Before I had kids, before I ever said, “I do!” I'd been cautioned more than once by women close to me that I shouldn't ever forget to take care of myself. Even armed with their advice, it took learning the lesson the hard way by reaching a point of total burnout to finally, finally understand that I needed to quit putting my needs last and tending to everyone else first. It took seven years of marriage, three pregnancies, and countless unnecessary sacrifices before I'd ever realize that no one in my home really benefits when I don’t take care of myself.

This past winter, my body really gave me no choice but to start caring for myself or pay the price. I was dealing with the hardest days of first trimester sickness in my third pregnancy while caring for two toddlers and I was not doing well. I was exhausted, throwing breakfast on the table each morning and then crashing on the couch until my husband left for work. My emotions were hard to manage, I was struggling to process my third pregnancy overall, and I just felt completely incapable of whatever tasks were on my to-do list each day. I was burnt out. After years of putting my kids and my husband first, a hard third pregnancy was enough to send me over the edge. I checked out, just going through motions of motherhood, doing the bare minimum needed to keep my kids fed and safe because I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer
I felt trapped and it felt like being a mother was the problem.

I really thought I'd snap out of it, that my second trimester would bring a new energy and renewed love of motherhood, but that wasn’t the case. My difficult pregnancy symptoms didn’t really let up when my second trimester arrived. I was still exhausted, throwing up on a regular basis, and as my belly grew it was harder to keep going at the same pace I had before.

I tried to buckle down, to keep up the same standard of parenting I had before, but my body was fighting back everyday. I was impatient and frustrated, resentful of the demands my role placed on my time and my limited energy. I felt trapped and it felt like being a mother was the problem, when in reality it was my approach to motherhood all this time that was really causing this burn out. Honestly, I didn’t really know how to prioritize my own needs and it wasn’t fair to myself or my family. It wasn’t fair because no one expected me to play the martyr, to always feed my kids first while I ate standing up or skipped lunch altogether. No one told me I had to work late into the night, sacrificing sleep because I felt guilty working during the day when I was home with my girls. No one required me to give up on alone time, my own hobbies, or my ambitions to spend my free time focused on caring for my children or my home. These were all just the standards I'd set for myself based on an idealistic view of motherhood I'd adopted early on.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

Early in my third trimester, I found myself faced with a choice: start making changes that would allow me to put my own needs first, or continue down the dark path I was on. I needed to start putting my own care high on my list of priorities because my mental health and my relationship with my children and husband were suffering. I began and ended each day exhausted, frustrated, and impatient. Something had to give. And soon.

It wasn’t a big change, like I thought it'd be, but it was enough to start a new habit of paying attention to what I needed. It started small: No one sat down for lunch until I had made my plate too. I started leaving the house more frequently when my husband was home, getting away to catch my breath or to get a much-needed haircut. I started working during the day for an hour or two while my kids watched TV and entertained themselves, allowing me to head to bed at a normal time. These things weren’t life changing on their own, but they taught me how to start caring for myself and my family at the same time.

Most days, I'm no longer frazzled or stretched too thin, and I'm not the only one who's benefiting from the change. I'm a happier mom when I take care of myself and I have more affection and patience to offer my children.

Not only has this change made me feel better, my family is also starting to notice as well. My husband has noticed that I'm more carefree, that I'm able to take the everyday stressors of parenthood in stride instead of allowing little things to make me feel irritated or anxious. My children seem more at ease, it seems that by reducing my own anxiety, I was able to bring more calm into our home and my children are responding positively to the change. I am too, of course.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

Honestly, these small choices helped but they weren’t enough. So I started seeing a counselor again and she helped me find more ways to care for my own wellness, including diving into new interests and scaling back on the responsibilities at home and at work that were burning me out. Because I stopped putting my needs last, I've been able to find joy in motherhood again. Most days, I'm no longer frazzled or stretched too thin, and I'm not the only one who's benefiting from the change. I'm a happier mom when I take care of myself and I have more affection and patience to offer my children. Of course, there are still days when the demands of motherhood require all the emotional energy I have, but since I'm making a habit of taking care of my needs, I feel happy to love and give to my family when they really need me the most.