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 www.idonethis.com 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
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…
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!