Thursday, August 7, 2008

Finding My Self

“That’s me in the corner,
That’s me in the spotlight,
I’m losing my religion”
- REM-

All the preparation in the world never really readies you for the real thing. Like preparing for a play, all the practise, rehearsals, mental run-throughs, watching, waiting, listening and anticipating never really allow you to get the lived experience of opening night. Anything can and probably will happen, and it’s often beyond any expectation harboured – good or bad. As a Mum-to-be I did all the preparation I thought possible and I got it at an intellectual level. Living it was a whole different kettle of fish.

Around six months into my pregnancy I had a shattering insight that left me cold – this was for life! There was no opting out of motherhood if it got tough, if I didn’t like it or if I believed that it wasn’t working. It wasn’t like a job, a love relationship, a friendship or a place of residence. If it didn’t meet my expectations or wasn’t how I wanted it to be – tough! I couldn’t break it off, ask for a transfer, or negotiate for my bond back if it wasn’t working. I was in this for keeps.

As a bit of a commitment-phobe this was a huge wake up call, and it took me a few weeks to come to terms with it. The child I was carrying was one that I had dearly wanted, subconsciously yearned for, even though the actual conception was completely unplanned. At that six month mark of pregnancy the romance of being a Mum was starting to wear off and the stark reality of what awaited me loomed large.

I read Kate Fige’s ‘Life After Birth: what even your friends won’t tell you about motherhood’ and was taken aback by the dark side of motherhood she presented – there was no sugar coated, rose coloured glass representations of motherhood in the 230 plus pages. So I steeled myself for endless hours of breastfeeding (and all the associated issues), of broken sleep, non stop nappy changes and the ensuing piles of washing, for the feelings of exhaustion, disillusionment, confusion and loss of confidence. I prepared for the fact that my body would never be the same again, my relationship with my partner would be altered forever and that I may possibly feel very alone in our small apartment – shut away from the world and living in my PJ’s for days at a time. I also understood that I was at risk of suffering postnatal depression.

Knowing what I was facing I made a survival plan. I made peace with the 24 hour a day responsibility that was motherhood; not only the care of a small helpless human being at the start, but in the long term for another person, the rest of my life. I made a real effort in the last few months of pregnancy to connect and bond with other women, who would be travelling the same road as me. Attending support group fortnightly in Brisbane made this easy for me. I knew that even if I was unable to leave the house, there was always the telephone. There would always be someone that I could find to talk to and confide in.

I trusted this would be the case, even though Fige’s warned about the competitiveness between new mothers that put her off sharing her difficulties and early motherhood experiences. I bought four pairs of PJ’s so I could at least have a clean pair every day, before I had to do washing, and enough nappies to last three days. I also talked at length about my fears. First to my caring and empathetic midwife (who continually reassured me that I ‘could’ and ‘would’ mother well) and secondly to my partner.

As the case always seems to be with me, the imagined never lives up to real life. The worst case scenario I had carried around in my head and steeled myself for didn’t transpire. I never had to implement my survival program. I learnt early on about the need for flexibility and became very thankful that I had never been a rigid or dogmatic person in the every day running of life. Dylan was a very easy going baby, who slept lots during the day, had his awake period between 5:00pm and 1:00am most days (which suited perfectly my own night owl predisposition), and had no problems with breastfeeding. He was generally content and happy. All the aspects of mothering I had been warned of didn’t come to bite me as a new Mum. I seemed to adjust well to motherhood. Then January 2005 came and my world was turned upside down.

Nothing I read or heard shared the danger of ‘losing your Self’. I understood at numerous levels, that you change and grow as a person and in doing so you leave many elements of your BC (Before Children) life behind you. Fige describes it as crossing ‘a one way bridge … (from which) you can look back to where you have been, but can never return’. I loved and held tight to the image and legend of the Phoenix – of surrendering to a fiery end and being resurrected from the ashes - it seemed to be to a pretty fitting analogy for motherhood. But what I expected was for it to all happen to me as a new mother, in those early months. I didn’t expect to cruise and then for the wheels to suddenly fall of the Happy-Coping-Well Adjusted–Mumma-Wagon. And the wheels were never going to go back on exactly the way they were.

Seven months into motherhood life changed. It took me weeks to work out why I was no longer coping – because nothing seemed to have altered. When it first hit my Mum was staying and I couldn’t work out how suddenly I was so frustrated and angry with Dylan and with life in general. Dave and I had reorganised the fridge and the food, especially the condiments, were constantly falling out each time I opened the door. Looking back now the fridge was echoing what was going on with me – the contents had been moved around, into what seemed to be a better fitting arrangement, but in actual fact it wasn’t working, and the contents were trying to find their way back to their original homes. The fridge had lost its space and so had I.

