Building your NEST – Self-Care for New Expat Mothers

By Caroline Gartland
October 6, 2021
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5
 min read
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“Self-Care” has become a buzzword in the past few years, making its way around social media full of ideas and images that people toss under its umbrella. It can create confusion though as the idea of ‘self-care’ means different things to different people. As a mental health professional, I want to take a look at it through the lens of some local wildlife.

My family and I are currently living the expat life in Gaborone, Botswana. One of the things we have found in our time here is that Botswana is home to many different species of Weaver Bird. This bird makes the most impressive nests; weaving grasses, plant fibres and twigs together to form a safe, solid structure that protects its young family from harm.

We’ve just moved into spring time in this part of the world and trees are full of these beautiful yellow birds; bold and busy as they put the finishing touches to their creations.

Their nests are so intricate and complex that humans would struggle to build something as efficient. These birds don’t need specialist tools and instruments; they use their natural attributes and skills to create something both functional and fearsome.

That is great, Carolyn, what does that have to do with being an expat mother and self care?
I am so glad you asked…let’s chat.

There’s a lesson to be learned from our weaver birds. We have the tools and skills to take care and nurture ourselves. Sometimes help and support is needed but often it’s about realizing that we have the agency to make important changes in our own lives.

Self-care isn’t all about spa breaks and fitness challenges. It doesn’t need to be something that costs the earth or takes you out of your comfort zone. Self-care means paying attention to the basics; nurturing yourself well enough so you feel positive and can nurture your family.

Experts working in the field of Maternal Mental Health in British Columbia, Canada, have coined a useful mnemonic to break down what is meant by ‘self-care’ in a clinical setting, and it just so happens to tie in with our yellow feathered friends.

NESTS.

In their model, each letter stands for an important element of self-care that new mothers are encouraged to consider as part of their treatment and support through perinatal mental health challenges. It’s not always easy, sometimes it can feel like more work, but it is important.

I think it’s a great way to start thinking about self-care. As expat parents, living away from our home countries, one of the best survival tools we have is the building of our own nests. Not only to care for our families, but just as importantly to care for ourselves.

Just as the weaver bird gathers his supplies for creating their intricate spaces, let’s chat about what you need to create yours.

Nutrition

When you have a baby to take care of, well balanced, regular meals are not always a priority. Unstable blood sugars and depletion of vitamins and nutrients can contribute to negative moods. More research is emerging about the depletion of nutrients in new mothers and the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet. It may seem like more work but meal planning, making sure you have easy access to snacks and water when you are out and about and eating regular small meals are all part of looking after yourself.

Exercise

Quite possibly the last thing you want to think about right now is moving your body, or exercising in anyway, but studies have proven the link between gentle, regular exercise and an increase in positive wellbeing. Apart from stimulating those ‘feel good’ hormones, getting up and active can lead to a sense of accomplishment that challenges negative thinking patterns. Postnatal pilates, yoga and other exercise classes run by qualified teachers are recommended. Thanks to many services moving online during the pandemic, there are now virtual options if you can’t find a class nearby. (Stay tuned as Trova has practitioners coming on board soon to help meet your needs in this area!)

Getting out for a walk can be a great option, or if your body is used to exercise, follow your doctor’s advice on getting back into a regime you feel comfortable with. If you struggle to get motivated, try the ‘5 Minute Solution’ where you try any activity for a minimum of five minutes before deciding to stop or try something else. Sometimes that first hurdle is the most difficult.

Sleep

Most new parents complain of lack of sleep. It’s the source of tiredness, irritability, frustration and low mood. The accumulative effects of sleep deprivation can be serious and contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. You may feel like you should make the most of the time you get when baby naps, but tasks can often wait or be handed to others. There isn’t a quick fix solution to this one, especially when you don’t have family around or are responsible for other children but it’s important to make it a priority.

Time for Yourself

This is mainly about finding things that you enjoy and weaving them into your day. It shouldn’t be about accomplishment, now might not be the time to learn a new language or take up carpentry, but it should be something that gives you a little lift or down time. Anything from enjoying a cup of tea, sitting outside, to reading a chapter of a book or watching an episode of your favourite series.

It’s all about creating a space where you can press pause.

Support

Good social support systems can be one of the most protective factors against maternal mental health challenges. Positive social support has been connected to greater feelings of self-belief and confidence in parenting. Feeling heard, understood and having a network of people who can offer practical and emotional support is really important.

This can be a real challenge when you are an expat and away from home, family and familiar surroundings. But support doesn’t always come in the form of family or close friends. Parenting groups, healthcare professionals and even online forums can often meet some of your needs.

Parenting can be challenging and it’s important to reach out and ask for support if you need help building your nest.

One of the reasons I am so excited to come on board as a Trova Health provider is that part of their mission is to be part of your Nest making. The place you can come to for wellness support and advice, movement classes, and most of all a community that will understand where you are coming from as a new mom in a culture different than your own.

Hang in there, mama, you’ve got this!

Sources:
Haring, M, et al, 2011. ‘Coping with depression during pregnancy and following the birth’. The BC Reproductive Mental Health Program.
Leahy-Warren, P, McCarthy, G and Corcoran, P, 2011. ‘First-time mothers: social support, maternal parental self-efficacy and postnatal depression’. Journal of Clinical Nursing.

About the Author

Caroline Gartland

Caroline Gartland is passionate about parenting, play, wellbeing and mental health. She has been living abroad for over 11 years and is based in beautiful Botswana.

Caroline holds an MSc in Mental Health and Psychological Therapy as well as qualifications in Psychology and Infant Mental Health. Her aim is to help others achieve their full potential. As one of the Directors of SensoBaby, she currently focuses her attention on the wellbeing of families and young children.

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