The end is in sight of another two-week French school holiday.
A week ago I was congratulating myself on being a ‘good mum’: as well as daily tennis coaching, the boys had an English lesson with me scheduled every morning. There were movies and Netflix, but also lunches with friends, craft projects, and card games that I even joined in with.
Still, by the end of last week I was feeling optimistic that I might actually maintain my two-weeks-in streak of regular blog posting. Somehow, between arbitrating Lego piece wars and ironing Hama bead creations, I was making progress. I didn’t quite hit my Thursday deadline, but was ready to finish something fun yet provocative. (Watch this space!)
Then at 5am on Friday I was woken up by a pain in my leg that soaked up all capacity for concentration. The diagnosis was sciatica.
(I suspect that some of you reading this may have winced there. If you’ve experienced it, there’s no forgetting it. Everything is relative mind you. At my follow-up appointment yesterday, the doctor asked me how today’s pain was between 1 and 10, if 10 was childbirth. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ve never experienced childbirth, thanks to two caesarian sections but for me, Friday was a clear 10. Le fin du monde.’)
With drugs and rest and lovely physio I’m happy to report my world is no longer ending. I’m walking upright and moving just about freely. Although I won’t be dancing the tango any time soon. (That’s another story.)
However, it’s been a draining few days on a roller-coaster of emotions. Self-pity of course. Frustration that I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do, and at having to relinquish control of my environment to others. Anxiety that various plans and deadlines over the coming weeks might have to be changed or cancelled. Shutting down so that the pain, or at least concentrating on arranging my limbs to avoid pain, didn’t have to compete for attention with anything else. Then again, I relished the time alone when MT took the boys out for lunch and playing or swimming each day. I’d considered bringing my laptop through to my spot on the sofa, but had a word with myself and left it on my desk, knowing that true rest sometimes means powering down mentally as well. I let myself off the hook for words or the to-do list, so I could Netflix and stitch with impunity.
But there was something else going on in the background, a niggle that wouldn’t let me just give in to the self-pity and be unwell. Something stopping me from saying to myself ‘it is what it is’ and riding it out as best I could. It felt like a gremlin, more hunched over than I was myself, ugly and scolding. I forced myself to look at it, to try and see it for what it was. In a moment of clarity, the gremlin came out of hiding.
It was guilt.
I felt guilty for being injured and in pain.
I’m used to the battle with guilt – I’m a woman and a parent after all. But why was I admonishing myself for an injury? This wasn’t a gremlin, it was a troll. I was trolling myself in my own suffering.
It wasn’t because I had to cancel plans with friends, or deprive the kids of a day out, or because the housekeeper would be presented with a more-chaotic-than-usual Monday morning apartment. There was fleeting guilt and regret for these things, but I know fine that ill is ill, friends were understanding and sympathetic (as I would if it were them) and that my job was to get better.
Eventually, I dug deep and found the root cause.
I felt guilty because it happened, because I was someone who had woken up with a debilitating pain, and I shouldn’t have. I should have been better at being a person; I shouldn’t be a person whose body lets them down.
It was as irrational and meaningless – and real – as that. But it was so far in the background, this insidious inner whisper, that without a lot of rooting around, it would have continued to get me down without me even knowing it.
What if I talked to my best friend like that? What if I even talked to a casual acquaintance like that?
Don’t be ill or injured. You just shouldn’t be. Be a better person FFS.
As the internal chat continued, I kept hearing the words, ‘Look after yourself.’
I’d been hearing this message a lot. Sometimes it came in those words exactly, from my mum, or from the facialist at the spa who probably just wanted me to come for expensive sessions more often. But it was also in every post about self-care, every article about skincare post-40, every time I looked in the mirror. The message came so often it became something else to feel guilty about.
Guilt when I turned up at the school gate without at least a little makeup (because it makes me feel good to be in makeup, not because I care what others think. Mostly.) Guilt when I skipped a yoga class because it was the only clear morning I had that week to tackle a deadline, or the only chance to satisfy my introvert need to not be with people for a while. (Wait…that’s self-care too, right? Which is better? Cue guilt at not knowing how to look after myself better.)
Guilt because I stopped going to Zumba after a minor but niggling knee injury. Guilt that I got a knee injury because of not doing enough yoga and Zumba. Guilt when my skin was in bad shape because I know that a visit to the spa could prevent it. Guilt when I looked down and saw chewed fingers instead of manicured nails.
My internal cri de coeur is always, ‘There isn’t time!’ Surely the commitments to other people come first? The oh-so-time-consuming parenting (lunchtime pickups, half days, so many holidays…), the group projects with their responsibilities and rewarding outcomes, the deadlines imposed by my course. Then there are the work goals I’ve set for myself: I’ll let myself down if I don’t make time for them. I’ll fit the looking-after-myself around all that.
So I’d come to a point of righteous resentment over the self-care guilt, dismissing it out of hand. Hey world, don’t give me more guilt to add to the mum-guilt, wife-guilt, expat-guilt, social-guilt.
Yet, in my painkiller-enhanced moments of clarity, I realised that this was, in fact, the guilt that mattered. Not because I brought my pain on myself. (It could have been from picking up the kids too much, or carrying a heavy table, or stress, or a bad desk position, or lack of exercise, or a completely freak accident regardless of what I had or hadn’t done.)
But because if I’d been looking after myself, it might not have happened. And that is enough of a wake-up call for me. In those moments where the only thing that mattered was not being in pain any more, and these moments now where I am so looking forward to being able to move freely again all the other guilt floats away. There’s another parent, friends to pick up the slack, deadlines that can be shifted.
Perhaps this is the one guilt that matters, my gremlin guilt.
Because no one else can look after me the way I can.