As I have written in many posts recently, I am trying very hard to improve my self-care practices. With a busy schedule (25 patients due for clinic today, plus afternoon pregnancy test walk-ins) and still navigating the work-life-balance, little time is left for self-care. However, as detailed in the post below, there are many easy ways to integrate self-care into our already established routines.
Elizabeth and I met in a Women’s Studies class in undergrad. This class was the first time I learned about midwives, and it started my path into feminist reproductive healthcare. Clearly it had an impact on both of our lives, because Elizabeth is doing awesome birth and women’s care work also! In putting together this post, I have already integrated some of her great suggestions into my daily work and life. Here’s to all of us finding ways to take care of ourselves, to support our work in caring for others! She can be found at www.beautifuldaysdoula.com, and on Facebook at facebook.com/BeautifulDaysDoulaServices and facebook.com/ElizabethGillette.
Elizabeth is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and DONA-certified birth and postpartum doula. She works in community mental health with young children and their families to promote positive family interactions and wellness in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She is a member and mentor of Start From Seed, a non-profit doula agency that provides comprehensive birth and postpartum support to high-risk, low-income mothers in Western North Carolina. Elizabeth is a self-care advocate and believes in the power of hot tea, long walks, inspiring conversations, and a strong support network. In her free time, she can be found playing with her chickens in her backyard, cooking and baking, and reading books from the library. Elizabeth loves to talk about self-care, doula and social work, and anything related to social justice, so please contact her with any questions or ideas you have about supporting self-care practices.
Developing a Self-Care Practice
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”—Audre Lorde
Because self-care is often a neglected practice in our society (and typically not encouraged in our schools and workplaces), it takes time and energy to develop a routine that meets your needs. Trust me, this time is worth it! A self-care practice is especially important for those in helping roles. You will feel more grounded and able to cope with daily stressors, as well as more intense life challenges and changes. Having a strong self-care practice also helps us to become more sensitive to the needs of others and present in the moments we spend with them and can therefore improve our practice and the experience of the clients with whom we work. The strategies below are not meant to add stress to your life—these activities and ways of living can replace current strategies and patterns to improve your life rather than increase stress. One of the easiest ways to begin developing a self-care practice is to integrate actions into what you are already doing, or think about changing some behaviors to promote well-being.
Self-care can include these practices (as well as others that feel right for you):
—Eating well and giving our bodies energy. Stepping away from foods that just fill us up or make us feel numb. Connecting with where our food comes from. Tuning-in to figure out how our food makes us feel. Do you feel tired after you eat certain things? Energized after eating others? Heavy, light, foggy, clear? This step is easy to neglect during a busy birth or long shift, but will help you maintain mental clarity and energy to stay focused and present for your clients as well as feel good yourself.
Suggestion: Plan your food and drink intake, especially if you are planning to attend a birth. Packing easy, healthy snacks like nut butter and a banana, or carrot sticks and hummus, will help give you energy and nourishment to continue to support families through labor and birth.
Stephanie: Whew, this one is so important! Especially after Halloween when a couple mini Milky Way Darks made me feel great, but then many made me feel terrible. I always pack breakfasts and lunches, but often do not have the time to eat of them. Elizabeth is right – snacks are key. Trail mix next to my computer so I can grab a handful while charting, dry Cracklin’ Oat Bran in my call bag… just that little something when you might need it most, and that will make you feel great!
—Resting. Intentionally going to sleep to get enough rest, taking a break from electronics/media prior to going to sleep, creating an environment conducive to sleep (is it too loud in your room? is it too bright?). This can be difficult for birth workers as we often find ourselves on call and ready to attend births at all hours of the day and night. However, a sleep routine while we are not on call is very important and will help us feel more energized when we do have to dig deep for energy. After a long birth, it is important to get back on schedule as quickly as possible.
Suggestion: Rest if you can. During longer labors, sit if you can—sometimes we stand simply because we feel we need to be doing something. Rest when your client is resting, and take mini-breaks if your client has a family member or partner present with her.
Stephanie: Sitting during labors. Gotta do that more. Oh, and sleep. Yep. The adrenaline that we birth workers survive on at the beginning of our careers will not last forever – must think about the long haul. I always pack foam ear plugs in my bag when traveling or for births – they are enough to create silence and allow sleep to happen but a beeping pager is still loud enough to make it through.
—Developing a routine. This can mean waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, preparing your lunch the evening before, and going for a walk right after work. Creating a routine can help us incorporate good habits into our daily lives—like flossing! Eventually our routines become something we just do and we feel comfortable with them. This can go the other way as well when we have routines that are not so healthy, so it is important to be mindful when developing routines and check in to patterns we already have.
Suggestion: Take a look at your schedule and begin to pencil in activities like exercising, packing your lunch, and spending time with friends. When we have these activities on our calendars, it is easier to follow through with them.
Stephanie: As a self-care activity, I tried to move away from my incredibly Type-A personality and stopped being a strict calendar person, but have found that I have left off activities, like yoga (see below), and scheduling time to do nothing at all. Perhaps I need to embrace the calendar component and work more on using it to my self-care advantage!
—Moving our bodies, exercising, walking, and being active. What makes your body feel good? Sometimes we feel pressure to do things we think are good for our bodies or we see other people doing (running, crossfit—or maybe these are just mine ;)). But the most important part of taking care of our bodies is making sure the activity actually makes us feel good. Do you feel relaxed and flexible after yoga? Do you feel a natural high after you run? Do what works for you rather than what works for other people.
