There is a globally familiar sentiment that defines what it means to mother – the verb, not the noun.
Mostly, it’s to nurture, to look out for, to listen to, and to invoke feelings of calm. When our primal human need to feel valued and loved is being met, mothering is happening.
As it turns out, we can mother our own selves.
But as I can attest to from personal experience, any being who is actively engaged in nurturing and loving on another being in a non-sexual way is mothering someone. My grandfather and my uncles, for example, were integral parts of my mothering community.
While I’ll be using the phrase “self-mothering” throughout, if it doesn’t resonate with you, I’d encourage you to find language that works for you – language like self-nurturing or self-parenting.
I remember being in my late teens and never being able to fathom giving up on my dream of becoming a successful attorney.
As I approached my twenties though, and started recognizing how many variables there are to accomplishing anything worthwhile, it dawned on me that I could possibly fail. That I could end up working for far less money than I needed, doing things I didn’t like at all.
That was probably the first time, as an adult, that I consciously decided to mother myself.
For me, mothering myself meant I would (as Audre Lorde recommended) “affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival…”
That commitment, by the time I reached my twenties, meant I had to face the truth about my dream – that I didn’t want to spend my life practicing law. It was a goal based on a sense of obligation and fear, and had nothing to do with my talents, interests, and personal sense of fulfillment.
Once I knew that to be my truth, and not just a passing emotion, I rooted myself in a commitment to pursue professional writing, so that I could be both successful and happy with how I spent my days.
I didn’t know any full-time writers, and I didn’t know how to walk away from a career as a paralegal, then as a commercial real estate property manager, to be broke while figuring out how to write for a living.
I was responsible for myself, and for two children, so how would this work?
I weighed my options, had some conversations, and nurtured myself through some tough choices. I realized I had to see myself as a being who had been entrusted to me to care for, and to protect, and to help foster her growth.
Through nurturing, nudging, and and cautious but steady steps forward, I was mothering myself.
The Ways We Might Mother
Sometimes we learn to mother ourselves because our own mothers are not available.
I know people whose mothers were journeying through personal battles with toxic relationships, drug abuse, mental illness, choices steeped in brokenness. Sometimes, women have children and are not in positions to offer the nurturing children need.
One woman’s mother was one of many Caribbean women who migrated to America to make a way for herself and her children. While her mother was away, this girl and her brother were mothered by grandparents and uncles, aunts and neighbors; their village raised them.
Later, when her mother filed for them and they got visas, she learned that her mother – a single woman raising children and navigating life in a new country – did not parent in the ways she and brother had grown used to.
Instead, she was away from home for long hours, and she was in a series of unhealthy romantic relationships. She and her brother felt loved, but when it came to sorting through relationships or having someone to talk to when she experienced fear, anger, frustration, and the myriad of other emotions that can break a teenager – she felt alone. So did her mother.
That was the first time in her life, at age 11, that she recognized the need to understand mothering. She wanted to offer it to her brother, and maybe even to herself.
- When he leaves a toxic relationship, not because he is brave, but because he is sure of his right to survive and even grow — he is mothering himself.
- When you take a break from social media because the hashtags and horrible experiences are wearing your ass out — you are mothering yourself.
- When you move to New York against the opinions of virtually everyone whose opinion matters to you, but you know you owe it to yourself to feel it out, and see what can happen — you are mothering yourself.
We can be mothered by a good strong hammock, when we let it sway our minds quiet. Equally effective, we can be mothered by a good Netflix series and a big ass bowl of Udon with veggie stir fry.
To be clear, mothering is not only from woman to child. Anyone can mother. We can be mothered by people, by conversations, by good stories or tasty foods – and yes, we can learn to mother ourselves.
We will all experience shitty feelings and unsettling realities. But we are not always at the mercy of our environment, no matter how rigid or rough our current situation. There are things we can do to protect ourselves and to foster our own growth and our own joy.
Mothering shows up differently based on environment and individual. Some examples include:
- Listening inward to our feelings and valuing our own opinions
- Being willing to say what we need and resist conformity
- Being willing to walk away when we don’t feel valued
- Taking personal leadership to heart and protecting our emotional space
- Taking care of our bodies in ways that align with our beliefs and needs
There are many ways we can apply self-mothering to our daily choices, and get the benefits of feeling valued, confident, and loved.
Let’s explore some ways to implement mothering ourselves, particularly in those moments when the people we love cannot offer us the mothering we need.
3 Ways to Practice Self-Mothering
1. Make time to listen to yourself.
It’s not that it isn’t fulfilling to have someone to talk to, but sometimes we can be our own best listener.
Going for walks alone, or closing a door and sitting in silence so we can tune in to our own thoughts. Journaling can offer access to muted emotional spaces, for example.
So can listening to music, running, eating something delicious, all while tuned into whatever is pressing on our minds in any given moment.
And while we listen to ourselves, we can practice complimenting and encouraging ourselves. Small, silent celebrations of our own progress is a form of mothering.
Also, listening inward offers opportunities to hear our inner critic and practice more gentleness and more compassion to the ways we feel.
2. Keep your comfort close.
If reading soothes you, keep a stash of good books by your bed. If you love tea in the mornings, order it online so that you get quality tea delivered right to your mailbox.
If you love wearing socks at home, keep a little basket with a soft pair right inside the entrance to your front door. That way, you’re walking in soft and fuzzy feelings as soon as you get home.
Love pictures of beaches? Put a folder on your desktop so you can access it with ease.
Use self-inquiry to identify ways you specifically can practice self-care, and keep the resources for that care within close reach.
3. Let other people off the hook for your joy.
Whoever you’re wishing would just be different – accept that they might never change. Instead of working to change the person, start shifting the dynamics of your relationship.
Do you need to stop speaking to them so often? Can you space out the interaction with them somehow?
Or maybe you need to speak up about how you feel. If so, understand that they may get it, and they might not, and that’s it’s okay to not be okay in any moment.
If they don’t work toward making it important to express yourself, and to be willing to lessen the interaction, leave the environment, or push for what you prefer.
On Tenderness and Tenacity
In self-mothering, we identify moments to stop doing things that make us unhappy, and look at our options for feeling better. We offer ourselves compassion through positive self-talk, and by looking at ways to honor our real feelings.
“It means that as I learn my worth and genuine possibility, I refuse to settle for anything less than a rigorous pursuit of the possible in myself, at the same time making a distinction between what is possible and what the outside world drives me to do in order to prove I am human. It means being able to recognize my success, and to be tender with myself, even when I fail.”
Say that, Audre! #SoSayeththeLorde
Akilah S. Richards is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a six-time author, digital content writer, and lifestyle coach who writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. Connect with Akilah on Instagram, Tumblr, or her #radicalselfie e-home, radicalselfie.com. Read her articles.