Before I became a mother, I almost prided myself on not taking care of myself. That sounds horrible, and it is, but I thought being selfless to an almost (and usually) unhealthy degree meant that I was being a good friend or a good partner or a good "woman." Yeah, that's not true. Sadly, it wasn't until I became pregnant and pushed my son into the world, that I realized that taking care of myself, and definitely my mental health, is one of the best things I can do for my son. Being a mom makes you realize that your mental health matters, in a way very few things can, and I'm forever thankful for this gift (and essentially, this constant reminder) that my son has given me.
Now, procreating shouldn't be a prerequisite for learning about the importance of mental health, and for so many people it certainly isn't. I know plenty of women who don't have (and don't plan on having) children, and they take care of themselves and their mental health and value their self-care. However, women are also told, by a patriarchal society that benefits from the selflessness of women, that in order to be kind and considerate and caring, you have to disregard your own self. That message seems to only magnify when you have children, and many women are told or convinced that if they want to be considered a "good" mother, they must sacrifice every single aspect of who they are, including their mental health. If you're so exhausted you're struggling to function, you must care about your kid. If you're not eating or not finding the time to shower, you must be so devoted. If you do take time for yourself and go into the world sans child, you must be selfish and you must not care as much as some other parents care about their children. That messaging is so dangerous, so harmful, and one of many reasons why mothers suffer in silence, feeling completely alone and inadequate.
I have, without a doubt, failed my son when I have failed to take care of myself. When I am too tired to deal with a tantrum, I lash out when I know that I should be calm and understanding. When I'm not eating properly, I lack the motivation and energy to play with my son outside. When I'm not taking time to get back to neutral and focus on my individuality, I'm losing myself in my son and, in turn, making him responsible for my happiness. However, when I focus on myself and my mental health I am becoming a better mom that can be all the things my son deserves, and here are just a few moments that made that undeniable fact all the more obvious:
Your Health Affects Your Child...
Nothing makes you realize that your physical health is vital to those around you, like pregnancy. I used to be so unhealthy, and then I got pregnant and realized that if I didn't take care of my health, my baby would suffer. I needed to be as healthy a possible, so I could grow and carry and birth a healthy baby. Obvious, right? Sure, but when you've been unhealthy for so long (literally never caring about or for yourself the way you should) it can be a hard lesson to learn. It was a small step in the right direction, but pregnancy reminded me that if I don't take care of my own person, I won't have the ability to take care of another person.
...And Not Just Your Physical Health
A mother's mental health can affect her children in a variety of ways, depending on whether or not the mom is suffering from a mental illness (and what kind) and depending on the age of the child. Mental illnesses are not contagious, obviously, but there are some mental health illnesses that can be passed from mother to child (Bipolar Disorder, for example, has shown to run in families) and other hereditary traits may raise the chances of a child experiencing a future mental illness, even though it isn't genetic. However, a mother having a mental illness does not necessarily mean that her child will develop one, too. More serious mental health issues should be consulted with a mental health professional, always.
Simultaneously, studies have shown that babies can sense when a mother is stressed out and, in turn, they become stressed out and anxious, too. Your mental wellbeing can affect your child, whether you have a diagnosed mental illness or you're anxious, overwhelmed, sad, exhausted, or anything in between.
When You're Happy, You're Baby Tends To Be Happy
Likewise, when you're happy, your baby tends to be happy (or, you know, happier). I have noticed this first hand, and am still in awe at how my son picks up on my mental wellbeing and, in turn, reacts to it.
When I took a job and started doing something I loved, rather than something I felt I had to do, my son seemed happier during the day and at night and, well, always. When I came home from work happy and fulfilled, I noticed my son smiling more and laughing more. Of course, he still throws fits. He's a toddler. And, of course, there are other contributing factors that I don't want to overlook (teething, sleep regressions, etc.) that can alter his mood from day to week to month. However, I am also sure that my happiness facilitates my son's happiness, which makes my overall mental wellbeing all the more important, to me.
You Can't Take Care Of Someone If You Don't Care For Yourself
I always revert back to the airplane metaphor which, yes, is very over-played and clichéd, but it also holds true which makes it worth regurgitating. When there's an emergency on an airplane, parents are told to care for themselves first, before tending to their children. Makes sense, as your incapacitation would do nothing to assist your kids. Yeah, real everyday life is the same way.
If you're running on empty and you feel like you're about to "lose it" and you just don't know if you can continue, you won't be able to take care of your kid the way you want to. When you're at your best is when you can parent your best.
You Matter And You Shouldn't Sacrifice Everything For Anyone, Including Your Child
Motherhood doesn't negate your humanity. Motherhood doesn't mean that you now, even for seemingly honorable reasons, no longer matter. Motherhood doesn't mean that you shouldn't be tended to or cared for or considered worthy of that care. Motherhood definitely doesn't turn you into a superhero or negates your needs. You deserve to care about and tend to your mental health, because you're a human being and nothing, not even the wonderful act of procreation, changes that fact. You still matter.
Eventually, Your Baby Won't Need You
It might be a sad thought for many parents but, one day, your child won't need you anymore. They won't be coming to you for comfort or solace (at least not the way they do now) and they won't turn to you for food or protection or the basis necessities of life (at least, not the way they do now. I mean, there's no way I'm going to turn down my mother's cooking. Like, ever.). When that day arrives, you'll want to be in a place that celebrates it, instead of fears it. You'll want to have spent enough time tending to yourself, that you'll be OK when you eventually stop tending to someone else.
I know that while the idea of my son learning more independence is both exciting and somewhat scary, I am also looking forward to the day that he ventures into and experiences the world, by himself. That's the whole point, right? I didn't procreate so that I could control every aspect of my son's life. I procreated so that he could have a life, and then enjoy it.
...So You Need To Be OK Without Them And Separate From Them
I take the time to tend to my mental health and my individuality, because while being a mother is part of my identity, I don't want my son to be responsible for my entire identity. I don't want to make him responsible for my happiness; I don't want him to feel like he has to stifle his life choices in order to "stay close to mom" and give me purpose; I don't want to burden him with my feelings of adequacy when, one day, he needs and should go into the world on his own.
That's why I'm all about leaving my son with my partner or a trusted family member or a wonderful friend, and taking time to myself. That's why I won't apologize for putting myself first because, eventually, I will just be responsible for myself again. I am OK spending time away with my son, building something for myself and separate from my son. That's why days when I don't spend as much time with my kid, or at least as much as others may think I "should," are so very important to me. If a quiet few hours with a book helps me destress and feel like myself, that's what I'm going to do.
You're More Than A Mom, You're A Person...
Sadly, it took postpartum depression to remind me that I was more than a mother, but a human being. I was so afraid to talk about postpartum depression or seek treatment for postpartum depression because I had this preconcieved notion of what a mother looks like, and being depressed wasn't part of it. I realized that I am more than a mom, I am a human being who still experiences very human emotions and problems, and just because I'm a mom doesn't mean that I don't deserve to be happy and healthy.
...And Every Person Deserves To Be Mentally Healthy
You are a human. You matter. You deserve to be happy and healthy and thriving. You deserve everything your want so desperately for your kid, so make sure you give yourself just as much love as you give your child. Mom, you deserve it.