In February I’m admittedly hesitant to bring up New Years resolutions. For some of you, positive change may be well underway but for others, those exciting goals might only hold a glimmer of hope or they’ve entirely vanished altogether. And if you’re like me, you might not even tell people what you’re working on in fear that you’ll publicly abandon yet another ambitious self-care plan.

Self-care is such a buzz-word, isn’t it? One of those concepts that’s so effortlessly talked about, splattering the covers of magazines, and rolling out of every therapist’s mouth, yet surprisingly few people feel like they’ve got it figured out.

So what is self-care exactly?

I describe it as the ways we tend to our own multi-faceted needs that allow us to feel whole, cared-for, and alive. Self-care is less about manicures and soaker tubs than it is about listening and then responding to our various needs, including physical, emotional, intellectual, relational and spiritual ones.

When I speak with other mothers about self-care, our conversations usually sound a little nostalgic, sarcastic, or just simply confused. Mothers and self-care? Pardon me? These two things don’t usually go together, do they? At least not at first.

Finding time to tend to your own needs during those early days of motherhood can be a logistical nightmare. Hot showers become a luke-warm family event. You can’t keep your eyes open long enough to read a page of your favourite book. “Nap when the baby naps” becomes the most annoying advice ever when you have other children to care for or a job outside the home. It’s almost impossible to motivate yourself to exercise when you’re exhausted and just want a break. You’d rather watch Netflix than expend any more energy on your social life. Of course you know how to take care of yourself, but actually doing it is another story.

What I wish I knew in those moments of chaos and feeling completely overwhelmed was that this phase would shift. Breathing space would begin to reappear, moments of pause would return. A hot coffee. A somewhat coherent FaceTime call with a friend. The odd jog or workout video. Waking up in the morning feeling rested (okay maybe that’s a stretch).

You’ll notice that with time the possibility to turn even a slight bit of your finite energy back toward yourself just might be possible. Maybe there is enough for you too? And here’s your chance to face the most important obstacle between you and caring for yourself: you’ll need to consciously decide to give that energy, time, attention and love to yourself instead of your children or partner. While that decision might just be the hardest part, it’s also the key to self-care.

For a busy parent, self-care is all about finding ways within the reality of your life to send loving energy inward. It’s the honest and compassionate response to yourself as a unique individual, which means that self-care will look uniquely different for everyone. One size most certainly doesn’t fit all, just as one person’s self-care regimen may be a total flop for the next.

The first task is to develop the ability to listen to yourself, and check in on a regular basis so that you can establish a quick reading of where your stand. With something as simple as closing your eyes for a few breaths and silently asking yourself what you need most in this moment, you can strengthen your inner voice and tune in to your needs. With practice, your inner voice will gain confidence to ask for what’s needed and remind you when you’ve neglected yourself for too long.

The next task is to consider how you might carve out a little more time for yourself. It’s often the case where we have bits of time but aren’t ready to benefit from them because we have no plan or we’re simply out of practice. Consider writing down self-care ideas that you could do in 10 minutes or less to nurture your mind, body, and spirit and when you have a moment, glance at the list and see if something stands out to you.

The final piece of self-care is about permission. Self-permission, that is. Do you truly allow yourself to prioritize you? How do you feel when you are doing something that’s just for your enjoyment or benefit? Do you worry, feel guilty, confused, or uncomfortable? If you have these feelings, I encourage you to explore where they come from and what you want to do with them. What could you say to yourself that helps you accept your own love? What messages do you need to hear?

You’re not alone in your struggle to prioritize yourself. And quite frankly, Mother Nature thanks you for caring so passionately for your little ones. While you witness your children transform right before your eyes, I encourage you to also witness yourself on this journey. Be curious about what’s shifting, changing, yearning within you and how you can re-acquaint yourself with you. Be brave to show yourself through your actions that you matter too.

Kate Borsato is a mental health counsellor on Vancouver Island. With her online counselling practice, she supports women during their transitions into motherhood and postpartum stages. Learn more at kateborsato.com