Back to wellbeing

Mums, here's permission to look after yourself

By Dr Charise Deveney 5 min read
Thursday, February 20, 2020

Pregnancy, the postpartum period and motherhood ask a lot from your body and we commonly see mothers in a completely depleted state.

This has wide-reaching consequences not only for the woman but also her children, intimate relationships and broader family units. That’s because unfortunately, when we are depleted, our vulnerability for depression and/or anxiety increases. In fact, statistics show that up to 20 per cent of individuals in the perinatal period experience a clinically significant depressive or anxiety disorder, which is why supporting maternal mental health is so important.

We are all familiar with the advice, “Fit your oxygen mask first before helping others”, but how often do we actually apply this to our day-to-day lives? There seems to be a widely-held societal view that women as mothers must keep pushing on, juggling a multitude of demands. However, all too often, women as mothers end up in a depleted state.

I want to propose that what mothers need is for someone else to fit their oxygen mask for them. Or at a minimum, for someone else to give mothers permission to self-fit the mask before looking after anyone else. In the context of motherhood and parenthood, it is vital that there is a shift in thinking. Placing wellbeing at centre stage is required during one of the most demanding periods of life.

At my practice, the Perinatal & Wellbeing Village, it is our vision to support women and mothers to make self-care non-negotiable; to create a village of mummas who prioritise and engage in self-nourishment and self-nurturing.

Not surprisingly, lifestyle choices, in conjunction with the environment, go a long way in shaping wellbeing. While this will be unique for everyone, there are some factors that are known to universally cause depletion, including poor/disrupted sleep, a diet characterised by high fat, high sugar and processed foods, limited physical activity, elevated stress and low social support. Take a moment to reflect on the various factors that deplete you. Jot down any insights that come to mind.

Taking stock

When was the last time that you paused to reflect on how full your "giving cup" is?  If it’s been a while, pause now for a few moments and take stock. Ask yourself, "How full is my giving cup and how much do I have left to give?" Perhaps reflect on the last time you invested in nurturing and nourishing yourself.

It would be a great start to take a moment each day to check in with yourself and take stock of how full or drained you're feeling. Try the following method to help guide you in making wise choices about your needs. In order to nurture others, we need to first nourish ourselves; making sure that our giving cup is full enough to draw from.

  1. Close your eyes and slow down as you take a few mindful breaths. Inhale deeply and pause. Then exhale deeply and pause. Be mindful of being in the moment with your breath. Nothing else to do in this moment. 
  2. Scan over your body. With each in breath, scan over your body, letting your breath melt and spread with curiosity into each nook and cranny of your body. Do you notice any tension? Breathe into any tension and release on the out breath with a long, slow, deep sigh.
  3. Check-in: Where is my mind? Is it busy or settled? What thoughts are demanding my attention? Where is my energy level sitting? How am I feeling? Tired (likely!) or energised? Just notice. 
  4. Reflect: What do I need in this moment? Stretch and relax? Drink a cup of warm herbal tea? Move? Eat a nourishing meal or snack? Be with my baby and connect? Call a friend for a chat? Attend to a housework task for a sense of mastery? Run a warm shower? Notice the outside world?

Nourishing you: A guiding framework

It's important to discover the ways we can nurture and nourish ourselves amongst the daily management of kids, work and changing schedules. Don’t worry. I’m not about to preach unrealistic expectations about sleep and other lifestyle factors. I understand all-too-intimately the chaos that is motherhood, with all its competing demands and challenges. I want to arm you with the knowledge that you can use, in whichever way fits with your circumstances, so that you can develop your own framework to support your psychological and overall wellbeing.

Sleep

Getting enough sleep in the early postnatal period is tough. Sleep as you used to know it (long stretches of blissful and uninterrupted sleep) seems like a distant memory. You don’t need me to tell you how important sleep is for health, vibrancy, energy, stress and overall wellbeing. To help increase your chances of getting rejuvenating sleep:

  • Try to limit exposure to blue light from devices for at least an hour before you go to sleep. 
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol. 
  • Set up some sleep rituals that cue your body and mind to wind down. 
  • Reduce noise, avoid strenuous physical activity, limit exposure to emotionally-activating activities such as TV, movies and social media. 
  • Nourish yourself by reading a good book, soaking in a warm bath with some essential oils (I like lavender, bergamot, rose geranium and sweet orange) or sip on a chamomile tea. 
  • Turn your bedroom into a lovely haven that has good airflow, is free from clutter and feels calming.

Rest

As mothers, we ask a lot from ourselves and our bodies. Just as we can’t go without sleep for too long, the psyche can’t push on for too long without getting some quality rest. Consider how you might be able to take steps to create periods of downtime, moments when you can be still:

  • A few moments in the shower while you sink into the water running over your body releasing any tension from the day. 
  • Those few mouthfuls of your chosen warm drink in the morning.  
  • Pause and soak up the day when you look out the window for the first time in the morning.

Food

The foods that we eat will either grow or slow us. Food fuels us for life and builds our bodies, but it also affects our moods, stress and energy levels, contributes to the balance or imbalance of our hormones, and shapes our gut and mental health. Given the significant reach of food on our wellbeing, pay good attention to the foods that you choose to eat and how they make you feel afterwards. 

Try to avoid processed foods high in chemicals, artificial colours, sweeteners, flavour enhancers and additives. They affect our minds and bodies in profound and unwanted ways. Instead, try eating natural whole foods brimming with life and energy. By choosing foods that are colourful (ie. eat the rainbow) we provide our bodies with a variety of vitamins and minerals and enhance mood and wellbeing.

Physical activity and movement

I’m not talking boot camp here, but by all means do that if that serves you well. What I’m talking about is gentle, low-impact, moderate physical activity such as brisk walking (with pram or kids in tow), swimming, cycling, yoga, stretching, core training such as Pilates and free weights. Find a gym that has a creche. Join a mothers' walking group. Practices such as mine offer pre- and post-natal Pilates and walking groups for mums.

Adjust your focus

Motherhood reshapes our self-identity and role-identity. It can take some time to adjust and this is perfectly normal. What’s important here is that you allow yourself the time and space to settle into your role as a mum. I like to think that we are the sum of many different parts: A woman, a worker, daughter, sister, friend and now mother. Different parts shine brighter than others at different stages of life. However, those other parts don’t cease to exist—our relationship with them might have just shifted. Motherhood involves a process of self and identity reorganisation. Observe and notice which parts are currently shining brighter and which parts could use a bit of brightening!

Community

Connectedness and belonging are two important cornerstones of wellbeing. This refers to our felt sense of knowing that there are others around us for lighthearted banter and deeper levels of support. Why not join a playgroup or a mums and bubs Pilates group? Surrounding yourself with professional support is also important if you are concerned about your mood or overall wellbeing. Practices such as mine will offer a range of services from individual psychological therapy to supportive group programs. Ask for help and remember that you are never alone in your motherhood journey.

Remember pampering

I'm talking about things that we do for ourselves that feel totally luxurious and indulgent. A pampering session will give you the extended time-out that all mothers need to truly fill their cup back up.

Dr Charise Deveney is the founder and principal clinical psychologist of Let’s Talk Psychology Practice and the Perinatal Village. She specialises in the treatment of perinatal and infant mental health. Letstalkpsychology.com.au