Curled into a periwinkle micro-plush blanket under a fluffy down comforter, I had the rare option of sleeping in. My husband took the day off work for my birthday and was downstairs playing with our three-year-old son. But my lower back ached, as did the insides of my shins, and I had an urgent need to pee. I was sure before I saw the cloudy urine that I had another kidney infection, the fourth in 15 months. I have also been fighting a hacking cough for weeks.
Besides kindness, I believe my body is asking me for attention, in the sense of needing to be attended to. My body has been asking for this since my son was born in November of 2006, maybe decades longer than that. Mostly, I have not answered the call.
Instead I have stayed up too late at night writing, reading, or watching television because I desperately needed some time and space for myself after mothering all day (and in between nursing and bedsharing at night).
When, upon learning to crawl at seven and a half months, my son wiggled out of carriers and pulled on stroller straps, I stopped going on walks, my favorite form of exercise and a practice that is good for my mental and spiritual as well as my physical health. I have sporadically made it to the gym, though I have accepted from myself almost any excuse not to go: my son has a runny nose; I didn’t get enough sleep last night; it will interfere with dinner and bedtime.
And while our diet contains organic foods, whole grains, and more vegetables than I see many children eat, it also consists of more dairy, sugar, and empty carbs. Even if they’re in the form of TLC organic crackers or Pirate Booty, they are still processed foods and not meeting our nutritional needs.
I want to be healthy and engage in self care in order to be a good model for my son, but, more importantly I think, I need to take care of myself for my own sake. In a sense, I am parenting my inner child here. My go-to comfort foods include what I was fed growing up: carbs in the form of breads, pasta, and pastries and lots of cheese and milk as if protein comes from nothing else. My parents became vegetarians right before I was born and our family nutritional habits were far from what any food pyramid might call for. Recently, I realized that the main fruits I was fed as a child came from a pull-top can and were soaked in a light syrup: cling peaches, Bartlett pears, and fruit cocktail.
My body image refrain is almost exactly what I heard (and still hear) both my mom and dad say about their bodies: “I weigh more than I should” or “I shouldn’t eat this but it’s so good.” I don’t want my son to repeat this cycle any more than I want to be living it.
Before Cavanaugh was born, I exercised more than I do now, but I lived on coffee and cigarettes and ate my first meal of the day when I got home from too many hours of work at about 10 p.m. So really, I’m doing a lot better in many areas than I am now. And I’m lucky enough to be in a community of mamas who are mostly healthier than I am. It’s like reverse peer pressure. You check out what snacks all the kids are having in their laptop lunches and trade recipes full of whole wheat flour, applesauce, and reduced evaporated cane juice or agave nectar substitutions. It’s good for me. But I’ve got a long way to go.
As any mother of a small child knows, time for oneself is minimal and when you get it, going to the gym and reading books on nutrition are unlikely at the top of your wish list. In fact, that kind of self care is extreme for moms who don’t take a daily shower and probably haven’t shaved for months.
Being sick for five weeks and three holidays has pushed me to ask how I can attend to my body and engage in physical self care. It is time to stop criticizing and making promises to myself and take action. Based on the responses to my recent blog post on MAMAtrue.com, “I Want My Body Back,” many other mamas also face the dilemma of how to engage in physical self care.
In The Mother’s Guide to Personal Renewal, Renee Trudeau offers lists for four areas of self care: physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental. Maybe I’ll get to the other areas in a future column. But as the focus right now is on physical care, here’s Trudeau’s inventory:
- Be kind and loving to your body– appreciate your body.
- Nourish your body by eating healthy and energizing foods that make you feel great.
- Get enough sleep and drink plenty of water.
- Exercise to replenish energy and manage stress.
- Take time to enjoy nurture and appreciate your physical appearance.
Turns out I wasn’t thinking comprehensively enough. Sleep, food, and exercise, while core needs to be addressed, all feel like big boulders to push up a hill. Change the bedtime I’ve had since I was 14? Reform my taste buds and decrease my appetite? Maybe those aren’t the place to begin.
I’m starting small:
- Drinking water every time I think of it. That’s a lot of water.
- Inspired by Leo Babauta’s post “48 Fun Ways to Exercise” on ZenHabits.net, I’ve been making up activities that my son and I can engage in while we go for walks including, most recently, a picture checklist of things we thought we might find throughout the neighborhood. He checked them off and I got to walk.
- I’m also taking an extra two minutes when I get out of the shower to put lotion on my body. My skin isn’t itchy with the dry air of winter, the lotion smells light and invigorates me, and the sheer act of just taking the time to do something nice for me is a great message to give to myself:
I am worthy of self care. And so are you.