I hear the advice and see the logic: Practice self-care, mama. You can’t pour from an empty cup. You’re a better mom when you take time for yourself.
And I know. I get it.
But I didn’t—at least not until I sat on that crowded airplane, wrangling a toddler on my lap, flying solo. My 15-month-old scaled the squishy staircase that is my body to get a better look at everything around him as the flight attendants modeled all of the things we should do in an emergency. I perfectly juggled the tasks of restraining my kiddo, listening to the safety instructions and mentally preparing our personal emergency exit strategy. For the first time, I didn’t disregard when the flight attendants emphasized, “Please secure your oxygen mask first before helping others.”
I looked down at the tiny human in my care. We usually fly as a family of four. This is the point in the trip when I look over at my husband and joke that he needs to secure my mask because I’d be so focused on the kids that I’d forget my own. My instinct would be to save my children, to put on their mask as soon as possible. It’s not that I’m a martyr and I definitely would not consider myself selfless. It’s just that . Saving my children is saving myself.
As the flight attendants made their way to their seats, one looked over at me as I situated my active kiddo for take-off nursing. She gently reminded me, “Remember, put your mask on first.” Remember to put my mask on first? Some days, I didn’t even remember to put my bra on first. I couldn’t even remember what I had had for breakfast. Had I eaten breakfast? But my toddler, I could tell you everything he looked at, touched and tried to put into his mouth in the last 24 hours.
This time I didn’t have back-up. In the extremely rare chance something happens on this airplane, if this little guy was going to survive, I would have to remember to put on my mask first. It was an absolutely terrifying thought.
I needed that flight attendant’s second reminder. I needed it on the plane, but I needed it more off the plane.
I was starting to feel the emotional burnout of having two small humans constantly depending on me. I was tired. That particular brand of tired that aches in your bones and only comes from having a toddler who has yet to sleep through the night.
I decided to dive into the world of self-care. It took me a long time to arrive here. At first I thought it was guilt that held me back. But then I was inundated with mom friends sharing their self-care routines with pride, posting countless articles, citing research and personal experiences as proof of the phenomenon. Plus, there was a hashtag!
I was ready to try it. I set myself up for some time away. I spent way too much time trying to get ready. I wasn’t dressing to impress, but I was definitely dressing to be socially acceptable for the after-dinner crowd in a college town. As I sat down at a table with a handful of other mom friends, I mentally assessed the family friendliness of the place. As we laughed and enjoyed drinks and each other’s company, things we often did with our children around, I missed the tiny people who would typically be crawling across my lap. When I arrived home a few hours later, I was exhausted. Socializing as a real adult without small children had taken more energy from me than it had given. I have definitely realized as I leave my “party age” that I am not the extrovert I once believed myself to be. I checked off mom’s night out and moved on down the list.
Maybe I just needed some time and space alone. I could get something accomplished without small children. I took a to-do list and drove to the store. I leisurely perused the aisles and filled my cart with only items on the list. I didn’t have to convince anyone why we did not need a papier-mâché elephant. But I didn’t have anyone to laugh with about silly cards or fun hats.
In spite of missing my children and being overwhelmed and lonely in my “self-care” experiments, I still kept at it. I was definitely not at my mommy best and this was the miracle cure. I needed to take care of myself! As I engaged in this endeavor, self-care became my Holy Grail. Everything I was trying wasn’t right, but there had to be something that was.
The truth is that adults-only time or silence and space away didn’t leave me feeling recharged. In forcing myself to engage in this brand of self-care, I didn’t return feeling rejuvenated and ready to be a better mom; I just began seeing my family as adversaries to what I needed. All it left me feeling was resentful.
Since time away wasn’t my fix, I decided to invest in daily pockets of “me time.” I would desperately seek holes in our day when I could find time to take a break. I would run into the kitchen to sneak some chocolate. I would cling to the promise of naptime, of early bedtime, of mental time away. Some nights I would fall asleep, with a toddler starfished across the bed, legs in my face, dreaming of a weekend away. I would mentally count down the days (years!) until I could rent a hotel room, be the only human sleeping in a big fluffy bed, in absolute silence.
My kids ended up bonding with the screens in our home while I made myself a priority. Thanks to Daniel Tiger, I stood in the shower for way too long, as my skin burned red and the hot water ran cold. As the theme song to Thomas the Tank Engine blared, I could finally do laundry, vacuum, prepare meals in peace. But the peace was never peaceful, it was mostly just sad. It created an opposition between my children and me. They were something that needed to be escaped.
This wasn’t working. I didn’t feel cared for. I actually felt miserable. I realized that I was overcome with the pressure to “accomplish” self-care. I was feeling that omnipresent mom guilt. I felt guilt over feeling burned out. I felt guilt over failing to care for myself leading to my feeling of being burned out. I felt guilt over the fact that I was just plain failing.
There was only one thing left to do. I had a mommy meltdown. There wasn’t much kicking and screaming, but—oh!—were there tears. Ugly, snotty, crocodile tears as I let the feeling of “I can’t do this” run through my body and completely release. Once I picked up the puddle that was my mom shell, I had a new sense of purpose, a new sense of clarity. I am not failing. I can do this. I was made to do this.
The thing is this was my dream. As a former early childhood educator, I always wanted to be able to stay home with my kids at this age. If I were working instead, I would be surrounded by five times as many kids this age. I made the choice that I would rather spend my days with my own kids than someone else’s, than someone else caring for mine. In the search for self-care, I had lost that.
I was, as always, trying to measure up to some idea of motherhood that didn’t fit my normal, that didn’t fit my family.
I did need to recharge. I did need to meet my own needs. I just needed to figure it out my own way. I revaluated what I truly needed. While I always said I wanted “silence and no one touching me,” that never left me feeling cared for. That never filled my bucket. Self-care was not going to be something that I could do. It was going to be about how I felt. I wanted to feel myself enjoying my kids. The only way to do that was to actually enjoy my kids.
I set goals for myself. They were simple, but powerful. Laugh and dance. That’s it. I knew that would bring us back to a place where we could all feel loved and cared for. We now have daily dance parties. I usually get out voted on music choice, so it’s a good thing I love the soundtrack to Moana. I’m not one for tickles, but we have found our laughter in jumping on the bed. I will never be the roughhousing parent, but in this way we are finding joy.
I have friends who are runners, knitters, rock climbers, swimmers. I’m definitely not any of those things. Self-care is not like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It’s not one size fits all. Self-care is an individual experience. While experts can recommend that you engage in it, only you can figure out what works for you.
I still don’t shower as often as I’d like to. My house is always a disaster, and not in the modest way, but in the dried food crumbs all over the floor, boxes still unpacked from a move that happened six months ago and a playroom aesthetic of a Kevin McCallister booby trap.
But I feel the difference. And even more importantly, I see the difference in my kids. I found what works best for my family. I realized that it doesn’t look like self-care from the outside and that’s okay. And as I bounce on top of a rumple of sheets and blankets, I remember the other important lesson from the safety presentation. “Even though oxygen will be flowing to the mask, the plastic bag may not inflate.”