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Melissa Hartwig Urban on being a single mom and why we should re-frame our thinking around self-care

Melissa Hartwig Urban is the co-founder and CEO of the Whole30—an intensive 30-day dietary program designed to heal your digestive tract and end unhealthy cravings through whole, unprocessed foods. Today, the Whole30 has over 2 million followers across social media platforms and has impacted the lives of people around the world.

In addition to being a busy CEO, Melissa is also a proud mom to her 5-year-old son. And last year, Melissa launched Whole Mamas, a community-inspired online roadmap to help women navigate the entire journey of motherhood, from a Whole30 perspective.

In this episode, Liz and Melissa chat about becoming a single mom early into motherhood, expanding what we think about "self-care," and rising kids with a healthy attitude towards food.


Liz: Melissa welcome to the motherly podcast.

Melissa: Thank you so much for having me Liz.

Liz: So something I love to ask every fellow mom is what was your view of motherhood before you first became a mom yourself.

Melissa: I there are so many things that I would go back and tell my pre mom self about sort of those self the preconceived notions I had about motherhood. I never really wanted to be a mom that wasn't like I had this drive or ambition where I knew one day I would have a kid. It was like pretty hit or miss for me. I could definitely see it going both ways. But I never could have understood the impact that it would have on my capacity for love. My capacity for patience. The degree to which all of a sudden the entire center of your universe shifts so wholly and completely. I think I knew that I would have to make some sacrifices and my life would have to change and I would not always be able to put myself first. But I had no idea the shift that would happen very automatically and naturally and irrevocably once I had my son.

Liz: And what's interesting in a way is that you you had your child at the same or similar time to when this whole 30 movement was really taking off. And what was that like to become a mother while also just being a part of like a rocket ship from a business perspective and and all of the people who were putting probably demands on your time.

Melissa: Yeah it was a really interesting period of time. He was born in 2013 but I was in the middle or just begun thinking about the second or third book and writing that one the first book came out in 2012. It was obviously a lot of there were a lot of challenges. I remember going into the pregnancy thinking well it's so wonderful that I work for myself because when he's napping I'll just work and I'll have all you know he sleeps a lot and I'll have all this time to run my business and you know maybe I'll take a week or two off. I mean I had no idea no idea how it was going to work but I think some of the things I had done before I had him really set me up for success. I was very good at setting boundaries. I was very good at self care and making sure that I filled my cup first. I was very good at setting priorities and not waffling or feeling obliged to bend to someone else's wishes. You know if it wasn't in line with my priorities and all of those things served me very very well when having to balance all of a sudden this new addition to my life with this business that was very rapidly growing.

Liz: So you've spoken about before how shortly after giving birth you knew your marriage wasn't going well and that you weren't likely to be with your ex-husband much longer. How did that how did that experience in the midst of everything else you were going through as a new mom. How did that shape your approach to parenting?

Melissa: I mean it was a very stressful and difficult time unfortunately. You know you're right. Our marriage had not been doing well. And I knew and we ended up splitting up very shortly after he was born. On one hand I feel like because our relationship situation was so difficult I didn't I never had the experience of feeling like I could count on a partner to help me parent whether that was true or not. He's a very good dad. He's still a very good dad. So because our relationship was troubled I didn't feel like I could personally lean on him whether or not was the reality or not. And I think it it in one way was very helpful in that I created a very strong and lasting bond with my son. We had our own kind of routine. I learned to be very self-sufficient but also where to ask for help in my the rest of my social circle with parenting. But at the same time you know it didn't really teach me how to cooperate in parenting with someone else on a daily basis or on a micro level. So it was challenging in some ways in other ways I think it was really good for my own personal growth and my own sense of self-reliance and my my relationship with my son. I wouldn't wish it on anyone that's for sure though you know it's not how I wanted to go into parenting.

Liz: How did you as co parents sort of find your footing and a healthy approach to co parenting in those first few years?