What had changed? Dylan’s sleeping patterns. My darling boy no longer slept for five hours during the day. He had begun to chunk his sleeping patterns in a different order. The three or more hours he cut out of the day had been tacked on to his night sleep. No longer were we sitting watching fantastic, though often bizarre, late night TV until 1:00am (in the days before all the tacky monotonous games shows came on commercial TV after the late news.) While I now understand that sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity and it was great we were sleeping more at night – time and space to myself were also a necessity. Dave was spending lots of time away from home doing the final throes of the ‘bottom of the rung’ work duties that came with his change of profession. This left me alone and responsible for Dylan days and nights at a time. It gave me a new respect for the world of single Mums. While there were some benefits in being alone at night, there was no down time and after six months of it I was fed up and wanted my partner and Dylan’s Dad back full time.

I was so caught up in moving with, and adapting to the changes that I had no concept of trying to reclaim something that was lost. My moods and emotions should have been a dead give away that something needed to happen. I was frustrated and angry. I felt caged. I dared not think about the way things used to be in case I lost my mind. I’d made peace with the fact that this is what I had wanted and it seemed like I just had to lie in the bed that I’d made. I thought about all the people who were worse off than me, and tried to be grateful for all the things that I had. It never occurred to me that small things could be changed and I could feel better. And it didn’t ease with time, it got worse.

I wanted to eek out a space for myself but I didn’t know how and I failed in that seminal first year of Dylan’s life to understand either the importance or the urgency in establishing time and space for myself. This set the pattern for the years that followed. I felt it was selfish to want time to myself – but it was echoing through my words and the charges that I levelled against Dave. ‘At least you have half an hour on the bus to sit and read a book,’ I remember saying to him. Eventually he told me that he must be the only man on this earth who feels guilt about going to work. But still it didn’t seem a legitimate need, to spend time by myself! We had no family to offer an opportunity for me to do something alone, or time for Dave and I to do something together. ‘Me time and space’ fell from the priority list altogether.

In addition to this, I had set up a scenario for myself where I couldn’t leave Dylan to take time away. I chose to never express milk for Dylan, so adamant was I that breastmilk should only ever come from the breast. In that first year Dylan fed every hour – so there was little room to move or escape. I locked myself into behavioural patterns that pitched me at the bottom of the rung as far as needs and nurturing went. I had martyred my Self for motherhood, believing that the two were unable to co-exist. A no win situation.

I legitimated ‘me time’ by taking on the layout duties of Down to Birth, which grew and expanded to fledgling Editorial duties as well by the time Dylan turned one. What I came to realise three years on was this wasn’t ‘me time’ - it was ‘other time’. Working on the magazine was nurturing and making an investment in the homebirth community. It was time that I gave to the magazine and its readership, not to myself. It took me a long time to understand that it is only ‘Me time’ if it nurtures and supports the Self.

I’d built a succession of cages around myself – my own internal labyrinth of imprisonment. Somewhere in this transition through motherhood I’d dropped the Self off and forgotten to go back and pick Her up. I’d got busy, distracted and forgot that She even existed. I cried and raged on the outside. I felt cheated, desperate and lost, and I had no understanding why I felt like this. When I did try to comprehend it, I wrongly attributed it to being part and parcel of the rigours of motherhood.

Then I began doing some personal development work – which meant reclaiming some time and space for myself (and I didn’t even realise it at the time!) First I did Liz Lotscher’s ‘Healing the Mother Within’ workshop and then the seven week ‘Womens’ Rites of Passage’ course in 2006, which gave me seven Friday nights out of the house in a row. In 2007 I started The Artist Way by Julia Cameron and had twelve weeks of ‘a ha’ moments. While I was reading with a mind towards my reignited love for writing, with every chapter I was struck at how Cameron’s words of wisdom on creativity had striking parallel’s with motherhood (which after all is the highest evolution and most primal form of creativity). I became more and more certain that Cameron’s book was something all mothers should read, with the emphasis on the absolute need for filling up the well within and investing in the Self to live creatively.

I began to dismantle all of the cages I had built. I realised I’d invested all of my self worth into the magazine and into my HMA work. Without it I felt like nothing – there was nothing but a shell of myself remaining. Which left me with a terrible dilemma – did I stay or did I go? I chose to go, feeling like I had just ‘dumped myself’ and in the process cleaved off a functioning limb. I spent days crying and cringing away from the emptiness inside, but it was time to face up to the task of finding my Self and refilling the cup of my Soul.

