The cool water runs over my naked body as sweet as a kiss. The river chatters like an old friend. The morning light washes the air clean, leaving no trace of yesterday. I sink down and inhale the silty summery smell of the water. I have a few minutes alone. Two. Four. Maybe eight. I don’t know when I will be needed again, when my name will be called. But I take the time to move slow. To look at the bush stretching up the hillside above. I drink in the play of sunlight over the acacia trees, see how it seeps into the terra-cotta of protruding cliffs. I find a spot by the reeds, in a quiet eddy, with a rock that curves round my hips. I reach for the soap tucked among the plants, dip it into the flow, then bring it close to my face and breathe in its scent of ylang-ylang, cardamom, and cloves. I slip it down my neck, around my breasts, under and over my arms. Now its exotic perfume whispers off my own skin. I am of the river, of the land beneath its waters, of ancient stories and time eternal. I am here, now.
‘Mama!’ Four minutes.
I rinse off quickly and stand up to see my four-year-old daughter picking her way through the thorn trees.
‘Here I am!’ I call. I wave to her dad watching from the top of the path with our six-week-old baby in his arms. When Emma reaches me she stops, momentarily surprised by my nakedness knee-deep in the river.
‘Do you want to come in too?’
‘Yes please.’ She lifts her arms for me to pull off her shirt, then pushes down her shorts and panties. I help her in, and she leads the way across the rocks scattered in the river’s breadth. She is an explorer, an adventurer, and I try to keep up. I show her how to splash water on the burning stones; she shows me what it is to be fearless and in love with the world. I was blessed by my moment alone with the river, and I am blessed by my journey across it with her…
Self-care is a recent buzzword. As with any trend, there are those seeking ways to make money out of it, attempting to sell their own version of the concept alongside the maximum number of products. Mothers serve as a great target market. They are usually under pressure to perform well, with little to no training, while acting under multiple other (usually unrealistic) expectations, without much support. It’s a vulnerability waiting to be tapped. Really effective consumer marketing leaves the customer marginally satisfied, but still wanting more. And so self-care gets packaged as “me-time”. It asks us to step away from our children and take joy in their absence. It effectively casts them as an inconvenience to be minimized, rather than the joy of our lives.
Of course, some activities really do require the use of all four limbs, or quiet to think. But it seems more helpful to phrase our self-care in terms of our actual needs, rather than a vague dis-ease that quickly morphs into an urge to escape. Because even if the spa package or girls night out does indeed refresh or rejuvenate, when we return, the day-long night-long demands of caring for young children remain. The only sustainable self-care for mothers is to move towards our children, to find healing in mothering itself. Our ability to nurture, to be kind, patient and generous, will never amount to what it could be if we don’t practice on ourselves.
Motherhood can be its own form of meditation, and an illuminating path of growth, but it is not easy to brand it as such. Our prayer beads are covered in drool, our yoga mats are stashed beneath kites and beach balls, and our clothes are embellished with spit-up, paint spills, and chocolate smears. Our days are measured in minutes rather than hours. Leaving the house requires military-grade strategy. Plans are much more likely to evolve than conform. But if we can loosen the vice of our expectations, we can start to discover a beauty that does not have to be bought. With practice, and faith in ourselves, it is possible to find rest in the slow pace of a baby sleeping. We can draw energy from the unfettered joy of a toddler laughing. We can experience depth in a four-year-old’s curiosity to explore everything. We can learn to find the sacred in making a cup of tea, or a sandwich. We can learn to see the sunlight moving across the floor where we sit in on imaginary games. We can learn to accept that our most difficult moments, and our best days, will not be acknowledged or praised by anyone other than ourselves. Our children might remember them, one day when they are grown. In fact, the most accurate measure of our performance as parents is in the childhoods we create for them. We can choose lightness and love. We can be sweet to our kids. It is easy to ignore how deep and spiritual and difficult a task this can be. It takes humility. It takes commitment. It takes ongoing practice. It takes an embracing of the truth that most of the rewards for our life’s work will be internal and invisible. For those of us used to gold stars and pay rises, this can take time to absorb.
