It’s easy to tell moms they should put themselves first.
I had read the advice that “moms should put on their own oxygen masks,” probably 100 times.
I’d published many articles on the important theme of “self care isn’t selfish.”
I liked the memes that reminded moms that showers and errands weren’t self-care, and that we needed more to be truly well.
But two years ago, the culture of mom burnout that American society has normalized started to catch up to me, too.
I read the articles, but as a working mom of four kids, I was still putting myself last.
My husband and I weren’t working out.
Date night had last happened in a different decade.
We went to bed exhausted. And woke up fatigued.
We had no problem putting our spending money toward kid's activities, but couldn’t find the budget for activities we wanted to do.
I noticed I was approaching parenting from a “what’s the least I can do?” point of view, counting the minutes until bedtime.
Every day felt like a grind that we couldn’t recover from.
I was surviving motherhood, but I was absolutely not thriving.
Until my husband and I took a much-needed walk after a particularly stressful day, and he reminded me, “it doesn’t have to be like this. I’m tired of being so tired. We can take our power back.” And knowing he was so right, we started the long slow work of putting ourselves first as parents.
It’s been a process of unlearning motherhood as martyrdom towards a new paradigm: one where the caretakers must get taken care of, too. In fact, moms and dads need to get taken care of first, because if we don’t decide to prioritize our needs, nobody else will. And if parents have nothing left to give, kids will suffer, too.
Learning how to put my needs first as a mom has been uncomfortable. For starters, I live far from friends and family, and in a society that lacks paid maternity leave and affordable childcare. So while I wish I lived in a place where community care came standard, this emotional and physical labor has been real work that I’ve had to prioritize.
Because our society is built on the backs of parents, especially moms, sacrificing their bodies and lives without any social or structural support back, we can feel like we are doing something wrong when we act like our wellbeing matters, too. It feels self-centered to say that mom’s needs and wants are the most important thing in a family. But in a world where mothers are expected to give up everything for our kids with little in return, unapologetically taking your power back can be radical and liberating. I have to put myself first, because if I don’t, nobody else will.
For us, it has meant moving to a less expensive area to make room for more pleasure in our lives as adults. We have prioritized remote work options over everything else, making sure we can maximize free time for ourselves and our family. We have taken solo trips without our kids, even when our families fret that our kids will be traumatized. We have stopped thinking that any expense for our kids is “worth it,” and instead ensure that our needs as adults are met first. We make sure that we as adults are getting to eat healthy, get breaks, have fun with friends and do playful, pleasureful activities that fill our cups up, all things that our productivity-obsessed culture taught us we didn’t have time for.
In a world where the momentum is focused on moms alone meeting the needs of their kids, saying that a mother’s first priority should be herself seems wrong.
And I wish that I didn’t have to always put myself first to ensure that my own needs get met; I long for a world where we are all wrapped in layers of community and care from our culture, our corporations, our neighborhoods and our government.
But the reality is we’re not there—at least not yet. And so in order to survive in a system that is stacked against moms, I had to change something dramatically. And once I realized that the status quo was destroying me, I got a little bit more confident in my self-care.
Once I noticed that by getting enough sleep I was a happier, more patient mom in the morning, I prioritized rest and ignored the extra chores.
Once I noticed that by fueling myself with superfoods, positive peers, good music, fun exercise, enjoyable literature and lots of water actually recharged me faster than an extra cup of coffee, I convinced myself to never let my tank get too empty.
Once I realized that I simply was too human to do the work of an entire village, I started asking more of my husband, our friends and family, and when possible, hired babysitters more frequently to help.
Once I realized that I could work in a way that played to my superpowers and made the most of my time, I knew how to rearrange my schedule to make it work better for me.
Once I realized that in an individualistic culture lacking any structural support, nobody was coming to save me, I decided I had to try to save myself.
Related: Actually, motherhood is political
Once I lived the richer, fuller, healthier life of a mother who decided her needs mattered first, my family got out of crisis mode and into a more harmonious place. In fact, the kids barely noticed that I was putting myself first, because what they experienced was that I was a more energetic, upbeat mom.
Once I realized that by embodying healthy adulthood I was making it easier for my kids to know how to care for themselves as adults, I knew this is the only way I want to live.
Moms matter first. It’s radical. In a society that tells us we’re selfish for simply having human needs, I hope you find a way to radically prioritize yourself, too.