Self Care by Audrey Chua-Teo

(Audrey’s speech at the Homeschool Convention 2017 still moves us. Counting down to the Homeschool Convention 2019, we bring you gems from our storehouses.)

Audrey left her teaching career at MOE to homeschool her three children (then 9, 7 and 2). From a dual-income household with multiple help to a full-time stay-at-home mom, Audrey shares her reflections gleaned from the past 4 years. Homeschoolers who struggle with kids across preschool to teens will appreciate Audrey’s wisdom for the soul.

About 5 years back, I found myself running. I had just pushed my youngest child, then one and a half years old, into the hands of my helper and I ran off. I kept running in the rain, crying very hard. I didn’t know where I was going, but I just kept running. I was depleted, exhausted and very ready to give up on everything, on life especially. I had reached the bottom. Fast forward 5 years later. It is a miracle that I am here on stage, right here with all of you. Today, take a glimpse into my heart, and I hope that it will encourage you.

Most of us are homeschoolers here, and regardless of whichever curriculum you use, or don’t use, we do A LOT. Before we leave this place, I hope you can carry this message of S.E.L.F. C.A.R.E. home in your heart.

S stands for Stewardship. We are but mere stewards of these lives entrusted to us. We have been called to be parents. When we fail to steward ourselves or our marriages well, fatigue, resentment, or even bitterness can seep in and build up. We have limited time, energy and resources. Determining what is truly important to me helped me to restart my life. When I was at the end of my rope, I had this belief that if I was no longer around, no one would hug my son. Because of family issues, I felt displaced and useless. Slowly, as I hugged my son, my daughters and my husband more, healing began. As I re-evaluated what I needed to steward instead of what I thought I was expected to do, I began to experience a certain level of freedom.

E is for Engagement. My children love bedtime and often ask if we can tuck them in. My son loves to chat about everything so bedtime can take a while. I realise that that is possibly the only time I am truly engaged with him; I am not nagging about homework, completing chores, and I’m not scrolling on my phone. As the lights dim on the two of us without distractions, I find myself enjoying such precious moments with him.

Later, it dawned upon me that I am constantly distracted. Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, Etc. W.I.F.E. Once, we played a game with the children in the car. First, they had to count the number of people on the street who were on their phones. Almost everyone was hooked on to their gadget. Next, they had to count the number of smiles they saw. It was not easy. They even resorted to winding down the windows and waving wildly at pedestrians just to get their smiles. It was a fun and valuable lesson on connectedness.

What is our children’s image of us? Someone constantly distracted? Or someone who is fully in the present and engaged?

L is for Legacy. May I ask a personal question? How do you remember your mother? For me, growing up, I saw my mother as someone hurried, impatient and easily angered. Although she has mellowed over the years and some even think she is a saint, my childhood memory of her still persists. Sometimes, when I open my mouth, my old mother comes out! What childhood memories would your children have when they grow up? Would they remember your meticulously planned lessons? Or do you think they would remember how you made them feel?

During my dark days, I had an interesting experience. Out of the blue, I wondered – what if I was a time traveller, and my children are already all grown up, in their twenties and thirties, but I have been given an opportunity to return to the past, to their childhood? Right now, at this moment, imagine you are also stuck in the past and you get to relive it over again. What would you do if you were given this opportunity? I have learnt to be vulnerable with my family. I have also learnt to laugh. My children are the happiest people I know, and my husband, the most supportive. I am forever grateful for them.

F is for Fun! One of the most difficult tasks I had on my road to recovery was to learn to play with my children. As a teacher by training, everything had to have a learning objective. Learning through play meant that play was a means to an end. I was a task master and I didn’t know how to play.

My children taught me to slow down and have fun. They persisted. They persevered. They pressed on. I am still learning, but now I’m no longer grouchy mom. Now we have our own embarrassing family dance, and we often laugh with tears rolling down our cheeks. This indeed is a complete contrast from that day when I was crying while running in the rain.

C is for Compassion. We tend to be incredibly hard on ourselves. My therapist discovered that about me during one of the early sessions. I had such strong perfectionistic tendencies so I felt constantly discouraged. I was never good enough. When I looked into the mirror, I saw an empty shell, devoid of emotions. With self- compassion, the negative self-talk was slowly replaced by a more affirming voice. “You survived another day. You have done well. The children are still alive.” These were probably the first affirming words I told myself. Now I know it’s okay when things go wrong.

Compassion also extends towards to our kids. One of the things I learnt is that everyone is trying their best. Even if they don’t seem like it, especially according to our standards, they are. However, they might be struggling against what we cannot see, such as fear and fatigue. No one can thrive in a highly stressful environment. There are some people who love stress, but that is eustress that motivates us to action. When we enter into the distress zone, our fight, flight, freeze or even fawn response kicks in. Perhaps this is why some of our children respond differently when we get upset. Some will try to fawn and please us while others have learnt to argue or switch off.

Compassion reduces the tendency of taking it out on the children. My wise husband often gently reminds me that children cannot learn or thrive in a highly stressful environment. Mothers, you are the thermostat of your family. Children are often the thermometers that reflect the climate of the family. Fathers, we know you are trying your best. Many of you help to adjust the thermostat with your loving support, encouragement and involvement.

A is for Authenticity. Being authentic takes courage. It involves reflecting on what is important, and daring to stand up for it. It means being able to accept ourselves and not living up to the expectation of others and for their approval. It means being able to say “No” to the good so that we can say “Yes” to the best. If everything is equally important, then nothing is truly important. For me to say “No” is also another one of my greatest challenges. I wanted to be superwoman, a do-it-all. When I was still in the teaching service, I often joked that I should be paid double because I would reach school at 6.30am and leave at 7pm. Even when I got home after that, I would resume work after a quick dinner. I took on numerous projects and kept giving endless additional worksheets. I was a people-pleaser and conformed to perceived expectations. It was no wonder that I was headed for a burnout.

R is for Rest.  Rest looks different to each of us. Some might do their nails, head to a spa, or watch Korean dramas. Whichever way you choose, we need to ask ourselves, how rested are we after that? When I was revising Chinese with my children one day, we came across the Chinese phrase for rest – 休息.  When we examined the radicals, we learnt that 休息 means人 +木 +自 +心. To rest, man needs to retreat to nature (or to the traditionally wooden bed) and reflect on his own heart. The opposite of rest is busy-ness, in Chinese 忙. Heart and 亡, to die / to lose / to be gone / to flee / deceased. Let’s take time to rest well. 

E is for Enough. You are enough. I know that my God’s grace is more than enough for us. When I find that I am lacking, there are people who will come alongside with me and support me and love me. Likewise, I believe that for you too. We are humans, fearfully and wonderfully made. Our to-do lists will never be completed, but our time is limited. Take care of yourself, make beautiful memories, for these become your legacy.

Self-Care was first published for a reading audience in the Homeschool Convention 2018 Special Programme. Catch Audrey at this year’s Keynote Speakers and The Big Swap. Feature photo by Larry Toh Photography.