selfish and struggling to shake that off.
    Going off at a tangent I read the Daily Mail article that you contributed to about single childless people being overlooked when it came to flexiblity in the workplace. While some of the responses were very level I was shocked and the saddened that there are people out there who really believe that childless people have no life outside of work and worse still no right to one. It made me realise that it’s not just upbringing that can make you struggle to value and care for yourself, but on-going messages from society. Nurturing children yes, nurturing yourself no. Slowly but surely I’m learning that I can only take responsibility for myself and that other people’s problems or life choices aren’t my responsibility. It doesn’t mean I don’t care or won’t help, but equally I’m not obliged to and I am entitled to enjoy my life. But it diesn’t come eay or naturally. It is a work in progress so I totally understand how hard self care is. Thank you for such a brave article addressing this.

  11. You are so right!! Again!! Are we actually too busy to look at ourselves & admit our feelings & face the mistakes we made? Or is it, in fact, that we keep ourselves so damn busy so we can avoid them like the plague?! Like u said chances are its the second and I think u are very brave indeed to make yourself take this time & allow the feelings to come. As for me, well, am not that brave yet but will certainly keep reading your blog & hope that a little of that bravery might just rub off on me!!

  12. Aha, a fellow “I done this” user! I started it a year or so ago to force myself to do at least one thing a day.

    I think @InfertileWoman45 makes a good point about us having commercialization in our private lives: a friend of mine who is 56 was recently telling me about when she first left school and went to work in an office in the 70’s- you did the work that needed to be done and NO MORE. Also you stopped for a tea break (a lady came round with a trolley with tea and biscuits!) twice a day in addition to taking your full lunch break… only idiots didn’t take the time that was for themselves.

    What happened to the idea that our time is for ourselves?

    • Esterhazy – my office in Amsterdam has a tea lady who comes around twice a day with a trolley, tea and cake. I remember my first day of work here and she appeared at 10.30am – I was new so said nothing but in my head there was a neon banner shouting, ”is this for real? am I dreaming? this is fabulous!”. It’s a serious perk in my working life and the office falls apart when she’s on holidays.

  13. Oh how true that is, Great piece…I have a list of money related things, a list of house things and a list for me…and guess what hardly ever gets done?… I think the only way around it is to live on holiday…
    We exist in this kind of self trained commercialised state of mind and that makes everything including grief far too easy to avoid, we are masters of avoidance…we are too busy, to be us and realise us ….when we’re not busy ,we find and make things to do…..I’ve been trying to paint my toenails properly for weeks too….

    • Thanks so much H – looks like you know exactly what I’m talking about! I find that the time it takes to do my toenails and the level of concentration is as much a part of the self-care as the lovely result. Which reminds me, mine need doing again! Jody x

  14. Jody, I’m fairly new to your blog, but this the second time I am reading it. I’ve been avoiding it a little because the things you say are so much of what I feel all the time, and so painful to accept. I find your words comforting, but excruciatingly burning at the same time. It feels like a hot iron being dragged over my entire body.
    Thank you for having the courage to put this out there. I have talked to many people about my regrets at not having become a mother, but women who have had children always would try to make comments that thought were helpful such as, oh well, it wasn’t meant to be, or maybe you’re better off. At 40 I did try to get pregnant, I was in a much better situation, was not in a relationship, but had a friend who wanted to be a father, and was going to be a co-parent– not a gay male, but a straight male who did not want to be in a relationship with me or anyone else, I thought he would have made a great dad. I went so far as to getting shots, and fertility treatments short of any invitro, anyway it didn’t happen, I was shocked because I thought since I had gotten pregnant so easily, and basically threw away those chances, this would be a snap. Anyway, I’ve lived with grief and self-hatred and feel less than a woman, and all those nasty bad feelings that I try to talk myself out of daily, and still feel envious when I see a pregnant woman, especially one with a husband and two or three more kids already in tow. Anyway, I will comment again, and want to get more involved with your blog– but as I said, it is a double-edged sword, comforting, and way too painful at the same time. Thanks, Dvora

      • Hi Tina – I did both in the end – a win: win. Did my meditation and came back to finish the blog and publish. But good point – for me, writing about my feelings is ‘self-care’ which I hadn’t spotted (duh!) so thanks for that catch! Jody x

    • Thanks AA. Let me know what’s the hardest bit for you? Making my creativity a priority was hard work… but the self-care gremlin is proving the most stubborn (to date! no doubt there’ll be more ‘growth’ waiting underneath that one!)

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