Three weeks ago I re-read some lines from The Artist Way and had another major epiphany. To be creative, to fill up my cup, to reconnect with my Self I had to make a decisive effort to carve out time and space for myself. This was how my Self had been lost in the first place, and why it did not happen immediately after Dylan was born. In those hours during the day when he slept I had time to read, to write, to cross stitch, to indulge in an hour of Dr Phil (shameful to admit I know!) or to talk to friends. I had space alone, with the autonomy and sovereignty of my body. When all of that changed in early 2005 I got so caught up in coping I didn’t work to make space and time for my Self – just for ME.

Now I’m back at square one. With Dylan starting kindy this year the luxury of time and space has opened to me, but I understand now that it needs to be more than that. I need to invest in me. I need to nurture ME every day.

“Creative living requires the luxury of time – the time which we carve out for ourselves …. Creative living requires the luxury of space for ourselves.”
Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way

As new Mums, women need to get the pattern of self nurturance happening from the start. So many of the daily certainties of life change after birth. Creating time and space for the Self is a change that can happen right along side with all the others. It’s necessary to recognise that it is not a luxury to have time and space for your Self. Like sleep, it is a necessity. We need to do it first if others are to follow suit and support us. And as Cameron alludes to, we need to ‘carve’ it out for ourselves – no one is going to hand it to us on a silver platter.

To give me the time and space for a morning walk, I had to ‘carve’ (and it was initially like hacking off part of my body) half an hour out of my sleep time, by getting up earlier. Yet within a few days I didn’t miss the sleep. I had more energy, was more alert, more comfortable in my own skin than I had been in years. I was happy, back in touch with my Self having found a way to relive my needs for ‘freedom’ in a way that fitted with my responsibilities as a Mum and my responsibilities to my Self.

It starts by putting yourself on the list of priorities, not at the bottom, but at the top. Nurturing your Self is not something nice to be done sometimes or on occasion, a workshop every now and again, or yoga once a week. Nurturing your Self requires daily attention. Create a routine that is important to you and do something that you love. As mothers we are constantly giving and the cup runs dry very quickly if we don’t take the time to replenish it every day. I realised too late that once the cup runs dry, you mine your soul to keep going.

It’s also important to learn to ‘ask’ for this time and to let others know it is important to you, if you are to function effectively and happily both as a person and as a Mum. Dylan quickly learnt when I began doing the Artist Way, (which requires writing three pages of sponanteous, stream of consciousness every morning) that this was ‘me time’ and it was important. I remember him answering the phone and saying “Mummy is doing her morning pages.” He understood that all demands had to be shelved for that half an hour and he accepted it as part of daily life. The space you hold for your Self needs to be protected and your boundaries set firm – it’s an every day event, not just when it’s suitable or convenient for others. It takes 21 days to establish a new habit, and only three days to break it.

Nourishing and nurturing your Self doesn’t have to be grand or expensive. It’s about simple joys, simple luxuries, simple pleasures and only you will know what it is (if you have no idea see my suggestions following that will nourish your spirit). If you can’t carve out an hour – negotiate for half an hour. Any time is better than no time. It is about time and space for YOU. There is no need to feel guilty, selfish or needy for wanting, needing or desiring time and space to be with your Self. You owe it to yourself and your family to be all there, Mother and Self. We need to take care of ourselves first and foremost, if we are needed to take care of others. This is not just in the early months of having a baby, it is for life! We are also modelling to our children the importance of setting and holding personal boundaries. We also show them that luxury is about simple pleasures that feed the soul, not the ego. Encourage your children to spend time alone doing something that they really enjoy too.

Don’t leave it as long as I did, so long that you lose your Self. But if you do, be heartened - She’ll still be where you left her waiting to be claimed again. She won’t be angry or upset with you – like old friends you’ll embrace, glad to be reunited and time will slip away, like you had never been separated. And you’ll resolve the two of you, to never let it happen again.

This article was first published in Down to Birth's 71 issue subtitled "On Becoming Mum".

