A new mother hears, “You must take care of yourself in order to take care of your family,” but what does this really mean? What does a woman really need in order to show up for this demanding and vital role day after day? Women really need help, but in the modern nuclear family new moms just don’t get the support they need, so instead of real help the world throws them a vague rhetoric encouraging them to care for themselves in addition to caring for everyone else.
A woman knows how to care for herself in the moment: personal time, a shower, a meal, a walk, and so on. A search of “self-care for new mothers” yields predictable results: sleep, accept help, make time for solitude and friendships, put on make-up, schedule a trip to the salon, exercise, plan a girl’s night, and treat yourself. While there is nothing innately wrong with basic self-care, to advise a new mother to look to a tube of lipstick as a source of strength can feel like a cruel joke in a critical time. An afternoon at the salon may mean a very necessary moment to reset and relax, it is not a manicure that is going to sustain a new mother or strengthen her capacity for the perpetual nature of mothering.
A mother is facing a deep personal inquiry; superfluous self-care may be highly necessary in nursing the immediate symptom, but it is certainly not the cure for a mother in throes of realigning her entire reality as a woman.
A new mother can find that prioritizing self-care in the early moments postpartum can feel both unrealistic and conflicting. Initially there does not exist a surplus of time or energy for self-care. In the postpartum period a woman is navigating a massive adjustment to her entire concept of herself while endlessly caring for and bonding with her baby. Having an infant is all consuming, and mostly the needs of the baby will come before a mother’s needs initially and indeterminately. Organizing time for the even most basic self-care ritual like shampooing her hair may seem like an intricate mission that requires a fully trained staff, and for a new mother prioritizing self-care easily becomes another impossible and failed task on the to-do list. Secondly, the weeks and months following birth are not a time of individuality. The fourth trimester and the postpartum period are crucially interpersonal. This is the “critical period” (Odent, http://www.primalhealthresearch.com) and is instinctually a time of imperative togetherness.
Even more critical than self-care being unrealistic and contrived, it is crucial to acknowledge that focusing on self-care too early adds to the longing that can naturally accompany new motherhood; already a new mother finds herself fanaticizing of personal time as she mourns a level of unbounded freedom and the unexpected loss of her “old self” and independence. Fixating on self-care perpetuates the longing; the woman’s attention is moved toward some future event or past state rather than attuned to the present moment. It pushes a woman out of reality and leads her into a daydream, a delusion. Looking outside of this remarkable experience makes a new mother believe that the life she once had or will have again later is in some way more desirable than her present assignment; and the present assignment of new motherhood is not to be evaded, as it happens to be filled with a tremendous richness and potential for personal growth.
All humans fall victim to a mirage that future external circumstances will bring fulfillment, happiness, or satisfaction. Across many traditions it has been wisely guided to tame the cravings of the external and move toward the inner realm not because it is morally correct, but because the inner is the foundation for the outer. The outer is always the mirror of the inner.
To encourage new mothers to look solely to surface self-care for lasting fuel is both perpetuating un-satisfactoriness and minimizing the full potential of the experience of the woman. The manipulative message of surface self-care is feeding women an insulting line — that consumerism, materialism, or some other “ism” outside of herself will fill her cup. Modern self-care is an immature message that diminishes the transformative experience of motherhood and does not begin to address the critical needs of a woman becoming a mother. An honest look at the demands on a new mother shows that this moment of service encourages a temporary taming of outer cravings and cultivation of the inner dwelling.
A new mother can look toward the postpartum experience rather than making effort to the escape the experience. Motherhood is a uniquely feminine and powerful moment that is rich, it is demanding, it is full of growth potential, but it is hard. Postpartum has a way of bringing a woman to her knees. It will expose the range of her gifts and weaknesses unapologetically revealing the hidden depths of her heart and the source of her triggers, her wounds, her capacity for connection, her opportunities for healing. In complete outer depletion, a mother comes to meet her truest version of herself where she unmasks her capacities as a woman: the creator, nurturer and healer of all things. In mining the authenticity of her being, what no longer serves is pulled away. This peeling away is not a process that is pure bliss followed by monetary abundance and egotistical manifestation as the current culture would love to have believed; this peeling away can feel excruciating. As the inner realm expands, the expansion will first bring out everything that needs to be healed, everything that is not pure. All that is unhealed will be revealed. There is no freedom in the perimeter of pain. A woman must move through the experience not around the experience.
In this process of exploration, a new mother needs a self care that focuses on self-awareness far more than superfluous self-care. Early postpartum self care should allow a woman to witness what arises rather than avoid and escape her new reality.. Everything that comes up must be examined not evaded; the full spectrum of postpartum is to be held in honesty and awareness in order for a woman to experience the full potential of transformation into motherhood. More crucial than a manicure is a mother becoming intently aware. She can watch the longing, the realignment of priorities and ambitions, the sense of loss that is mixed with a sense of everything. She can watch the wounds easily exposed in her raw, sleep deprived un-showered state. She can watch as all superficialities are stripped away, and what is left is the core of humanity: a tangible love and intimate connection that is unprecedented. She can delight as the half smile on the lips of her babe holds the ability to dissolve her. She can witness this moment of pure service and relation to another, a moment where she is being pushed out of her own way bringing her to surrender to all that is real, and holy, and pure in this life.
Self awareness is self care, but it is care of the Highest Self. Reframe self care to look more like embrace-ism rather than escapism while working carefully and consistently toward inner growth.
Awareness opens a space within, and a continued watchfulness grows this space within. As this space grows larger it becomes a presence, an experiential inner alignment. Contrary to the fleeting pleasures of small-self self-care, this presence is the seat of sustainable peace that is so desperately needed and pointed toward in motherhood. Inner alignment is the place where actions, decisions, and outcomes are not contrived but are attuned in perfection. A mother will always face challenges and cravings, but through watchfulness she becomes freed of the conflict of these circumstances. She operates from a place of watchful acceptance of what is, rather than a place driven by delusion, cravings, triggers, and unconscious reactions. Self-awareness is the foundation for a mother building her life on rock. An insatiable pursuit of self-care will lead a mother to continuously fall victim to circumstances, but caring for her inner alignment she will strengthen the power of the center, the unshakable, that is the highest necessity in mothering well.