I Never Realized How Hard Self-Care Was…Until I Had My Child

Most moms can tell you that it’s a careful balancing act to make sure everyone’s needs are met. So when it comes to self-care, their own needs are all too often relegated to the bottom of the list. But nobody benefits when Mom is worn out. Here’s how to get in some self-care—and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

December 20, 2017
img Self Care after Kid

My daughter is now 4 years old, but I can still remember one of my favorite mornings from her babyhood. It was Mother’s Day and she was 10 months old. I was home with her full-time then, and all I wanted was the morning to myself.

Her dad took her out for a grand total of three hours. I think they went to the museum, but that wasn’t my concern. My concern—for once!—was me and only me. Once they were out of the apartment, I made myself some pancakes, got back in bed, and watched an entire movie. In silence. Alone. With my pancakes and coffee. It was bliss.

And yet! A small part of me felt guilty. Why? Because I was alone, taking care of myself. I was being wholly unproductive and indulgent and (dare I say?) lazy. There was dirty laundry and tons of dishes in the sink and I needed to shower and shouldn’t I use this time to write? Did I even have a right to do this? And by “this” I mean: nothing.

Yes, yes, yes.

It now pains me to think that I didn’t believe I deserved this tiny quiet moment of respite. After all, before I had kids, most of my weekend mornings looked just like this: Hours in my PJs, watching TV or reading on the couch. It felt indulgent then, too, but I had little guilt about it. I reasoned that I needed a rest from the work week. I deserved it.

Guess what? Moms do too.

Making Time for You

Before I had a child, I was always slightly annoyed by parents who claimed to “never have any time.” Didn’t single, childless people also have busy schedules? Wasn’t I rushing from one thing to the other, too? Didn’t I also have a job?

What I didn’t see, of course, was all the in-between time: the nightly wakeups, the frantic mornings getting everyone out the door, the sick days and doctors appointments, the meetings that go late, the sitter who cancels, the PTA meetings and parent–teacher conferences, the hours spent trying to get the kid in bed. As a childless person, going out for a drink at 7 p.m. felt like an excellent way to unwind and take care of myself. So did sleeping all day on Sunday. With children? Impossible.

I also didn’t see that taking time away for your children—by, say, getting that 7 p.m. cocktail with an old girlfriend—might not be a purely uncomplicated thing.

Now I do.

The most challenging factor in almost any mother’s life is balancing her own needs with those of her children. Just this morning, for instance, I spent way too much time worrying about missing my daughter’s Thanksgiving celebration at school in favor of actually meeting my deadlines. I could have gone, but I would have been filled with resentment for putting her before me again. I had to calculate which event was more important to me and to her, and I reasoned that this was not of great significance to her—or to me.

Obviously I won’t be missing every event at school, but this one seemed less vital in the grand scheme of things. In other situations, I will put her events first over mine. It’s an ongoing balancing act but one that gets easier over time.

Early Days

Even though I wasn’t technically working the first year of my daughter’s life, I took a friend’s advice and hired a babysitter for a few meager hours a week. I started with four hours, and when I began working part-time again midway through the year, I upped the sitter’s hours.

At first, those hours might have seemed indulgent, but they hands down helped me keep my sanity and enjoy the rest of the time I spent mothering. I used them to swim, to sit in a cafe and write for a few hours (remembering the Me before Child!), or go to a Pilates class to work on getting my body back after a C-section.

The beauty of it was that it was money well spent: When I came back, I felt invigorated and ready to care for her again. I also felt more like myself—energized, capable of complete thoughts, adult.

But that break didn’t work so well if I felt guilty about it. In fact, the first time I left my daughter with a sitter, I sobbed hysterically to my mother on the phone because I felt so bad “abandoning her” (my words) in a stranger’s care. My daughter was 3 months old and already my back hurt so much I could barely lift her. I was going to an appointment with an osteopath down the street—so that I could lift her again.

Over time, however, I learned that those hours away from her weren’t just good for me. They were good for her. That sitter stayed with us for three years and became a part of our family, offering my daughter love and support and joy that I couldn’t have given her. I was giving her a chance to form another deep bond, to learn that Mama wasn’t the only adult around to care for her. And I was teaching myself that I actually still mattered.

How do I take time for me? Some tips:

  • If you are a stay-at-home mom, or even a freelancer who works part-time, hire a sitter for a few hours a week. The dividends will come back in spades.
  • If you are working full-time, it is still imperative to schedule time for yourself. Choose one thing you can’t live without and put it on the calendar. Do you need to run? Meditate? Hang out with girlfriends once a week? Journal? Practice yoga? Make it happen regardless of what else is going on. This time will feed you in ways that will make you a better mother.
  • Schedule in some “Should-less” time once a month. I heard this in an interview with Ellen Burstyn on Death, Sex & Money and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. It’s time where you don’t need to do anything. It may be a whole day (heaven!) or 10 minutes at the end of the night. You deserve time to just do whatever.
  • Unless you are a single mother, remember that you have a co-parent—someone else around to take on some of the responsibility. Your partner (or your community) can take over for you for a few hours so you get the time you need to stay sane.
  • Happy Mom, Happy Family: Hard as it is to believe (and I am so guilty of this!), making a martyr of yourself won’t actually make anyone happier. It’s okay for your kids to see that you have a life outside of them—in fact, it’s vital! It allows them to open up to the rest of the world, to rely on other adults, and to be strong, independent beings.
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