Before my children were born, I could wake to my own internal clock on the weekends. I enjoyed an hour-long exercise routine each day. I did regular deep-conditioning hair treatments, facial masks, and foot soaks. I went shopping and actually bought things for myself. Imagine that.
Then my son was born. He was the greatest gift of my life, and he also turned it upside down. Suddenly, I ate, slept, and showered on his terms. My hobbies became a thing of the past. Gone were the days when I pampered myself. I shopped for baby, sang for baby, stayed up for baby, woke up for baby - my whole world revolved around my little bundle of joy.
For a long time, I thought that putting my needs at the top of the list was a selfish thing to do. It’s not about me anymore, I told myself. I thought that being a good mommy meant sacrificing my needs.
Author Glennon Doyle wrote in her book, Untamed, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…”
The truth is, it wasn’t so much a lack of time but a surplus of guilt and a distorted idea of what love was supposed to look like.
I could have left my son with his grandparents to go out on a date. I could have put him down more and he would have surely been just fine. I could have chosen a hot shower while he napped instead of folding onesies. I chose not to do those things because, in my mind, a good mom was all about her kids. I told myself there’ll be time for me again later.
It’s not just a false idea, but it’s a dangerous one because it causes mamas to neglect themselves to the point of devastation.
But I remember thinking that the common self-care ideas I came across were pretty unrealistic anyway. They asked me to “sleep when the baby slept” but I physically couldn’t, no matter how tired I was. I was advised to “get up way before my children to have alone time in the mornings” but I co-slept with my kids, so when I got up, it woke them up. It was suggested that I put the kids to bed and enjoy an evening alone, but I nearly always had to lie down with them before they could fall asleep, and by the time they did, I was so exhausted that I just fell asleep, too. I didn’t have the physical or mental energy to knit a blanket or read a novel.
And sure, I could have made different decisions regarding my children’s sleep habits, but at the time, being available at night for them was important to me, and anything else wouldn’t have been true to my values as a mother. And as exhausting as it was, those nights were filled with stories and cuddles that I wouldn’t have traded for all the candlelit bubble baths in the world.
Nonetheless, being that the idea of self-care seemed like such a damn chore, I resigned myself to the fact that the season I was in didn’t allow for it, and I went on like that until I was so utterly drained, I was on the verge of breaking in half.
This was when I learned some important lessons - lessons that I want to share with you if you too are in the throes of early motherhood and struggling to stay afloat.
- The first one is that it is absolutely necessary and not selfish to take care of your own needs.
- The second is that you can define what self-care means for you.
I had to examine the ideas I had in my mind about what self-care is supposed to look like, because, honestly, part of what left me feeling so deprived was my unrealistic expectation that self-care had to be stolen hours from my previous life
Date night didn’t have to be dinner out at a nice restaurant. It could be 20 minutes of sitting across from each other in the living room. Catching up with friends didn’t have to mean book club meetings and a girls’ night out. It could be a quick FaceTime chat to catch up and share our lives. Pampering myself didn’t have to mean a spa day. It could mean a fresh coat of nail polish.
It’s all perspective, really. Perspective and gratitude.
I learned that I could be just as rejuvenated by laughing with my kids during our bedtime stories as I was by an hour-long soak in a tub of bath crystals.
Once I let go of my unrealistic ideas about what self-care had to look like, it became easy to find practical acts that nourished my mind, body, and spirit in little moments throughout my day. It doesn’t have to look a certain way or last a certain length of time. I can sit a cup on the counter, walk by every couple hours and pour a little water in. By the end of the day, the cup will be full. The same principle applies to self-care. I can pour a little in at a time throughout the day and still end up full of joy.
Never Enough Time
I understand the feeling that there simply isn’t enough time for self-care. I used to feel that way, too. But when I crunched my own numbers, I realized I would spend time each day scrolling social media or playing silly games on my phone, neither of which was particularly nurturing to me. I was wasting at least an hour each that I could have been using to care for myself in ways that mattered.
In my book, The Gift of a Happy Mother, I say this:
“Dear reader, you need to understand that you are an important human being who means the world to someone. You matter not only because you are a mom, but because you are you. Your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being matters. You know that you cannot pour from an empty cup, so take time each day to fill up so that you not only give the best to your family but so that you live your one life well. Taking care of yourself wasn’t selfish before you had children, and it isn’t selfish now. You are still a person. Self-care isn’t about saying ‘I’m more important than you.’ It’s about saying, ‘I’m important too.’”
Finding What Nurtures You
Analyze your own expectations about self-care. Are they reasonable or achievable? I used to look at self-care as “time away” or “time to myself,” and those are important to have sometimes for sure, but there are plenty of ways to add a little bit to my cup several times throughout the day without having to leave my house or steal time alone.
When you open your eyes to all the small possibilities, nurturing yourself isn’t just a lengthy ritual you can only hope for. It’s practical, doable moments of self-love.
Choose acts that truly nourish you. What one mom considers self-care might add stress to another mom. Take into account your unique personality and sensitivities. For example, knowing that I’m highly sensitive, a night out with friends in a crowded place isn’t going to rejuvenate me. Knowing that my personality type reveals that I place great importance on having things orderly means I can make clutter-reduction part of my self-care routine. Knowing who you are will help you love yourself better.
Practical Ways to Nourish Yourself Daily
Wait! Don’t roll your eyes yet! I know you were expecting this one but hear me out. You may not be able to make it to the gym for an hour. I used to think that if I couldn’t workout like I did pre-kid, then I couldn’t really work out. I was so used to doing my hour-long DVDs in my evenings before kids that other options didn’t really occur to me. I was pretty focused on what I couldn’t do. What helped me was to realize that moving my body was exercise. Some options to try are stretching on the floor next to your baby, throwing in 20 jumping jacks and 10 lunges on each side before you throw a load in the washer, or having a dance party with your toddler. Even taking 5-10 minutes to jog in place gets your blood pumping.
Sometimes it feels like playing with our kids is a chore, yet it is possible to find ways to make it fun. To combat boredom, find ways to play that you actually enjoy. Let your inner child out! Jump in puddles. Paint together. Sled down hills and make up silly songs. Remember what you loved to play as a child and do that again.
3. Get creative
Take up your paint brushes, pencils, knitting needles, and gardening gloves. Care for your spirit by unleashing your creativity. Making art has been shown to lower cortisol levels, reducing stress hormones in the body.
4. Keep a book of joy
The benefits of a gratitude journal are well-documented. A book of joy is like your own personalized happiness book. It’s anything you want it to be! Write what you are grateful for, fill it with doodles, or jot down wonderful quotes or profound thoughts. Record funny moments, proud moments, and moments that take your breath away.
5. Listen to something inspiring
I love to feed my mind and spirit with uplifting and inspirational podcast episodes, TED talks, orchestra music, and audiobooks. Research has found that listening to your favorite music releases dopamine, the same hormone released in response to sex and good food.
What else can you add to this list? I encourage you today to brainstorm a list of 20 mini acts of nourishment. I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised that nurturing your mind, body, and spirit is easier than you thought.