Two of the most useful tools I have found effective for self-care are both practices of awareness: gratitude and focus. They effect change in my life in small steps by small moments. Tiny changes, like focused awareness on a single full breath as often as I can throughout the day, can soften my heart and build my mama strength. I cannot control most of what happens in and around me. I cannot, for example, control my children’s behavior, or the emotions that they experience as they go about their lives. There are a whole lot of external factors I cannot control. I cannot control the weather, or the wifi, or the flies (oh my god the flies), or the fact that sometimes there just is not enough time left in the day to do laundry or sweep the floor. But I can choose where to direct my thoughts and awareness. I can notice the way the light falls on my baby’s skin as he feeds. I can look deep into my daughter’s eyes as she tells me about her latest discovery on Youtube. I can calmly and quietly pour out my coffee, and find a few moments to sit and drink it. I can keep my phone at hand, to capture images of my kids doing ordinary amazing things. I can focus on the way my fingers feel as they move against each other. I can feel my spine lengthen as I walk my baby to sleep round and round the room. I can look at the trees and see the exact color and shape of their leaves. I can look for reflections in puddles, secret portraits left by the rain. When I do get a chance to pick up a broom, or hang out the laundry, I can let my soul soothe to the sweeping movements, or think about the precious bodies that this sweet-smelling sheet enveloped, or the adventure that stained this shirt with mud. Instead of noticing that I’m actually rather dirty most of the time, I can cherish every minute that I get to spend lying in the bath as the luxury it is, filling the tub with hot water and bath salts, and lighting a candle. Or I can enjoy the fun of lukewarm bubbles and soap crayons when I am joined by two little companions.
…Emma and I reach the other side of the river, and clamber up onto an enormous rock. Its sun-soaked skin is smooth and friendly under our palms. My heart smiles as I look across the milky-tea water, my little guru under my arm. On the other side my husband is waiting, my son over his shoulder. Even though all I can hear is the rush of the current, I know I am needed. We make our way back, tripping and splashing over the shallow rocky space. Emma cries a little as I leave her. I kiss her hair, thank her for our adventure, and promise her her dad will take my place. I quickly dry my chest with my shirt and take my son in my arms. Once he is latched I tug on a few more clothes and climb back towards the camp. We nestle into a folding chair just beyond the boma. Around us, the cicadas sing in the trees. Peter and I are together, and we are right there, wrapped up in the swirl of life.
This post was written in exchange for a full-body massage by Colleen of the Midlands House of Healing. Once a month, our family travels to the Karkloof for therapy sessions for both my husband and me. We take turns to sit in Colleen’s living room with our daughter. Colleen puts on a movie, lays out snacks, and offers blankets and bubbles. She makes possible and fun what many would make difficult. She welcomes us as we are, a family with a young child. And now with young children. Last month we celebrated six-weeks postpartum with a visit to Colleen. I was eager to receive my first proper full-body massage in close to a year. My body was mine once more, transforming still but on the road to healing. We spent the night before with my mom, as Emma had been invited to celebrate her cousin’s birthday at a nearby restaurant, and my mom had offered to take her. But when the moment came to climb in the two cars and separate, Emma burst into tears. She didn’t want to leave me, but she also didn’t want to miss the fun with her cousin. She stood on the driveway clutching his present in one hand, and the edge of my pants in another, wailing. In the last month and a half, her world had changed. Her home, her family, her mother. I couldn’t rush her now, or shush her fears. It was important that she know that she was important. I sat next to her and held her hand in the back of my mother’s car, while my husband followed with our son. We talked and talked over ways to work the morning. She napped a little. I messaged Colleen to let her know what was happening and that we would be late. We drove all together to the restaurant. My husband waited in the carpark while I walked my daughter and mother to the playground. I explained to my daughter that I had an appointment, that someone was waiting for me. She wanted to see her cousin. After a few minutes, she kissed me goodbye. We made it to Colleen’s only a little late. She greeted us with a hug, and a warm welcome. She made me feel glad to be there. She didn’t make me feel bad to be mama. She made me feel normal, and good, that I travelled with a crowd, that plans aren’t always to be counted on. She made it possible to seek healing without denying motherhood. And what bliss that healing was.
To book a session with Colleen, contact her on 084 603 0604.
Hello and welcome:) I am a South African artist and mama who believes in mindfulness and living on purpose. I love traveling, reading, yoga, leading our family business, and eating delicious food in beautiful places. And tea. I love tea. Pour yourself a cup and settle in for a read.