Melissa: Obviously it's a very challenging situation but a lot of really open communication a lot of patience on both of our side. You know when one person was taking something too personally or reacting to the relationship and not the parenting situation I will give us both credit that we were patient and kind and understanding and inevitably the other person would come around and say I didn't handle that well I'm really sorry. Let's start again. And then I think a lot of it is just time you know with time the hurt from the relationship kind of mellows and you move on and you do your own therapy in your own growth work. And it really can become you know just about the child and I'm very very proud of how well we've been able to cope parent given the difficulty of us being married and then splitting and working together and now not working together.

Liz: How did becoming a single mother so early into new motherhood kind of shape your approach to motherhood generally?

Melissa: You know I don't know any other way. It's not like I had another child with you know my ex-husband. And we called parents together and now I have this new experience to compare it to. I don't know. I don't know what else. I only have one son and the only way I reason is as a single parent. So again I learned to kind of do things on my own. You know he and I have a very close relationship and we had our own routine and our own way of doing things and our own communication style and and then I also learned how important family was to this effort. I learned how important it was to ask for help when I needed it. You know I'm also only a half time single mom. We share custody 50/50. So when I'm with him for the week it's just he and I and it's tough. But then I get a week off from parenting to run my career or travel or just have downtime for myself and there is an incredible amount of privilege in that situation. You know I have a full time nanny and a half time mom of one very well behaved child without any special needs or you know I don't have to work a 9 to 5 job like my list of privilege here goes on and on and on. So while it certainly was challenging and it shaped my approach to motherhood I also have had a lot of help in that area which I can't discount.

Liz: Absolutely. So how do you like when you meet women who are in those more challenging situations who are single moms maybe to multiple kids. How do you help. How do you help guide them to be able to care for themselves in the midst of such heavy heavy demands?

Melissa: I have so much, in fact, I think the first Mother's Day Instagram post I wrote was dedicated to single moms who have more time care of their kids and have to balance working a 9 to 5 job with taking care of their kids. You know I'm a I really don't I really hate the phrase like well we all have the same 24 hours when it's used to indicate like look we all just in 24 hours and I need time to exercise and I make time for self care like we don't all have the same 24 hours that the single mom who's taking care of multiple kids full time does not have the same day that I have. So I think the most important thing that I try to do now is just empathize and give them so much credit and make sure they understand. You know I can only imagine how hard work it is and I give them so much like love and praise and support for the hard work that they're doing. And then from a practical perspective I try to help them find the little chunks of time or energy or face in their day where they can make room for things like self care or make room for things like exercise or social connection or outdoor time. You know I try to help them work with what they have as opposed to this over arching like idealistic like well you just have to find time for it because that is not helpful.

Liz: What do you see as that sort of toolkit for wellness that those women you describe who are single moms who don't have extra support like they need it more than anyone. What do you see as making up that to that essential tool kit of healthy motherhood.

Melissa: Yeah so I think self care is really really important. But I also think that we have to adjust our definition or our take on self care. You know I think we're all aware now the conversation is now when health care isn't all manicures and bubble baths. But let's get even more micro about what health care looks like to you and it's going to be different for every single person. You know I think understanding your own love language the idea of you know how do you show yourself love. Is it with a gift is it with unlimited you know unrestricted like alone time is it with words of affirmation. Those are all very important and once you understand how you show yourself love then it's can I find brief moments of my day you know self care might be instead of taking a really long leisurely bubble bath it's letting folding the laundry slide for 10 minutes so that you can sit with your child and be present in their activity or you know instead of eating lunch indoors you just go outside and you put a blanket on the grass and that can be self care. Like sometimes these this idea of health care can be so small you don't even think about it ourselves care. But when it really comes down to it it's just those choices that you feel like fill yourself up just a little bit more than you might normally be able to in your normal day to day.

