Is self-care selfish?

By Gale Ruttanaphon

When I gave birth to Vivian and made the transition to motherhood I was still trying to grapple with my own concept of what a “good” mother entails. What should a mother do/ not do to be considered a “good” mother, because I know I wanted to be a good mum for Vivi.  I remember feeling guilty and ashamed for leaving Vivian with a nanny to go for my own exercise. Then I asked myself why should I feel bad? I think I felt bad, because I was having an internal battle with myself.

My Internal Battle

My love for exercise started when I was in the final year of high-school, going through a stressful period of preparing for a University entrance exam in Australia.  Truth be told, I started running because I didn’t want to get fat.  I was studying and eating all day long and it was starting to show.  I quickly realized that not only did exercise help me de-stress, it gave me more energy, it made me stronger, and I was pleasantly surprised at the distances I was able to cover! I was proud of myself – I never thought I had an athletic streak in me.  I kept up with exercise right through to my pregnancy. I remember going to a gym class the day before Vivian was born and feeling great about the session.  Right after birth, I waited to get clearance from my doctor that I was safe to exercise again. I was feeling itchy to get back into it.  However, now that Vivian had finally arrived, I felt an overwhelming sense of internal guilt that I shouldn’t be leaving her. Where was this guilt coming from? 

As a culture we praise selflessness and decry selfishness.  A good mother cares first for her babies, then her partner, and her own needs come last.  I’ve been programmed to think that a good mother should be “selfless”.  Therefore, the act of doing something for myself means I’m selfish and therefore not a good mother.  I was baffled.  Could a simple act of self-care like looking after one’s health and wellbeing be considered selfish?

One thing was certain, on the days I tried to be a selfless mother, refusing help and staying home with Vivian, so I can soak up the glory of selflessness, I felt miserable, restless, overwhelmed and bitter.  On the days I went out to exercise, I came back recharged, revitalized, and with more energy for my daughter.  When I was away from my daughter to exercise, I missed her. This made coming home that much better, because I knew I wanted to be there, and I was ready to be there for her.

Fear of Selfishness Syndrome

Selflessness doesn’t come naturally to me, it comes with a level of exhaustion, anxiety and unhappiness. This feels like the exact opposite of giving from the heart which selflessness embodies.  I now know I was actually suffering from the “fear of selfishness” syndrome.  The fear of selfishness asserts that we need to do whatever it takes to be there for other people especially our children even when you feel overwhelmed and worn out.  Because of this, the fear of selfishness carries the energy of shame and guilt.  I felt bad leaving Vivian to go exercise, and equally bad not going.  I felt trapped without a choice.

Put on Your Oxygen Mask First Before Helping Others

The truth is a mother also needs her downtime, for me there’s a time for self-care and there’s a time for selflessness. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive.  By recognizing when to be generous and when to be self-attentive, you create boundaries that will help you. Help protect you from over extending yourself and help protect others from the resentment that can form when you overextend for them.  You wear yourself too thin when you act out of fear of being selfish.  Remember what the cabin crew say in the flight safety briefing – Put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. It is sound advice. You are no good to anyone if you run out of oxygen.

Self-nurturing is an essential pre-requisite to good parenting. As your child gets older, you need to set a good example for him or her. Your child needs to see a mum who respects and looks after herself.  This is not selfishness; this is self-respect and good role modelling.   There’s no need to lose your sense of self in the process of mothering. Don’t let your identity disappear in the guise of motherhood. I strongly believe in practicing self-nurturing daily!

Make sure you have space for your own needs. Nurture yourself by doing something each day that you want – go exercise, get a manicure, read a book, dress up and get out.  I promise your baby will be just fine with your husband, your mum, or your nanny.  Thailand is a great place to get help, it’s very affordable and never too far away.

Sharing my Belief – Creating My Mummy First

I founded My Mummy First during my maternity leave, because I believe mums deserve to be looked after too.  Often mum’s the one who looks after everyone in the family but the concept of nurturing does not seem to extend to the mother herself.  I want to create a program that looks after mums first and foremost – My Mummy First.

My Mummy First is a postnatal wellness program for mums that focuses on safe exercise after birth, nutritious meal delivery, and mental support for busy mums.  These elements combine to create a holistic program for mums. I wanted to create a community of like-minded mums where we can share and support each other. I wanted to be able to give back and show the importance of self-care and help work through the underlying fears many new mothers like myself go through.

Be good to yourself – give yourself the love and respect you deserve. You’ll be a better parent, a better partner, and a happier mum. This I truly believe.

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