Before I gave birth to my son, I couldn't fathom how some mothers struggled to take time to care for themselves, whether that was working out regularly or making it to a routine dentist appointment. Admitting this makes me cringe, but it's what I honestly thought.
Now, after 18 months of changing diapers, breastfeeding and sleep deprivation—I know self-care as a mother is anything but easy.
A people-pleaser at heart, my first instinct as a new mom was to care for my son, dog, husband and home before taking care of myself. I quickly learned, however, that putting myself last was the path to burnout.
I never really thought much about self-care before becoming a mom, but now I fight to prioritize it. Here's what I've learned.
1. I learned that in order to care for others, I must care for myself
It took coming down with a fever after several sleepless nights with my son, who was also sick, for me to realize this. The day sickness struck I felt so dizzy I could barely stand and ended up in urgent care.
My nurse scolded me for ignoring my health: "You have to start getting more rest," she said, "so you can be healthy for your son." That really clicked, and stayed with me.
From that moment on, I started taking better care of myself.
Now whenever I'm tempted to stay up late and skimp on sleep, put off making a doctor's appointment or skip my workout, I think about the consequences of ignoring my health.
Knowing my son depends on me to be healthy offers me the accountability I need to put myself first and make smart choices when it comes to self-care.
There are days when prioritizing self-care is easier, and days when it seems as though I cannot possibly do one thing for myself. But I've realized that if I allow my role as 'mother' to eclipse the need to care for myself, eventually I become exhausted and ineffective.
Inspired by my nurse, this is my motherhood mantra: To care for others, I must care for myself.
2. I stopped being afraid to ask for help
My own mother raised me to be independent, which has influenced the way I tackle problems in adulthood. One of my earliest lessons of motherhood, however, was that neither I, nor my husband, could tackle the task of raising our son on our own.
A couple weeks after he was born, dirty dishes and clothes were piling up at home and food was getting scarce. I knew we needed help, but I felt a little embarrassed by the mess we'd made while focusing solely on caring for our newborn. Finally, I called my mom, who came and stayed with us a few days.
At last we had an extra set of hands to snuggle the baby and clean and cook. I even got my first taste of alone time—which I used to sleep!—and I resolved that I wouldn't be afraid to ask for help again so I could carve out space for me.
3. I defined self-care for myself
One of my mom friends, Brooke, loves to treat herself to a weekend pedicure on occasion, just to get out of the house for an hour. She says she always comes home feeling refreshed and energized to spend time with her son, and she never regrets it.
I love this idea, but when I have a free hour, I prefer to use it to take a hot yoga class or head to a local Starbucks and do some journaling.
Becoming a mom forced me to create my unique definition of self-care. I only have so much time to myself, so when I am alone, I want to make it really count. I learned through trial and error that some activities I thought I loved (running, baking) didn't bring me as much joy as they once did. In fact, I found that when I did them, I ended up feeling as though I wasted the precious time I had alone.
Now I make sure I do the things I love (yoga, writing) so that I can return to my parental duties feeling recharged.
4. I re-thought my day
When a new baby enters your world, your schedule is forever changed. Then a few months later it changes again… and again… and again (and so on). As someone who uses her planner like a security blanket, this epiphany was more than a bit discouraging.
The only way I was able to regularly incorporate self-care in my life was to rethink my day. For example, I used to religiously complete morning workouts, but with my son's sleep issues, I soon realized they'd be off the table for a while. (Actually, they still are.)
When I took a look at my daily schedule, I realized that if I could allow myself some flexibility, I could switch my workouts to late in the evening, or even squeeze in the occasional yoga session over the lunch hour.
Now I try and make it a point to find at least one free moment each day, whether it's an hour or 10 minutes, to do something just for me.