I’m willing to bet that someone said to you during your pregnancy, “You won’t believe how much life changes after having a baby,” or your second, or third. In fact I’m even willing to bet that seventy-seven more people said it after that first person. I’ll bet you were so sick of it you wanted to throw your triple scoop ice cream cone at them as you thought to yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I know life changes.” Then you had your baby and said, “Oh, now I get it!”
No one, no matter how flexible, adaptable, delighted, excited, or grateful, is really prepared for the changes parenting brings. Most of us are left feeling as though our world has been turned upside down. During those first weeks after having our babies we stumble around in a fog of fatigue and are left overwhelmed with feelings of love, awe, gratitude, shock, and isolation. We realize that as we gave birth to our babies we gave birth to ourselves as mothers, and we aren’t sure how to be comfortable with this new role. As one mother described it to me, we feel as though we are swimming in mud. We emerge from those initial weeks and are struck by how much the landscape of our lives has changed and are unsure how to find our sense of direction in this new world. The days fill with feeding, burping, changing, and trying to get our babies to sleep. Then we spend our “free time” reading about how to feed, burp, change, and get our babies to sleep. We are asked about how our baby is sleeping, eating, and developing, and there are great resources, such as ECFE, that assist in these tasks. They do a wonderful job teaching us about the development of our children and our relationship with them. However, few of us are asked about how we as mothers are doing and developing. In fact we, as new mothers, are often unaware that our own needs are something to consider, holding tight to cultural beliefs that we are being selfish when we even have needs. I am writing to challenge these beliefs. This article will encourage you and give you permission to focus on yourself and your development as a mother. I strongly believe that your development as a mother is as important as your babe’s.
After the birth of my first child I started on down my own path of motherhood. The journey hasn’t always been smooth, at various times filled with indescribable joy, nerve-wracking anxiety, heartbreaking frustration, but always laughter. My journey through motherhood has led me to become interested in helping other women navigate the transition. I began talking with mothers and, as we chatted, over and over I found women filled with overflowing love and…stress. The initial months after having a baby can be isolating and energy depleting. Most women report feeling stressed and overwhelmed at least a few (or 10,000) times during the first year of motherhood. Inevitably, most women express a desire for more time for themselves and most are frustrated by the limits of the day.
Since I’m on a roll with the gambling theme, I’ll wager someone even said to you, before or after your baby was born, how important self-care is. You thought to yourself, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll be able to brush my teeth and shower.” But if you were like me, and many others, you assumed you’d probably be able to fit in some self-care time – only to discover how difficult it really was. Often our old ways of coping and taking care of ourselves don’t translate easily into life after children. We can’t take off at a moment’s notice for a run or to meet a friend for a cocktail. The smallest ventures take planning and coordination of complicated feeding and napping schedules and regimens. When we do find time for ourselves we struggle with prioritizing what to do with it – we want to sleep, journal, eat, clean up the house, and spend time with friends. We find ourselves trying to figure out how to exercise while we sleep. We struggle with finding the resources needed to spend more time taking care of ourselves, such as finding a babysitter and the money to pay the sitter. Our own emotions are another obstacle that gets in the way since we feel anxious and even guilty about taking time for ourselves. With so many things on our plate, we put ourselves last, which usually means never, and when we aren’t taking care of ourselves we are left feeling tense, drained, anxious, and depressed.
Taking care of ourselves is one of the least selfish things we can do for ourselves and our families. When we do, we are less anxious, stressed, depressed, impatient, etc. When we do, we are role-modeling for our children. When we do, we are teaching them how to cope and be balanced in their lives. When we do, we are giving them the opportunity to bond with other people (research suggests that the greater the number of significant caregivers a child has, the more successful he/she will be later on). Self-care is essential to our development as mothers and as people. When we take care of ourselves we are simply better mothers.
