By Kate Lynch Bieger, PhD
As mothers, we have so much on our plates and give so much to our children and the other people in our lives. It often feels impossible to find the time to nurture or care for ourselves. And yet this is often (always?) just what we need to do to meet the challenges of life and motherhood.
I remember how difficult it was for me during the first months of motherhood. Breastfeeding did not go well, and I had to work hard to build up my milk supply. I tried every bit of advice on how to boost my milk supply and get my baby to latch properly.
There were visits to the lactation consultant, repeated treks to the pediatrician’s office to check weight gain, mugs of raspberry leaf tea, pumping and more pumping, lists of foods to avoid and foods to add.
Most nights I felt like I was on a hamster wheel of feeding, burping, changing diapers, pumping, and then lying awake in bed with the dreadful knowledge I only had an hour of rest until I had to start it all over again. Self-care wasn’t even on my radar.
What I truly needed in those early weeks was someone to kindly insist that I step back and take care of myself. Because as I have learned over the course of motherhood, the moments when we are completely overwhelmed and have the least space for self-care are the very moments we need to nurture ourselves the most.
This can take different forms – a phone call to a friend, a walk outside with a good playlist, a yoga class, or an hour to read a book at the library. Taking those small moments to show ourselves love is the best way to help us handle life’s challenges and return to our families happier women and better mothers.
Here’s a real-life example: Recently we set a new household goal of a consistent early bedtime for both of our cranky, overtired kiddos, and I was determined to succeed.
But two nights in, I was flailing. I watched the clock tick and urged my boys to brush their teeth. Instead, the youngest climbed up on the sink to duel with his older brother, who half engaged in play and half mocked his brother. That led to a temper tantrum from the youngest and more teasing from the oldest. And the cycle escalated.
But I clung to my goal of an early bedtime at all costs! I began yelling. And then the negative thoughts crept in: “Why can’t I even manage to get them to brush their teeth?! I’m trying so hard, but nothing changes. I’m not good enough.” In the moments when we feel we should dig in and try even harder, what we really need is to step back from our kids and take a moment to ourselves.
So I did. I stepped away. I put on an audiobook for the boys and let go of my goal for a few minutes. I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. I took several deep breaths. I let the tears come and then told myself that everything was going to be OK.
I reminded myself that I am a good mom. Not a perfect mom, but a good enough mom, striving to take good care of my boys – and myself.
When I went back upstairs, I felt calm, having released myself from the grip of the situation. I snuggled my boys for a moment before moving seamlessly to teeth brushing and bed. And I realized that something unexpected can happen when we nurture ourselves: Usually we find ourselves moving closer to our goal. Stepping back to breathe often shifts our perspective and makes us better able to handle tough situations.
When I had that little baby and was struggling so hard to breastfeed him, I didn’t step away. I pushed harder and harder, and it took a long time for things to feel better. It took a while for me to learn to take time for myself, even if my baby cried more with my husband and wanted me near. It took time to learn how important it was for me – and for my baby – that I feel nurtured and cared for, too.
This Mother’s Day, I encourage every mom to spend some time thinking about what makes you feel loved and nurtured. What can you do to care for yourself? Maybe a few quiet hours with a really good book (my plan!) or a night out with someone you love, uninterrupted time with your favorite TV show. Take it today and then repeat.
We think of Mother’s Day as an opportunity for everyone else – your kids, your spouse, the cashier at your local store – to show you the love, support, and appreciation you deserve. But it’s a call to you as well.
While you gobble up those poorly made pancakes, sip that mimosa at brunch, or tape a homemade card to the fridge, remember to show yourself appreciation and love as well. And then keep doing it.
The gift of self-care is not a self-indulgent treat you get once a year. It’s a necessary part of a happy family and something you can practice every day.
This article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, provider training, research funding and online information and support for women, mothers, and families. You can find more support from Seleni on Facebook or on Twitter @selenidotorg.