Tend to your body, mama
Miriam McCaleb asks us to take a moment to (re)consider our bodies
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention. In a world where our attention is as valuable as clean water and restorative sleep, I’m super grateful that you will share yours with me, here in this article.
Our attention is a precious and finite resource, with whole industries dedicated to mining it. If our daily habit is to let our attention drift wherever it’s called, we’re likely to let it meander toward our toddler’s irritating (but harmless) noises. You know, the ones that will end sooner if you ignore them? If we let our attention saunter too much without purpose, we wind up gifting it to the lures of advertising, and we’ve probably all experienced how scrolling through social media or fluffing around on online shopping sites can suck up much more of our attention than we intended. Think of your attention as a beautiful, precious and impressionable adolescent, full of greatness and potential – but also open to manipulation if someone isn’t keeping an eye out for those with ulterior motives!
KEEP IT SIMPLE
As we go through the routines and rituals of our daily lives, where is our attention? Research tells us that only two percent of people can multi-task without attentional deficit. This is to say, only two percent of people can effectively hold more than one thing in the forefront of their minds with equal energy, meaning that the rest of us (the 98 percent!) are better off slowing down and paying attention to doing one thing at a time. In other words, we can do a half-competent job of many things at once, or we can consciously focus on one thing, and do a good job of that.
As I’ve written before in this very publication, multi-tasking is actually a myth. It’s more honest to call it ‘switch-tasking’, because of the way our brains respond to holding competing stimuli. Today we turn this concept to an extremely important, intensely personal aspect of parenting, and of life in general. Now, my friends, will you please pay attention to your body.
Go on! Give it a loving shoulder roll or a gentle neck circle. Notice your spine, your feet, your lips. Just give your body its own moment. Right here, right now.
OKAY, LET'S CONTINUE.
For all the mamas reading this, bearing children has probably already made superhuman demands on your body. Perhaps you conceived without drama (best case scenario: using your body for pleasure in the process!) or perhaps your road to parenthood was a more modern version, involving prescriptions, appointments, injections and examinations, in which case it can be a relief to divert attention away from your body (especially where the speculum is concerned!) Pregnancy invites us to experience our bodies in new and amazing ways. Our attention can be heightened, with developments we may not have predicted. We start to notice a range of new sensations, from in-utero hiccups and rebellious nipples right through to the extraordinary sensitivity of a newly inside-out belly button – now that demands some serious attention!
Next comes childbirth. There are many paths up that particular mountain, some a steeper climb than others. For some women, the process of bringing Baby into the world requires a different type of attention than for others, but I’d wager that, no matter your birth story, all mothers are acutely aware of their bodies while birthing. Friends, whether Baby arrived through your birth canal or via Caesarean section, all mothers’ bodies are deserving of care and attention in the weeks and months that follow Baby’s arrival.
In the newborn phase, a mother’s body continues vying for her attention even as her little baby does the same. But as the postnatal bleeding slows, the perineum and/or belly scar heal, and the boobs calm down, women can fall into the ‘super-busy trap’, letting their awareness of their bodies slide into the background as a million other things (especially that one particularly cute but über-demanding little person) are competing for that precious, finite attention.
It’s frightening how quickly that can happen. One of my mama pals put it this way: “You obey the rules for a while, but five weeks after birth, as the help dries up, you find yourself doing things not allowed. But you have to get the job done! No reaching allowed - how then to unpack the dishwasher or hang laundry?”.
CHECKING IN WITH YOUR BODY
“Tend to your body.” Well, blow me down. My socks were knocked off. You see, I like to think I do a fair job of body maintenance – I plan on being here for at least another 40 years of sunsets, so I need these bones, joints and fascia to go the distance. I exercise, I eat pretty well and drink heaps of water.
But as the body-tending osteopath highlighted, if we’re just hurling ourselves around all day, we will get hurt. A laundry basket is not a rugby ball and I am not a halfback! It will take a mere second longer if I plant my feet firmly, breathe my belly button in, and place the laundry basket down with care. Suddenly, I became aware of all the micro-decisions I make in a day, where my lack of consciousness causes injury or discomfort in my body, because I’m chucking her around from pillar to post. I’m a shocker for carrying too many things at once, meanwhile using just a pinky finger to close a door, and damaging my hands. I do dumb things like tell myself it’ll take too long to find my work gloves, then fill my hands with splinters as I stack firewood. We all squint at our cell phones, developing ‘tech neck’ because we’re so skilled at blocking out the actual needs of our bodies.
When you pay attention to your body (even if just for a moment!), your brain state has to shift from burbling away in the cortex, and to instead notice what’s happening in the older mammalian and reptilian regions of our neuroanatomy. This quick visit to our body’s brain makes us better able to regulate, which winds up helping us to think straight. Go figure.
Another way to think about this: body awareness is the practical manifestation of mindfulness. If you’re able to give yourself the gift of little micro-pauses now and then (just take two seconds!), the whole family will benefit. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and see what your body tells you.
BACK TO BASICS
Something else I noticed after the “tend to your body” conversation: when I took a moment to consciously note what my body was up to, I noticed how often I was mildly busting. Turns out, I can go hours needing to pee. Now, it’s a fact that our wise cortexes cannot fully engage if there is partial attention being spent on silencing the alarm system of a lower brain function (try making a good decision when you’re hungry!), so if you can readily take care of that alarm, please do it. Which is a long way of saying: we’re lucky enough to have indoor plumbing. Let’s use it!
When I reached out to a bunch of my pals who are mothers, to get their take on this subject, it was humbling how many of their answers involved the realities of breastfeeding. Just to be clear: I am a massive fan of, and huge advocate for breastfeeding, and these conversations reminded me to remember both sides of the equation. Yes, magical milk. Yes, exceptional bonding. But also yes, what hard work it can be.
One gal described her “neck craning to work around Baby for boob feeding – and not a single chiropractic session in there”. In the early days of feeding, we almost teach ourselves to not tend to our bodies. “The pain when she latched on was toe-curling. Literally! I used to sit there with my toes in fists, trying to keep my face from fully contorting, in case I freaked her out! I mean, it didn’t last too long, and breastfeeding was totally worth it, but she and I really had to work through that”. Another mother described her life as being a state of chronic dehydration. “When you are first breastfeeding, everyone is like ‘sit down, would you like a glass of water?’ or ‘Have some bikkies’. Then, from about eight months on, no one offers anything. Then after 18 months, I even forget to drink water myself. Nobody cares that I’m breastfeeding nowadays. Not even me!”
Ouch. If you’ve (sob!) left nursing behind, how can you lend a hand to a milky mama? Snacks are good, a wipe down of the kitchen bench probably won’t hurt, and a glass of water is always a super idea. Just do your darndest to witness your own body as you find the glasses, notice your hand as you turn the tap, move with care as you deliver the water. In this way, everybody (every body!) wins.
Miriam McCaleb is a mother, researcher and writer who gets really sore shoulders after days at the computer. Prescription: YouTube’s Yoga with Adriene! Miriam lives in rural North Canterbury with her Tennessean husband and mildly wild girls, and dedicates this article to all you beautiful mums and your amazing bodies. Visit her at baby.geek.nz.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 44 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW