A friend and I bump into each other at Target nearly every time we go. We don't pre-plan this; we must just be on the same paper towel use cycle or something. Really, I think there was a stretch where I saw her at Target five times in a row.
We've turned it into a bit of a running joke. "Yeah," I say sarcastically, "We needed paper towels so you know, I had to come to Target… for two hours of alone time."
She'll laugh and reply, "Oh yes, we were out of… um… paper clips. So here I am, shopping without the kids. Heaven!"
Now don't get me wrong. I adore my trips to Target (and based on the fullness of my cart when I leave, I am pretty sure Target adores my trips there, too).
But my little running joke with my friend is actually a big problem. Because why is the absence of paper towels the thing that prompts me to get a break? And why on earth is buying paper towels considered a break for moms?
It also occurs to me that I recently made a related joke while sitting in the dentist chair. "You doing okay?" the hygienist asked.
"Oh, I'm great, this feels like a vacation," I replied.
Is it easier to run errands or clean the bathroom or go to the dentist without a child in tow? You bet. Do those activities constitute breaks or self-care?
A viral post is making its way around that addresses this very point. The author, Shelby Hyatt, writes:
"Cleaning your house without kids is not a break. Showering is not a break. Grocery shopping alone is not a break. It's chores and basic hygiene but mothers are supposed to be grateful to do these things that literally everyone else just does. And at some point, we just break…"
She's not the only one breaking.
Motherly's 2022 State of Motherhood Survey found that 55% of SAHMs are "always" or "frequently" experiencing burnout.
A significant contributor to mom-burnout is that the patriarchy has made moms feel guilty about taking care of our own needs and own self-care—so much so that we don't attend to them. We put ourselves last on our priority list every single time, and our physical and emotional health suffers because of it.
But moms are desperate for self-care so we look for ways to get 'alone time' that don't make us feel guilty. We settle for kid-free cleaning or grocery shopping because at least it's a little easier than being in full-on mom mode, and we can feel justified that we are doing something to help the family out in the process.
Chores and showers are not self-care for moms
We break because we are expected to act as if they are.
Presuming that a mother will feel revived after cleaning the bathroom or rejuvenated after standing in line at the deli is unfair and demeaning. It suggests that women exist only to serve others and that the tasks and chores she does for others, nonstop, all the time should fill her with joy.
But why can't we feel justified in taking actual legitimate care of ourselves? Why does spending an afternoon in bed or going for a long hike or taking a yoga class make us so wrought with guilt? A healthy mix of sexism and misogyny—and it's time to change it.
How can we get rid of the mom guilt?
We need to do two things: Recognize when we feel guilty and call on our families and our society to support real self-care.
The next time your mom-guilt rages, stop and pay attention. What triggered the guilt? Maybe it was snapping at your child (been there, done that). In that case, the guilt can be useful in that it can teach us that next time we hope to respond to a situation differently—totally fair.
But I bet that more often than not, guilt rears its head when you are doing something for yourself. When that happens, sit with it, as uncomfortable as it may be. Often just being with our uncomfortable feelings for a bit can disarm them, and can certainly help us learn. (Don't forget that a therapist can help you work through what comes up, as well.)
Once we are aware of the guilt-causers, we need to start addressing them by seeking real self-care. Now, this is going to look different for everyone. And I'll be the first to say that I have no plans to give up my Target runs. They make me happy! But self-care shouldn't stop there; maybe it's a Target run followed by a real run. Or coffee with a friend. Or an appointment with a therapist. Or whatever it is that you truly need to fill your cup.
The point is that you deserve to do things for yourself—just for yourself—without anyone making you feel guilty for it.
Because the reality is that this mentality isn't helping anyone. We've demonstrated that it's not helping us—we need better self-care so we can experience less burnout. And it's hurting our families, the very people we were trying so hard to protect all along.
Self-care is the least selfish thing you can do, mama. So do it well and intentionally.
A version of this post was published April 30, 2021. It has been updated.