As mothers, we spend most of our times not thinking about or caring about ourselves and our needs. I know plenty of moms (hand raised here too) who don’t get showers regularly, don’t eat well, never treat themselves. How did we get to a point where something as necessary as self-care has become something we shrug off as part of motherhood? Part of it is the nature of the beast, but part of it seems to be a societal expectation for women to become martyrs when they become mothers. The idea that a mother should put herself first, as in before the needs of her children, is downright blasphemous.
Ever since I became a mother, my personal needs have always come second to everyone else's. Now that I have three kids voicing their needs every second of the day, my self-care has been deplorable. I regularly skip breakfast. I don’t drink enough water. I put off working out because I’m exhausted. I will even find myself waiting, sometimes over an hour, to go to the bathroom because I can’t seem to find the time. Someone always needs me.
So I decided to see if I could spend a whole week putting my own needs first. I decided to make “treat yo self” a personal mantra, and make sure my needs were met before anyone else’s, even my children’s. With my husband jetting off to China for a two-week business trip, I knew I’d need to take care of myself if I was going to survive. But it was much easier said than done.
Here's what a week of putting myself first taught me.
The first day of my self-care experiment, I was running on autopilot. I didn’t eat breakfast while getting everyone ready for school. I didn’t take a shower because we were running behind schedule. I didn’t even brush my hair. I was exhausted and frustrated by mid-morning, which is when I finally looked at my planner and saw in bold letters that I was supposed to be taking care of myself first for the week.
It was obvious that I needed to start putting myself first, especially because I couldn’t even remember to do it when it was part of my job. So I took a step back and tried to think of what I could do for myself to salvage the day. I decided to keep it small and simple: drinking tea, reading a book from the library, and burning my favorite semi-pricey candle. It wasn’t much, but it kept me going through the day.
It felt strange though, to purposefully do something that only benefitted me. As much as I enjoyed it, part of me felt like I should be doing more productive things. There was laundry that needed to be folded. I could be making a healthy snack for the kids. But isn’t that the problem? Even when I found the downtime to take care of myself, I felt the urge to take care of everything else.
On day two, I was failing again. I didn’t have a plan for breakfast and ended up staring into the refrigerator, feeling like I was failing myself. Had it really been so long since I took care of my own needs that I had forgotten how to do it? I realized food was my biggest factor, and since I was in charge of all the kids all the time this week, I needed to do some serious planning if I was going to take care of myself properly. I treated myself to some Pinterest, then some old-fashioned offline planning, and then I headed off to the store with all the kids in tow.
After my errands were done, I did the unthinkable: I asked the grandparents come over to babysit so I could go for a run. I generally only ask for babysitting when I’m in a complete bind. I will cancel plans rather than ask for help when my husband isn’t around. I never, ever consider my workout needs important enough to inconvenience someone else, but in the interest of my self-care experiment, I went for it. It felt awkward to ask, but they were excited to see the kids, and going for a run really turned my day around.
I felt relaxed and calm. I was able to fall asleep easier, and the effects of a good night’s rest did wonders for me the next day.
Armed with plenty of treats as well as healthy food I enjoy from the store, day three started off on a great note. I made all of us a special breakfast of French toast sticks, and made sure I had a smoothie to balance it out. I ate snacks as soon as I started to get hungry and my mood was considerably better throughout the day. I even made myself spanakopita for dinner.
Even though my son was starting to act out a little over his dad’s long business trip, I was able to keep my cool and talk him through his emotional episodes without any tantrums. I noticed that eating well throughout the day totally changed not only my mood, but also how I interacted with my kids. I was more attentive and alert. I wanted to play with them. I kept calm in situations that would normally make me snap or yell.
Taking care of myself first was making everyone happier.
Although I am normally at my kids’ beck and call all day long, I decided to step up my self-care on the fourth day and allow myself a midday shower. My mornings had been too hectic to squeeze in a shower since my husband had left, and I had only quickly rinsed off in the evenings because I didn’t want to take the time to dry my hair. So I put on some Netflix for my older two sans mom guilt, and took a good long shower while the baby was napping. I even took some of my hidden chocolate into the bathroom with me and ate it while the water heated up. Bathroom chocolate may not sound like a self-care win, but I'm a mother of three Trust me, it counts.
My mini break during the middle of the day left me super relaxed, and I kept the calm vibe going with a glass of wine while the kids played in the sandbox before dinner. Treating myself was starting to become more habitual, and I was definitely starting to feel the benefits of being a more relaxed and well-cared for mom.
On day five, I gave myself a mantra that would normally give me a knee-jerk reaction: me, first. When I woke up in the morning, I made myself tea before getting anyone breakfast. I made a smoothie for myself and refused to let the kids steal it from me. (I did make them another one; I’m not heartless, OK?). When I needed to do something, whether it was putting on makeup or going to the bathroom alone, I let my kids know that my needs came first. They wouldn’t die waiting an extra minute or two for a second morning snack, or help with their block-building crisis. It felt so counter to everything I had once thought motherhood was “supposed” to be, and adopting a “me, first” attitude helped center me.
When my needs were taken care of, I was better able to care for my kids. I was more empathetic to their needs when mine were met, and it was really making me an all-around better mom.
On the fifth night, things fell apart. My daughter started vomiting before bedtime, and continued to vomit through the night. We went through all the sheets in the house, twice. We ran out of carpet cleaner. I was in the midst of my fourth load of late-night laundry when I heard retching from my son’s room. It was 1:00 a.m. His comforter was soaked in vomit and needed to be hosed off, and the outdoor hose was being guarded by a black widow with a body the size of a goddamn olive. I threw the comforter on the lawn for the sprinklers to deal with. I spent the entire night in survival mode: laundry, baths, changing bedding, sips of water, new pajamas, clean the floors, rub backs, get the baby back to sleep, repeat, repeat, repeat. There was no self-care. There couldn’t be.
It continued into the next day. When I finally got to Skype with my husband, I sobbed unapologetically. What I needed more than anything was to cry and feel supported, because I could not support myself any longer. The thing about motherhood is that you can’t always put yourself first. There are desperate times where you simply have to survive. Sometimes all the self-care you can muster is a good hard cry. Sometimes that has to be enough.
I spent another restless night awake, not because anyone was vomiting, but because I was nauseous. I tried to convince myself I had undercooked the chicken I had made, or that maybe I was pregnant. But by early morning I was slung over a toilet, retching with the rest of them. I had my parents come to help me while I slept with my sick children. I let my mom wash dishes. I let the housework go undone. I didn’t do much other than sleep and drink water to take care of myself. It was all I could do. It was all I wanted to do.
What Did Putting Myself First Reveal?
I realized how important it was to take care of my needs when I was able to. All too often, motherhood does come down to mere survival. Kids get sick. Laundry becomes an endless abyss. You are functioning on a level that is simply trying to keep everyone afloat. If you’re going to make it through those times, you need to be taking care of yourself. That first night of illness would have destroyed me if I hadn’t been healthy and caring for myself in the days leading up The Great Vomiting Disaster. We need to be at our best in order to make it through the worst.
We may trick ourselves into thinking we have no time to take care of ourselves, but the truth is we don’t have the time to ignore our health and needs. Our self-care directly affects the care of our families. I felt like a much better mother when I was taking care of myself. I was happy and relaxed (as often as I could be). I had more energy, more patience, more confidence in myself as a mother. So if that’s not a good case for sneaking chocolate into the shower with you, I don’t know what is.
Images Courtesy of Gemma Hartley (8)