Suggestion: Try to do whatever it is you enjoy doing for 15 minutes each day. 15 minutes is not a long time but it will give your mind a mental break, and you may also end up doing the activity for a longer period of time if you are feeling good. If not, that’s okay—you got your body moving and stepped away from work, which is awesome !
Stephanie: After finishing my training for a 15k race, I am looking not only to find a regular running routine but also re-integrate yoga. Thanks to yoga apps I know I can make the 15min happen, just have to find the time and energy to do it!
—Being outside when we can. This includes getting sun (not too much), breathing fresh air, and being connected to nature/what is happening around us. Do you realize the season? Are you noticing when things start changing?
Suggestion: Sit outside while you are talking on the phone (as long as the space is private and you will not be disclosing personal information), eat meals outside if possible, and take a moment to notice the sky and the trees.
Stephanie: These are great ideas! In clinics and urban hospitals, windows either don’t exist or have curtains/blinds drawn. My sunlight is at a minimum during these days, and I should force myself outdoors for a few minutes just to get some fresh air and sunlight. With winter coming, outside time could be at a premium – maximize it when possible!
—Asking for help when we need it (even when it’s hard). This piece includes looking at our support system and taking time to learn who we trust and can depend on, as well as who is available to process the births we attend or the experiences we have prenatally or postpartum.
Suggestion: Develop trusting relationships with other birth workers and take the time to process how you are doing after attending a birth or working with a family postpartum. If this is not possible, spend 5 or 10 minutes writing your thoughts down to help release some of the feelings that can build up and allowing space to feel those feelings in a private setting away from clients and families.
Stephanie: Wow, I’m so glad this one is on the list, because it would not have even occurred to me when thinking about my self-care practices. Pulling someone to the side to discuss a great or a difficult birth, journaling, or just even making sure to complete a birth log on time can really help to process the day. Great suggestions here.
—Letting go of anger/sadness, fear, hatred, etc. Looking at the patterns in our lives and figuring out what role we play in them and how to do it differently (this may require help from a professional and that is okay). Sometimes we tell ourselves stories about what is happening in our lives (what is happening to us rather than what we are doing) and they are not really true: convincing ourselves that things are fine, or better than they are, or that we are handling them better than is actually true. We can change the story because it belongs to us. It can be difficult to recognize the stories we tell ourselves but this recognition can make a huge difference in our daily lives.
Suggestion: Take a moment when you are calm to examine a pattern that keeps coming up in your life. Are you always tired? Do you have the same argument over and over with a partner or friend? Do you find yourself feeling stuck in your career or a job you don’t love? Being mindful of your true feelings about the topic, jot down some ideas of how you would like things to be different. Then brainstorm how you could make this happen. Then do it!
Stephanie: Whew. This is where I feel that unspoken component of self-care is intense and deep, and can take longer than a few moments. I will absolutely admit that I am still working on this one, and many friends have been supportive as I figure out the best way to do this for me. Addressing our ways of handling the hardest stuff is likely at the core of self-care, and while the smaller items like good food and being outside contribute to the larger picture, our base emotional handling of this life most probably is the foundation.
—Breathing. Being aware of breathing and intentionally doing it. Breathing with intention helps provide our brains with more oxygen and gives us a deeper sense of calm when things feel stressful. Breathing and moving mindfully in a birthing room can also promote a sense of well-being for our clients and their families.
Suggestion: Take a deep breath and become centered prior to entering a room. This takes about 5 seconds but can make all the difference in an interaction.
Stephanie. Yes! Breathing. YES. Breathing in personal spaces really helps time to stop and allows moments for re-setting. Mindful breathing in a birth room creates the persona of calm as well as demonstrates good breathing for the woman and her family are fabulous ways to keep the vibe going when the going gets tough.
—Developing a support group, people we can count on, and people we can talk to. Becoming aware of people in our lives who cause us to feel sad or put down, and figuring out a way to manage this. Setting appropriate boundaries with those people because we deserve to feel good about ourselves and the work we do.
Suggestion: Discover who makes you feel inspired, open, and happy after you spend time with them—the people who encourage you and support you no matter what. Make a plan to spend more time with them.
Stephanie: Great, great, great self-care practice and suggestions. I also ask the women I serve about their support systems, and do not always think of my own – we need others to help care for us just as much as we care for others.
—Laughing regularly. What makes you laugh? How can you laugh more?
Suggestion: Text a friend who makes you smile. Make someone else laugh and laugh along with them. Allow yourself to be playful in your work, and you’ll be surprised at the people who join along in your fun.
Stephanie: Some of my favorite interactions at work have been when I have had a tough day and try to mix things up with having fun with coworkers or the women I serve, and fully receiving their fun back. It is a surprise and a joy when I most need it.
—Developing gratitude for the life you have, even when it’s not exactly how you want it. Can you recognize small moments in your life that make your heart happy? Sometimes the most beautiful things are the tiniest regular parts of our lives that happen every day.
Suggestion: Can you come up with 3 things that made you feel happy, relaxed, calm, or loved? Taking time to think of those things can instantly change your perspective.
Stephanie: This is such a great suggestion, to bring reminders to our every day of the beauty of everything along our way in our path forward. Yes.
Self-care is truly investing in our lives, our bodies, our minds, and our souls on a daily basis. It is at the heart of what we do for others, and likewise should be the foundation for what we do for ourselves.
Many thanks to Elizabeth for this incredible list of ideas to begin and sustain a self-care practice. What activities have you started for your self-care that have made a difference in your daily life? What do you think about the above list – anything to add?