When local actress and model Sheila Sim had her first child in 2020, she felt out of her depth.
Sim had spent months poring over books about pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum motherhood, but when her daughter Layla was born, she realised she might as well hadn’t read anything.
“When the baby actually arrives on Earth in your arms, you realise that everything you’ve read is fiction. You actually have to figure it out yourself and find your own way,” said the 38-year-old.
Such is the unpredictability of motherhood, especially in the months after the baby is delivered, that Sim – a long-time mental health advocate – struggled to even think about her wellbeing.
“I hear all the time that I should take a nap when the baby is napping, but the truth is, that’s not always possible. When the baby’s napping, you need to clean, do the housework, wash the milk bottles … Sometimes you don’t even have time to shower or cut your nails.
“There will come a time when you will stop even looking at yourself and then you wonder, ‘Hey, what state am I in right now?’
“These are all very, very real … and so the last thing that comes to a mother’s mind is self-care,” she said.
Yet, self-care should, arguably, be at the top of a mother’s agenda.
Sim put it simply: “If we’re healthy, we’re able to provide for the people around us. If we crash, we can’t provide anyone with love, care, sympathy, empathy and compassion.”
LITTLE THINGS THAT WORK
Set an intention for your self-care, said Sim.
“It can simply be that you want to stay afloat. If where you are right now is just wanting to survive, then all you need to focus on are your basic needs such as eating and sleeping.
“It doesn’t have to be something ‘unachievable’ like going to the spa. It can be very simple things as long as they make you feel good in the moment. For me, enjoying a hot bowl of noodles was a form of self-care. It’s basic but that was where I was at the time,” she said.
On the Womankind episode, we acknowledged that motherhood, particularly in the early months, can be not just overwhelming, but also lonely.
“You have to be so many things for so many people all at the same time. Just within the household, you have to take care of your child, acknowledge the needs of your spouse, be respectful of your parents and in-laws, make sure there’s food on the table and make sure the house is clean.
“And if you have another child, you have to make sure they aren’t neglected. It’s very easy to put yourself last,” said Sim.
The late nights were the hardest. Sim, who completed a diploma in applied positive psychology in 2019, felt isolated during night feeds, when everyone else was asleep.
“For a few months I was the only one awake in the middle of the night. It was so lonely. I felt so sad. I would comfort myself by looking at my child in my arms and telling myself I was being the best mother I could be for her,” she said.
When she noticed the thoughts running through her head on these nights, Sim started journaling. She held her baby in one arm and wrote on her phone with her free hand. Sometimes, she would post her journal entries on Instagram, where she has nearly 170,000 followers.
Her public show of vulnerability drew the attention of fellow mothers, who filled the comments section with words of support, as well as their own stories. The result was a “beautiful online community that prioritised self-care”, said Sim.
In one of her more recent Instagram posts, Sim talked about letting go – something she encourages other mums to do more often.
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“I know there’s help out there but I’m so obsessed with being a part of every stage of my child’s life that I refuse to let it be taken care of by anyone else. But I’m learning.
“In every stage of parenthood – in fact just life in general – we need to know when to let go. We can’t control everything. If we want to control everything, we’re just driving ourselves up the wall,” she said.
We asked Sim: If you could get any kind of help you wanted, what would you ask for?
“A stay-home psychiatrist. As a new mum, you’re already surviving on that one drop in your cup. Yet, people still need you to be there for them. For example, your partner might feel abandoned at the early stage of the baby’s arrival because they aren’t able to connect with the baby yet. They might feel like they’ve lost their wife.
“I’d like to have an in-house counsellor I can send them to. That would be magic.”
CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.