As you might imagine, I spend a fair amount of time researching and keeping up to date with ways in which we can support our mental health.   In doing so, I am struck by the sheer volume of articles readily available in magazines, newspapers and online that bang on about “self-care” being vital for our wellbeing.

Don’t get me wrong – I get it. I know that in our busy hectic whirlwind lives we need to take time to ensure that we don’t burn out – or that we put our own oxygen mask on first as countless articles seem to advise.

According to these articles, self-care seems to involve taking a lot of bubble baths and grabbing the occasional massage by way of a pick me up. Gyms tend to be involved. There’s often talk of a night out with the girls. In slightly more enlightened magazines it might mean a duvet day or mental health break. One or two will even talk about the importance of boundaries and ensuring that we get enough “me-time” – presumably so that we can take candle-lit baths and binge-watch “This is Us” on Netflix.

A mate of mine is in her 60s. She retired just over a year ago from an extremely demanding job as an NHS practice manager. At the time she was worried that she would get bored but was looking forward to lie-ins and a more leisurely pace of life.   Retirement hasn’t turned out like that. Rather a change of circumstances has found her both providing increased childcare for her grandson and looking after her elderly mother with little left for much else.   But she followed the magazine advice – she has been wise. She has set boundaries, is managing her me-time and getting her lie-ins. She rests far more now than she ever did within the NHS and she feels privileged to be in a position to help her family… but she is still exhausted.

As we chatted, it struck me that her entire life revolved around others.  Care-giving.  The lie-ins, pilates classes and Epsom salt baths may have been in place – but this “self-care” wasn’t enough.   She was drained and struggling to stay upbeat.

Self-care wasn’t helping her feel happy.

That’s because the self-care that’s described in these articles isn’t about happiness.

It’s about coping.

It’s a way of counter-acting the tiredness and withdrawing from the noise.   It’s a way of ensuring that you are less likely to scream at the old dear who pushes their trolley slowly around the supermarket on a Saturday, or the parent who leaves your kid out of the party invites.

Although the articles frame it as putting yourself first – actually this definition of self-care has nothing to do with YOU.

What was so absent from my friend’s life was passion.   I’m not talking about an overwhelming desire to feed the masses or even learn Argentinian Tango (although obviously either of those are fine with me…).   I’m talking about the energy of sheer joy. Of doing something just because we want to do it.

Just because it feels good.

I unexpectedly found myself in London with a free couple of hours last week (a whole other story for another blog) and decided on a whim to go to the massive Waterstones on Piccadilly.   Now my girls will tell you that I’m not allowed in bookshops for fear that I will never come out.  I fought with myself to allow myself to go – I really needed to get back – I had so much work to do… but I wanted to check out some new books for some research I’m doing on psycho-somatic illness and this was the perfect opportunity to browse rather than ordering over the internet.  I hadn’t eaten.  It was lunchtime, and I was starving, but ever mindful of time-saving, I decided to grab a few books of interest before sitting down at the café to sift through them and decide which ones to buy.  As I became engrossed in my book choices, my hunger completely vanished…

I was happy.  Content.  Fulfilled.

Turns out I wasn’t hungry in the way that I thought – it was my spirit that needed to be fed and it responded well to be being cared for rather than ignored it in the rush to deal with everyone else’s needs.  When I walked into the bookshop, I was hungry, irritable and frustrated.  I returned home a completely different person.

When I was pregnant with Kaia in Hong Kong, a lovely lady who was in my local drama group with me got drunk one night and kept hugging me and making me promise “not to lose myself” when the kids came along.  She had done so she wailed, and she was only now rediscovering herself.  With lots of effusive hugs and pleas, she made me swear not to let it happen to me… (drunks can be very persuasive).

But I can see now that I did lose myself  – and I still do.

I’m not alone.   We all do it.  Carving out time for ourselves to pursue things that make our souls sing, seems naïve and selfish when there are so many other demands to be met, so much juggling to be done.

Forgive me if I’m sounding political here – but the more I’ve thought about this, and as I’ve written this blog, the angrier I’ve become.   The self-care gurus who tell us to put ourselves first, actually just provide advice that makes life more manageable for everyone else.  If we all have breakdowns, then who on earth is going to pick up the pieces?  We are being taught to take care of ourselves, so that we can continue to nurture others.    And I get that that is important.  I don’t want to stop caring for and looking after my family.

But what about me?  And what about you?

When was the last time you felt alive?  When you had a full-on belly-laugh simply because you were in good company or allowed yourself to spend an afternoon doing something you utterly loved as a child… not because you needed a break, but because you wanted to??

Why are we all simply struggling to cope?  If we don’t take those moments to really enjoy those things that make life special for us – what are we juggling for?

And we cannot point to our kids as an excuse.  Yes, they require our love, attention and caregiving.  But if I teach my girls that when they get to motherhood they have to squash all their passions for the sake of the family – what sort of example am I setting?  If I show them that I’m not worthy of being happy – how can I expect them to behave differently?

And when we take time to follow our bliss – to do things that make our heart sing – even the small things like an hour to visit a bookshop, or dancing in the lounge whilst the kids are out… the rest of our life flows.   People who are enthused about life because they spend time doing things they enjoy, are attractive to be around – they feel lighter and more joyful (and we all want some of that)… and of course we are less likely to snap at a doddery trolley-pushing granny or a stroppy rolling eyed tween.   If I feel happy and fulfilled because I am paying attention to my own wants (not just needs), then everybody wins.

I took Kaia to her new Musical Theatre class this afternoon. She loves it.   She jumps in the car, jazz shoes in bag, script tucked under her arm, excited to begin rehearsals. She returns with a real spring in her step.

I’d like to become more involved in my drama group again or take up a latin dance class – but the reality is that I don’t have the time to commit to a play and there’s no local class that suits.  Motherhood comes with limitations.  We can’t do it all.. I know that..

But I can begin the process of remembering the things I used to love – and carving out even small slots of time for them.

Because at the end of the day, I think I’d like a spring in my step again.  And I think my girls would like that for me too.

That sounds like real self-care.

What about you?