Liz: I love that. And something I've personally identified for myself that what self care can sometimes look like is actually not using my free time to be scrolling on social media and being it's so easy to get sucked into the phone and entertaining myself and I've personally found that like I can coach myself into self care by not there's just not spending my free time and giving my brain a break from that environment. And the reason I bring that up is because one of the things that you know you've talked about is the fact that you don't share much about your son on social media. And more and more moms I think are kind of aware of the complexities of social media sharing and I'm just curious if you're able to share more with us about your philosophy around not posting about your son on social media.

Melissa: Yeah it's a very deliberate choice and it's a very personal choice so everyone has to kind of come to their own terms on this. But his dad and I agreed from day one that we were not going to share photos of our son in any capacity we don't talk about you know I might share generalities like we're at the beach this weekend but we don't refer to him by name. I don't talk about him specifically and I think it's two things for me the very first thing is that I want him to be able to choose his own level of privacy as he gets older and more aware of our social media environment. So me putting him out there very early on does not allow him much of a choice when he gets older but also because my life is so public because I am upfront you know in terms of speaking engagements and book signings and media. It's important to me to maintain a boundary between what Rene Browne calls personal and intimate. So I share with personal and social media. I'll tell you what I eat for lunch. I'll tell you that I'm in New York City for a book tour event. You know I'll talk about things that happen in my day. I'll share my workout with things that are intimate. My son the details of my personal relationship a struggle or a stressful event that I'm going through in the moment I just leave those office social like those are reserved for me as a way again of preserving boundaries. And I consider that very much myself care.

Liz: Absolutely. Thank you for that I was I was reading that you know there's even evidence now that curating these perfect lives and using our phones to take pictures of milestones instead of just being fully present in some of those moments actually like decreases our joy in those in those real moments of like say a birthday party or being out to dinner with your partner. So yes we kind of intuitively know that but sometimes just like seeing that scientifically it psychologically removes us as is an interesting insight especially for someone who's living their life so publicly through social media.

Melissa: Yes. And it is a very difficult boundary to navigate. You know this idea that I have to be on social media it's part of my job and it's how I build community and build a rapport and and you know have trust with my community. But at the same time I make no bones about the fact that like I'll disappear off social all weekend long because I'm with my son and I don't feel the need to excuse it. I don't feel the need to announce it. I just go away. And that's completely fine. Like there are no Instagram related emergencies and me taking that time off to be fully present with my family and enjoy that moment again. I consider that self care.

Liz: OK so now we've already like sort of painted this picture of intentional motherhood for us. But what I can't wait to talk about is motherhood and parenthood and nutrition on a basic level. Nutrition is about what we put into our bodies and scientists are only starting to understand the generational impact that nutrition has on us and our children during pregnancy and postpartum as well. So I guess as someone who sort of studies the space and has lived it. What do you want women to know about the long term impact of nutrition during this the season of life.

Melissa: Yeah. There is such a fine line between informing and empowering women who are about to embark into motherhood or want to and fear mongering and making them feel like they already are doing it wrong. You know if you read the studies like I read a study when I was pregnant that said like what my mom ate will impact the health genetically of my child. It's like oh my gosh we're already screwed before we stray.

Liz: Right we it's almost like we know that it matters but it's it's still so far removed from what we can necessarily access in our daily lives easily.

Melissa: Yeah.

Liz: So how do how do we balance that?

Melissa: Yeah it's a difficult balance. What we try to do is inform from a very impartial standpoint. This is what the research shows. This is what our clinical experience shows this is what my personal experience shows and take that information with you and kind of do the best you can and honestly that's the very foundation of the whole 30 is this isn't prescriptive. It's not a diet that we think everyone needs to be like should eat forever we're not saying you should eat or should not eat these foods. This is some experiment designed to teach you about how food works for you. I think when it comes to motherhood we do the best we can with the information that we have. And I think you can read and research and and educate yourself about things that maybe you should or shouldn't do in generalities in the interest of your own health and your being yourself. But then again you have to live your life and you know if you dig deep enough everything's bad for us. The water we're drinking the air we're breathing like everything we come into contact with everything at some micro level is bad. So you also have to recognize that it's okay to let good enough be good enough and that we do the best that we can. And when we know better we do better and that's OK.

