All mothers need to look after themselves and it can be challenging at the best of times. But when you are both a mother and an unpaid carer, self-care becomes even more crucial. Whether you are raising a disabled child or you are supporting other disabled, chronically ill or elderly family members, caring for yourself becomes even more necessary. Ironic given that it’s probably the most difficult time to even consider your own needs, let alone put them first on occasion.
My 11-year-old son Arthur is autistic and has learning difficulties. He’s a joy of a boy but I am far more than a mother to him. I am a legal advocate, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a care co-ordinator, a psychologist and his access to the world. But I learned the importance of caring for my own needs long before he came along. I was also a young carer to my mother when I was a teenager. My mother died by suicide when I was 22 years old and in those years I spent supporting her through severe depression, we spoke a lot about the choices she had made. The reasons for my mother’s illness were complex but she had many regrets about not looking after herself sooner and she made me promise I wouldn’t do the same when I became a mother one day.
Identifying as a carer
Whether you are supporting a disabled child or another family member who needs ever growing help from you, it can be hard to identify as a carer. I’m a mum, I’m a daughter, I’m a partner, we might say, and this is just what I need to do. We worry over whether the word carer might somehow eclipse our other important roles, that it might take over or change our relationship. But not identifying as a carer can lead to crucial support being missing, the impact of which can be devastating in the long term for the carer’s health and wellbeing. In a survey conducted by Carers UK, it took the majority of carers over a year to realise they were a carer and 25% took more than 5 years. 91% reported they missed out on physical and financial support that would have greatly improved their wellbeing. There is help out there but carers need to be able to self-identify to be able to access it.
We all know the adage that you can’t pour from an empty cup but the fact is, many of us do, for years, with huge consequences to our own mental and physical health. When you are supporting someone who’s needs are acute and urgent, it is very easy to continually put your own needs off. But carers need to sleep, to eat nourishing food, to move their bodies, to earn an income, to have other relationships and to rest, just like anyone else.
The value that carers provide is approximately £132 billion per year in the UK and without our unpaid work the NHS and social care system would completely collapse. If you ever feel a pang of guilt for requesting a few more hours of paid support for your loved one each week, or a little more informal help from friends and family, it’s important to remember that our unpaid work holds huge value both to those we love and to this country. Investing in our own wellbeing is crucial to us all.
The need for individual self-care
As carers we can only listen to ourselves when it comes to understanding our own self-care needs in our unique circumstances. For me, the ultimate self-care act is to earn an income and pay into my pension. This is something that has been a constant fight as the parent to a disabled child who can’t access mainstream school or childcare. For others it might be the need to reduce paid work in order to create more space in their days for themselves alongside their caring responsibilities. Or it might be making sure they have the time to get outside every day, to socialise a number of times a week or to be able to get to their regular yoga class (or all of those things).
I’ve found it incredibly painful over the years to admit that I need time away from my son in order to restore my energy. A part of my brain has been influenced by the cultural conversation that tells us being a mother should be all that we need. But my own mother’s words about self-care are ever echoing in my ears. I have had to live more than half my life without her and that is all the reminder I need to advocate for myself.
It is not selfish to need rest, or friendship or moments of time free from the vigilance required to support someone with high needs. It is simply human. If you or someone you love cares for someone else, identifying that fact is a really important first step to getting the support you need to also care for yourself.
About the author
Penny Wincer, is a Melbourne born, London dwelling, author, speaker, podcaster and freelance photographer. She’s raising two kids on her own, one autistic and one not. Penny writes about work life, raising a neurodiverse family and learning to see the beauty in a life she didn't know she needed, whilst letting go of the one she assumed she would have. Penny is also a published author of a book related to caring, Tender:The imperfect art of caring