Self-care is first about taking care of basic needs like eating and sleeping – sometimes all we can accomplish in those first days. We often think of self-care in terms of manicures and pedicures, but as Renee Tradeu points out in her book, The Mother’s Guide to Self Renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate, and Re-Balance Your Life, self-care isn’t about pampering oneself (although it can include that), but rather about taking care of ourselves emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. During a playdate, a wonderfully successful and amazing friend of mine – the mother of twin one-year-olds and a three-year-old – expressed how out of sorts she felt. She struggled with defining her discontent, as she felt she was taking great care of herself by carving out time to exercise. I asked her what else she did to take care of herself. She paused for a minute and said, “Nothing really but I can’t because I would feel guilty since I already take time to work out.” I shared with her my observation that many of us prioritize taking care ourselves physically but tend to neglect the other areas of lives. Then something happened, maybe my son’s jumping off the table, to drag our attention away from the conversation. The next time I saw her, she told me that our conversation had changed her life (her words not mine). After reflecting on our conversation, she decided to carve out time at least one hour weekly to take a bath, read a magazine, to do whatever she wanted to nurture her spirit…with the door closed, while her husband handled the evening routine. She couldn’t believe how centering and restorative it was for her. My point in sharing this story is not to flaunt my own brilliance, as my friend would’ve gotten on her own eventually, but to demonstrate how taking care of ourselves in all areas of our lives, even in small ways, will help us stay balanced, allowing us to be the mothers we are truly capable of being.
For all of us, the obstacles to self-care are significant but not unmanageable. Below I’ve created some lists to help you think about different ways you can care for yourself. I’ve also listed some strategies for dealing with obstacles that get in the way at whatever point you are in your journey.
How to take care of ourselves in different areas of our lives:
- Physical – nurture your body through yoga, exercise, eating regularly and healthfully
- Mental – nurture your mind by reading a good book, taking a class or workshop, examining what you want (your goals, passions, interests), redefining success, learning a new skill, or pursuing a hobby
- Emotional – nurture your emotional side by building support, learning to say no, acknowledging the best parts of you, writing, calling/spending time with friends, journaling
- Spiritual – nurture your spiritual side by being present and in the moment, paying attention and asking yourself who am I today, spending time outside, finding role models, meditating, being outdoors, being alone
Self-care strategies for the early weeks:
Set boundaries (say no or limit visitors)
Give yourself 15 minutes, at least, away from the baby every day
Hire a post-partum doula
Accept all offers for food and help
Have a massage
Take a bath
Take a nap (or 3!) or just rest if you can’t sleep
Eat regularly and eat enough
Take a vitamin
Take a walk outside
Use grocery delivery services
Use meal-prep places
Get out and meet other new moms or parents with babies the same age
Self-care strategies for later on:
- Resist the urge to deal with household things (grocery lists, laundry) during time you’ve set aside for yourself
- Swap childcare with a friend for a couple of hours
- Get rid of things that drain your energy (i.e. clutter)
- Hire a mother’s helper (advertise in your local paper)
- Plan meals monthly, swap meals, go to meal-making places
- Get up 15 minutes early for exercise, meditation, or staring quietly at your cup of coffee
- Incorporate your kids into your exercise routine (walks outdoors)
- Work out at home with DVDs during naps
- Learn new ways to manage the stress of motherhood
- Plan it, schedule it, everyday (or at least weekly)
In one of my favorite “mom” books, The Mother’s Book of Well-Being: Caring for Yourself So You Can Care for Your Baby, Lisa Groen Braner says that most of what we want as mothers is within our grasp and we just need to be creative about getting it. So starting right now (or if you’re pregnant, from the moment you give birth), get creative about taking care of yourself; it is as important as caring for your baby. Doing so will allow you to be the mother, wife, friend, and/or daughter you want to be.
Sarina LaMarche, MA is a Life and Wellness Coach with over 10 years experience in the mental health and human service fields. Her specialty is working with people to find more balance, energy, focus, and passion. She has helped dozens of women navigate the transition to motherhood and has developed a series of groups and workshops for mothers. Sarina also conducts wellness workshops throughout the Twin Cities. Check out www.sarinalamarche.com for more information.