Liz: So what does it look like though, in practice? How to eat during this season of life, as you talk about, can be absolutely overwhelming. So what are those like basic principles of whole food nutrition that you really recommend women to focus on in this season of life that can be really stressful and overwhelming.

Melissa: So in the most generally speaking if you're eating whole real nutrient dense food and you're cooking most of your meals yourself you're in really good shape. And when you think about it it sounds very simplistic but if you're cooking most of your meals yourself it means you're buying whole ingredients at the grocery store and you're chopping and prepping and putting them together in ways that feel delicious and satisfying to you. But cooking indicates grill food. And if you're focused on eating again whether it's you know meat seafood and eggs lots and lots of plants natural healthy fats whatever that looks like in your individual context I think you're off to a great start then I think universally there are some general recommendations for supplementation. So things like you know full plate and K2 and things that if you talk to your doctor or midwife or your first medical professional and they're recommending these things in your diet I think that supplementation basic supplementation can be really really healthy. But I also think we can't overlook the things like social encounters and one on one social engagement for you know mediating stress and outdoor exposure and moving our body like all of these things on top of nutrition play into a feeling healthy and happy and empowered during our pregnancy. And then I think equally important there's a point where you just have to get off line and stop researching and digging into every forum and every message board you read because that can become very overwhelming and very scary quickly. And I don't think that too much information is good. In that instance.

Liz: How did your own experience in pregnancy and postpartum lead you to want to create your whole mommas community.

Melissa: So Whole Mamas was born with my pregnancy and then Stephanie Grundy who's our registered dietitian in charge of the program. Our experience with being pregnant with as much information as we knew about nutrition and health and lifestyle. I had access to all of the top doctors and nutritionists and researchers and registered dietitian and midwives like I had more information than ninety nine percent of the population. And I was still overwhelmed and I still felt like there was a lot of fear mongering and I completely underestimated the amount of input that other people would feel like they deserved to have in the life of you and your family and your unborn child. And what I had to do was decide from a very early point. These are three or four sources that I know very well and I trust and I'm just going to rely on them for advice and support and I'm going to tune the rest out. And I'm always going to go back and listen to. Is this right for me. Is it right for my family and my partner. Is it. Do I think it's right for my baby. And from that experience it was like man what if we could create a community for moms that provided the information and the resources from a very non-judgemental non polarizing non finger fear mongering perspective. It was information it was supported for all stages of motherhood all walks of life all choices. And we just presented the info and let people kind of pick and choose what if we could be one of those resources that someone said I know what they have to say. I've been around their community for a while and I trust them and they're someone that I'm going to listen to and that will help them with was born.

Liz: I have a lot of questions about how do we go from fueling our babies when we're pregnant with them and providing that nutrition to you know learning how to feed a child. And it's it's it can be overwhelming not just to know what to put in your body but the responsibility that comes with providing the nutrition for your kids as they're growing. What are those healthy habits that you think form like a long term basis of healthy eating for kids.

Melissa:I think eating meals together with your child from a very early age and family meal times are really important. Again whole real food involving them in the process as early as possible. Like my son had a little kiddo kitchen set and was helping me chop and prep food and his meals very early on and graduated to like a big boy he's using like you know a straight up paring knife right now at five years old. So involving them in the process exposing them to lots and lots of poor real nutrient dense food maybe you know reading some of the research that says that kids need on average like eight exposures to a food before they'll accept it and you know the idea that like colorful things on their plate and a lot of variety on their plate are really helpful not leaning on some of the quick and easy you know really sugary things that you know they're going to like and you know that will make them happy because it's easier but like really just committing to taking a little bit more time to introducing fruits vegetables in before fruit and then not making food an automatic reward. I know it's very easy perfect for children to have like pieces of candy or lollipops fear reward for being good but not making that connection early on can really help them avoid having a dysfunctional relationship with food especially with sugar as they get older.