If it’s been so long that you have forgotten what you love here are a few examples gifted to me by friends and Mothers near and far:
Take a morning walk alone
Listen to a favourite piece of music or a whole album
Soak in a bath with essential oils or bath salts
Sit in the shower to wash your hair
Take a drive alone
Paint your toe nails
Put on a face mask.
Enjoy breakfast, lunch, morning or afternoon tea at your favourite café (alone!)
Chill out and do nothing – yes nothing!
Moonbath under the moon and count stars as you hang out washing
Stop and breathe three times and remember where you are
Tend to a small veggie garden or potted herbs
Enjoy your favourite tea in a china cup somewhere you love in your home
Do yoga, tai chi, qui gong …
Do a guided meditation
Read a book
Buy your favourite skin care products and use them every day
Doodle while you listen to your favourite album
Knit, cross stitch, crotchet, macrame
Write in a journal
Play a musical instrument
Read the newspaper from cover to cover
Draw, paint, collage
Get a massage
Go to the art gallery or favourite place
See a movie – alone
Swim – in the sea, at a water hole, in a pool
Walk in the forest or botanical gardens.
Collage your dreams
Put on the toilet door the affirmation ‘When I treat myself as something precious I am strong’ read it three times every time you make a pit stop

For more ideas invest in Dr Rachel Harris’s ‘Twenty-minute Retreats: revive your spirits in just minutes a day’ published by Pan Books.


Anonymous said...

It's been a gradual awakening, just how much time alone I need to be able to want to interact with people.

I think being a child bride had a lot to do with not only putting my own needs aside, but well I only had a very fractured view of what my own needs were. It's hard to develop a sense of individuality when someone is banging on the toilet door.

Parenting and partnering at a young age really reinforced a lot of shoulds...I used think I should be nuturing my relationships, and only spasmodically tended to my own needs. Although it's only recently that I've understood the dark side of devouring books.It's such a socially acceptable way to just shut out the world. I think my blinding bit of discovery lately is how lonely it may of been to be the partner of someone that spent hours adventuring through the written word.That said...

I was 41 before I lived alone. I think for the first year I just gloried in doing what I wanted, when I wanted. Now I'm building more structure for what I need to support myself and my dreams. I lived in my head for so long I had very little awareness on a cellular level of what my body needs...not what is recommended by health professionals, or wellness experts...what MY body needs to operate to integrate my thoughts and feelings and stay grounded plus conduct semi- sane conversations and be creative.

This is a topic of conversation that comes up a lot with friends...ME time...guilt that men often feel for requiring it, and women also, with or without children.

I think a lot of it comes back to not only self awareness, but also boundary setting.

Again thanks so much for sharing some of your time yesterday Ms Jodi, and the birthday lunch.


Annie said...

thanks for sharing miss jodi..

The Countess said...

The beauty of being a mother.. I've heard almost every story that deals with mums and their young ones, I hope when my time comes I'd share the same joy. I feel giddy about it. Heeee!

I had a similar book, twas given to me by my bestfriend when I turned 18. It was a list of 100 simple things to do.

Some of them that I noted down to memory are...

Smile. It's contagious.
Plant a tree.
Soak your feet in the sand and sea.
Call your parents often.
Bring post-its.

Well Jodi, I'm in my 20's now. Twenty-two to be exact, and realizing my life is just starting.

Hey, thanks for reading my FF's. I like the comments especially from people I don't know personally. Most of my friends who read them either email or text me for their opinions. And so the use of comment boxes are? *snicker*

katrin said...

It was fascinating reading your post. You touched on so many of the things I have felt and learned over the years if being a parent. In writing a book called "Mothers Need Time Outs, Too" (McGraw-Hill)I realized just how much Julia Cameron was an inspiration for me in my struggle to combine motherhood with a writing career AND a sense of peace and alone-time. My dreams are coming true just as she promised they would if I nurtured my need for creativity. Believe me, life is not stress free (and never will be) but I am published, have finished a second novel, have an editing career and LOVE my kids and family to death. It all takes work and juggling, but I have a sense of what I want and who I am.(Now I just really hope I can help other overwhelmed mum with my book!)

Over time, I came to understand that you can never have it all, all at once, but that taking care of yourself is something that is of primary importance ALL THE TIME. I may not always get to my writing... the kids (I now have three) may sometimes feel like a burden... my work may become overwhelming... but if I feel connected to who I really am, then I can make it through all the ebbs and flows of regular life feeling pretty damn good...

Good luck with it all!

merlotmom said...

Nice to know others are in the same boat. Thanks for stopping by!

Laura said...

Maybe the realization for all of us, whether we have children or not, is how to have a healthy balanced life that brings us joy and enables us to bring joy to others. This struggle, while more intense when we become mothers, is something that seems to be the essence of living.