There’s a prevailing narrative in our society that once our baby arrives, our priorities must shift. They must shift from caring for ourselves to caring for our baby. The narrative is that we must serve and we must sacrifice. We must gloss over our own needs. We must tone down the activities we do for ourselves. Because if we don’t, then we are selfish. Then we will be seen as self-absorbed and self-involved, and people will assume we don’t love our children enough.
After all, why have children if you’re not going to spend most of your time with them? Right? Why have children if you’re not ready to sacrifice for someone else, if you’re not ready to make them #1?
Carla Naumburg, Ph.D, an author, parent coach, and one of my favorite bloggers who pens “Mindful Parenting,” has a different take. As she tells Kate Rope in her brilliant book Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood:
“I think that a lot of parenting books and mainstream culture give parents this idea that our child is our primary activity and we need to fit our self-care into the nooks and crannies that are left over after we’ve met our child’s needs. But assuming a parent is taking care of their child’s basic needs, then from there they can figure out how to fit their kid into their needs.”
Similarly, here’s another important quote in Strong as a Mother, which comes from life coach Graeme Seabrook: “when you put yourself in the center of your life and think ‘How can I be healthier and happier?’ everything else starts to fall into place, because moms are generally the lynchpin of the family. The better we work, the better everything else works.”
When we prioritize ourselves, we also model to our kids the power of self-care. We also model the power of building a close, compassionate relationship with oneself.
So where do you start?
Rope stresses the importance of identifying what you need to feel whole. (I love this!) She encourages readers to think back over your entire life—from childhood to today—and identify the things that helped you to feel good, the thing that reconnects you to yourself in times of stress.
She continues: “Is there a hobby you have been neglecting? Have you noticed that the times you felt the most stable in your life were when you had an exercise routine? Do you miss reading fiction? Does your church, temple, or meditation center ground you? Does a cup of coffee and a deep chat with a friend restore you? Is being in nature like pressing a reset button? Do you miss glee club?”
If you’re in the midst of new motherhood or you have two super active toddlers, your self-care will likely look different than if you have teens. And that’s OK. There are different phases, stages and seasons.
The key is to regularly reconnect to your needs, and to regularly reevaluate. Maybe you even start a monthly or quarterly check-in with yourself, where you reflect and take out your journal: How am I doing? What am I needing? Am I meeting these needs? How can I meet them? What do I need to feel like myself right now? What’s changed?
Of course, parenting includes some sacrifice. For instance, we sacrifice our sleep. But sacrifice doesn’t have to mean suffering. We can focus on finding solutions, solutions that acknowledge and honor our needs. That is, if your child isn’t sleeping through the night and you’re constantly getting up, maybe you and your partner split shifts: You take 10:00 p.m. to 2 a.m., and they take 2:00 a.m. to 6 a.m. And you switch shifts every night. (That’s what worked for one of the moms Rope interviewed for her book.) Or you ask a loved one to come over for an hour or two during the day, so you can nap. Or you hire a night nurse. Rope’s friend put night nurse sessions on her registry. Her nurse came three nights a week: “I couldn’t have survived preemie twins without her. Getting three to four hours of uninterrupted sleep, then pumping, then going back to bed for another three hours or so was a godsend….”
Ultimately, one of the best ways we can care for ourselves is to be kind. It’s to recognize that parenting is difficult (and wonderful, and fascinating, and beautiful and oh-so messy), and we can’t be perfect. It’s to acknowledge that we matter, too. It’s to remind ourselves that every person and parent gets flustered, feels overwhelmed and messes up. And it’s to stop calling ourselves stupid or lazy or disgusting or terrible. As Rope writes, “If you fed your child nuggets and old celery sticks for dinner one night, are you really a ‘terrible mother’? Or was it just a busy day and you were tired and needed a quick dinner and an early bedtime?”
Rope writes something else that gave me pause, something that will stay with me (as will sooo many parts of her book): “Just like you work hard to respect your child and help her develop a sense of self, you can do the same for you. You’re raising a mother at the same time that you are raising a child.”
And you can show both of you limitless love, kindness and care.