Liz: What advice do you have. Cause like I started out feeding my kids all the healthy foods everything avocado healthy fats and you know over time and as they grow up they have really strong preferences or they it just becomes pickier. So like what advice do you have for mothers like me and parents like me in this situation where we have good intentions but it's a it's an ongoing conversation with our kids about you know how to incorporate more healthy foods and maybe they we feel like we've gone off track. How do we get back on track with that nutrition our children.

Melissa: It is really challenging and I can only speak to the age that my son is now he's about to turn six. I can't give advice for teenagers because one thing I've realized is that like I want to smack myself for some of the parenting advice I gave to other parents before I was in that situation and feel your innate you don't know the challenges. My son is in school for the first time now and so we're having to deal for the very first time with other people's food. You know he had never eaten like a cupcake or a cookie until he went to school. And so we're navigate I'm navigating that now just now with him. I think again going back to this idea of while you have control of their food making sure that you feel comfortable that like you're the parent my son gets one dinner he eats what I eat for dinner and if he doesn't want it or doesn't like it he's enough to eat it but he's going to go hungry and occasionally I give him choices would you rather have this sweet potato or the cauliflower. But they're both choices that I'm happy with and that I can live with. So you know he doesn't get these special ala carte meals. I'm continually reintroducing new foods because kids grow their tastes change you know last week he loves sweet potato this week. He doesn't like it. Last week he wouldn't eat an avocado this week. All he wants so constantly reinventing and bringing food back in and bringing them back in maybe in different ways or with different dipping sauces or gosh you know I can get my kids to eat just about anything if I serve it with a toothpick. So like all of these little interesting kind of parenting hacks I think can be really really helpful. But then you also have to understand again that like let good enough to be good enough my son doesn't have any food allergies there's nothing I absolutely have to restrict in the name of his health. So if you were at a birthday party and wants a cupcake he's going to eat the cupcake. But then I very carefully point out how I think that cupcake is influencing him you know well you made that cupcake and like you're not being a very good listener right now and your energy is really crazy or when you throw a temper tantrum after that cupcake like we know that apples and fun butter do way better for you than cupcakes. And so when he says can I have two cupcakes and I say nope it's too sugary. He totally get none. And I think it's just a matter of having the conversation again bringing them into the decision and giving them options that you can both live with and letting them have some independence there but then understanding that like they're going to be off on their own making their own choices and that's going to have to be OK too.

Liz: Thank you Melissa. And motherly we talk about how motherhood can really help bring out our superpowers and I frankly feel you have a lot of superpowers. We can learn from. But I'm wondering what you believe you've discovered what superpower you think you've discovered in yourself after becoming a mom or becoming a mom.

Melissa: I have tapped into a well of patience that I did not know existed. And I feel like that spills over into a lot of areas in my life. I have a lot of grace for my son when he's misbehaving because he's cranky or because he's tired or because he's hungry or because he has to go back to Dad's and that's really hard. And I feel like that carries over into how I engage with everybody in my life. I like to think that it was that I have more empathy that I have more patience that I have more of a drive to speak to look kind of beyond the behavior that I'm being presented with and really like get to know the person a little bit better and dig down into what may be happening. So I'm really grateful. It's trying sometimes but I'm really grateful for that experience and I don't always get it right. But I've also learned that the power of self forgiveness and giving grace to myself in the process. And that's also been like that's a pretty awesome superpower.

Liz: I completely agree. And thank you for sharing that with us. Melissa thank you so much for joining us today on the motherly podcast.

Melissa: It's been a pleasure. Thank you for the conversation.

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