In its purest sense, mothering is a combination of fierceness and gentleness required to protect and nurture life. Regardless of whether we have children or not, we engage the Mother/Nurturer anytime we create or sustain life. ‘Mothering’ can be a loaded word for some, holding wounds and conditioning we carry. When I speak of mothering, I refer to ‘The Mother’ or ‘Nurturer’ as an archetypal energy we all have our own relationship with.
We live in a society that undervalues nurturing and caregiving. It undervalues the strength that is drawn from vulnerability, generosity, selflessness and the act of sustaining life. Whether it is caring for children or elders, nurturing a humanitarian cause, treating ourselves gently, fiercely protecting the land, human rights, working the frontlines in a healing profession or simply caring and supporting each other for no other reason than love- it is often these actions that are not treated as valuable or necessary in our society.
On the one hand, our society idealises the ‘frontline heroes’, praises ‘supermoms’ who do it all and gives a thumbs up to environmental and human rights activists. On the other hand though, it keeps systemic inequities and greed in place that make this exhausting work necessary and demands people give up their bodies, souls and sanity in the process of sustaining life.
Humanness and capitalism don’t always mix well. so I am not saying there necessarily should be financial compensation for all forms of nurturing, kindness or emotional labour outside of paid professions, but that there needs to be a shift in values that recognises nurturing and sustaining life for the NECESSARY work it is and create a system that supports this in tangible ways, making it easier for us all to feel cared for.
The Importance of Self-Care
While our social systems need some re-structuring to better provide accessible care for all of us, this does not negate that self-care is still necessary work. During this global crisis we may have had to find innovative ways to care for ourselves and each other in order to fill in the gaps where the system has failed us. Self-care is part of community care and vice versa.
Self-care is more than spa treatments, girls’ nights or yoga class. It is about prioritising our own health, survival and well-being. It is about transforming internalised guilt and patriarchal oppression. It is about changing the story that was fed to us about our worth. It is deep inner child work. It is only when we prioritise our own healing that we can care for others in sustainable ways.
I think of self-care and self-mothering as caring for our inner child. Our inner child is the innocent and/or vulnerable part of us. It can be playful, adventurous, sensitive, afraid of the dark or any traits we still have inside us from childhood. The inner child is also wounded. Life requires we grow up, and in that process we sacrifice our innocence. As adults, many of us are acting from that wounded child, instead of from a healed inner child. Healing the inner child requires us to engage our inner Mother/Nurturer to bring the love and protection to this child that it did not receive in the past. For many of us it entails an entire re-programming of our psyche. Undoing lifetimes or generations of sweeping our needs under the rug, overriding our needs and masking or escaping our pain- out of duty, out of fear for our survival, or shame.
Becoming a mom taught me how to mother myself.
Traumatic events, illness and mental health issues are examples of wake-up calls we may experience to prioritise our own healing. These can be a call to develop our inner Mother/Nurturer. Transitional life events, such as becoming a parent, can also push us to our limits and demand we prioritise self-care.
When I became a mom, a part of me was lost forever. It is a transformational death and rebirth. It took me a while to be ok with that. Part of that was a dissolution of my young & free 26-year old identity, which is a normal part of the process. But becoming a mother awakened some of my conditioned ideas about what motherhood was. Reality and the ideal/illusion of motherhood I was fed were a mismatch. In some ways I equated motherhood with martyrdom, a spiritual idealism of being a constant source of unconditional love and bonding I felt expected to adhere to. I come from a line of hardworking, faithful Catholic women. I may have inherited some over-emphasis on selflessness and self-sacrifice that were not healthy. But this also comes from our culture, which places extremely high and unrealistic standards upon mothers. The pressures on parents now are far stronger than any generation before.
In becoming a mom, I had to work with my ideas and conditioning around what mothering was, and how to extend that energy towards myself as a matter of survival.
While there was the identity, responsibility and psychological transformation of it all, I also was dealing with worsening chronic pain, going to school and trying to run my own business. My husband worked overtime every day and we were still struggling to make ends meet.
My mental health was suffering and I realised I could not do it all and had to start prioritising self-care, or I wouldn’t be there for my daughter. I remember a morning while my husband was at work, and she was a toddler, playing in the hallway on the second floor of our house. I fainted from physical pain at the top of the stairs, and woke up at some point wondering what had happened. I felt lucky that neither myself or my daughter had fallen down the stairs, but I remember how worried I felt that my disease had put her and I both in danger. I couldn’t pretend that my disease was ‘no big deal’ anymore. I couldn’t work as hard as I felt I should. I had to start putting myself first for my daughter’s sake.
My inner Mother/Nurturer had awakened and she had to be FIERCE to meet the challenges I faced.
Nurturing ourselves isn’t just for those of us with children. The Nurturer lives in all of us. And she isn’t all gentle, flowery and kind, either! Mother energy is fierce, protective, courageous and destructive too- but all in the name of supporting growth and life.
Becoming a mother to my own child helped give me the tools to mother my inner child. Here are 6 ways I learned to nurture, protect and love myself as I do with my own child:
#1: Reclaim the ‘little wins’ as ‘big wins’- as they would be in a society that valued our humanness.
Sometimes we need to let go of society’s skewed values around productivity, success and accomplishment.
When I first became a parent, life narrowed and revolved around all the little mundane things that make up getting through the day. Just getting us out the door was a huge feat. I had to talk to myself differently- praise myself for those ‘small’ accomplishments- like getting the groceries, getting my daughter to sleep, for getting a fever down, for getting the dishes done. I also praised my daughter for all the seemingly ‘little things’ we take for granted that are actually big milestones for kids- walking on her own, writing her own name, tying her shoes, etc.
Now that my daughter is nearly 12, she describes her happy memories and moments to me- which all revolve around the little things. Eating watermelon on a hot day, the feeling of clean sheets, the stories we read together, cuddling the cat. Not how fancy our house was, or how much money we made, or how popular I was on social media.
As much as certain things are celebrated or touted as ‘real accomplishments’ in our culture, they are determined by a narrow, patriarchal view of what is important and valuable, completely negating the ‘little things’ that make who we are, and what we love as human beings.
#2: Praise yourself for the big things too! Don’t shrink to make others more comfortable.
On the flip side, mothering ourselves also means celebrating our big wins too! When our blood, sweat and tears go into obtaining a diploma, getting a new job or promotion, releasing a creative project or business success, we may play small and humble to make others more comfortable. We may be conditioned by habit to feel that we don’t deserve this. We may have internalised guilt, or run into jealous people who try to take us down because we are climbing up towards our goals and creating a new reality for ourselves. Low self-worth loves company. Others’ misery and jealousy shouldn’t stop us from achieving our dreams.
When my daughter accomplishes something she has been working on a long time, like bringing home a report card of good grades, we celebrate!
Surround yourself with those who genuinely are happy for you. But also understand that others’ reactions to your big win is not personal. It’s more about their own wounding and self-esteem.
Take pride in the ways you have grown, changed and accomplished things that you wanted to do regardless of what others’ think.
#3: Listen to your body. Take care of it.
Our body is a sentient being that requires a balance of nutrients, exercise, sleep, and care. Just like we would care for a child’s physical well-being, we must treat our own with the same diligence.
Do you get enough vitamins? Fresh air and exercise? Have you seen a doctor or naturopath for any health concerns? Do you sleep well?
It sounds very basic, but it is all too easy to override our physical needs as adults- we just want to get a bit more work done, we feel too tired, one more drink won’t hurt, etc. All the little habits add up, until we realise we are feeling sluggish, not sleeping well, our body is sore and we lose our zest for life.
Take a day off. Get a babysitter. Delegate more tasks to your partner. Get a massage. Have a nap. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself. See your doctor or naturopath. You need your body and it needs you.
#4: Set healthy boundaries
One of the fiercest instincts of a mother is that of protecting her child from harm. Are you able to be that fierce protective mother for yourself? Do you nurture and protect your own inner child, your vulnerability, your dreams?
One of the womb’s functions is to act as a container for vulnerable new life to grow. Without safe containment, our dreams cannot be birthed, our vulnerable parts cannot be felt and our wounds cannot be healed. Safe containment means we sometimes need to set up a barrier of protection from the outside world.
Safety and self-protection are necessary for survival. Setting boundaries around our time, space and what we will or won’t allow into our personal space is an act of self-mothering. This may be even more important if you didn’t feel adequately safe or protected by your own parents as a child.
What is precious and tender to you? How do you protect it?
#5: Connect to a spiritual source of mothering and nurturance.
Human mothers are not capable of constant unconditional love. But Spirit beings are. When we take the pressure off our human womxn (including ourselves) to care and nurture us how we may have wished, we relieve them and us of a burden of a love that was never attainable.
When we transfer some of our need for love and support towards spiritual beings, or a spiritual faith, we can cultivate a relationship that helps us feel taken care of when we are feeling lost, vulnerable or broken. For some, this may be simply connecting with Mother Earth.
One of the strengths I feel my foremothers passed down to me is a powerful spiritual faith. While I don’t practice the same faith they did, I do share a love of Mother Mary, and her Egyptian counterpart, Mother Isis as well as Mother Earth and the Great Mother energy that nurtures and sustains us in body and soul. Cultivating my relationship to Goddess in her many forms has been a healing balm that has sustained me through the most difficult moments in my life.
#6: Honour all your feelings
Children are a wonderful mirror that show us our comfort level with our own feelings. Before they develop self-regulation, their emotions are all out in the open, urgent, all-consuming, demanding our attention. But how do we respond? Sometimes we reach out to hug them, comfort them. Sometimes we react with defensiveness, anger, punishing or indifference. Sometimes we hold their hand and sit with them, allowing them to feel what they feel. Their emotions bring out ours.
When we are emotionally activated, we can imagine our emotion as a child within us who is crying for our attention. We can ask ourselves what this child part of us needs and do our best to bring that in.
When an emotion consumes us, we can choose to respond instead of react. We can pause, take a deep breath, exhale and ask ourselves:
What am I feeling right now? Where do I feel this in my body? What do I need right now? What does my body need right now? How can the adult in me care for this child part of me in this moment?
Questions for reflection:
How do you take care of yourself? What does mothering/nurturing yourself mean to you? Do you let yourself receive? Do you put everyone else’s needs first and feel that your needs are less important? Are there ways you can transform your inheritance or social conditioning by creating a new story or taking a new approach to caring for yourself and others?