Babies and children are selfish. No, that’s not mean... it’s just true. They are by nature and design needy, self-centered beings, and it falls to us—their parents—to fulfill those needs, which range from the 24/7 on-call nature of newborn care, to the quixotic and demanding nature of toddlers, to older children’s needs that may feel less physically taxing but no less emotionally demanding. Add home, work, a spouse or partner, friends, and family, and you can easily feel like every day is a pitched battle: you against the never-ending needs of someone or something else.
So what do you do? If you’re like most moms, you kick it into gear and get it all done: the dirty diapers, the feedings, the midnight bouncing and soothing, the bad-dream-chasing, the dinner, the pediatrician appointments, the cat litter, the car inspection (is it late again?)—all that before you even go to work.
Why We Skip Self-Care
You have a list and you take care of everyone and everything on it, except you. What happened to self-care—exercise, time alone, time with friends, long showers, that stack of books on your nightstand, a night out?
There are several intersecting reasons why many moms—in particular new moms—perpetually put themselves last and ignore or put off self-care, starting with the fact that it’s baked into the job description (see: babies are selfish, above).
Then there’s the pressure we feel, or think we feel: Aren’t moms supposed to be utterly self-sacrificing? With just a few notable exceptions, all the moms you see on TV or in movies tend to be aw-shucks-kids-first, in-the-background types.
There are other reasons we should acknowledge, too, like the fact that a lot of the time we’re too stuck on a hamster wheel of exhaustion to get off and take a look at what we need. It’s ironic: We’re so tired and busy that we forget to realize that—ding!—practicing good self-care may make us less exhausted and strung out to begin with, and better able to handle the busy.
So if you’re ready to put yourself first—as the flight attendants warn you should when it comes to those oxygen masks—on your own to-do list, here are some self-care ideas to try:
1. Don’t skip physical care. While it’s important to address all those things that nurture your emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual selves, you can’t easily do many of those things without caring for yourself physically first. Self-care starts with things like getting rest (as best you can, depending on your work schedule and your children’s ages), eating healthily, staying well hydrated, and finding ways to move your body in some way, every day. Put those needs first. Prep healthy lunches so you don’t end up mindlessly grazing on goldfish crackers; keep a water bottle with you at all times; lay down when your baby is napping; go for daily walks, either with your children if you’re home, or during lunch hours or breaks if you’re at work.
2. Start small. An irony about most self-care advice is that it can sound—particularly to the overwhelmed new mother—like yet another thing she has to do. Don’t feel like you have to make some grand gesture for self-care that involves complicated babysitting arrangements or is otherwise too daunting to arrange that you feel even less cared for afterwards. Do little things. Leave a basket of laundry unfolded and instead cozy up on the couch with a book, or watch a half-hour comedy on Netflix. If 10 minutes of me-time is all you can manage, then take the 10. The trick is that you’ll begin to see the benefits of those short self-care breaks, with the result that you’ll further prioritize them.
3. Forget what other people tell you to do—just do what you love. Old-school women’s magazines were notorious for telling women how to nurture themselves. They did so with a good heart, but still—not everyone loves bubble baths and scented candles. If you find getting a mani/pedi relaxing, do that. If you think other people digging at your cuticles is the ninth circle of hell, don’t do that. Find the self-care ritual that works for you, whether it's browsing a flea market solo, hiking a trail with a good friend, or arranging a movie-and-drinks evening with your posse of pals.
4. Make dates with yourself. No, you’re not taking yourself out to that hot new sushi place. By “dates,” we mean actually schedule your self-care as appointments you won’t miss. You don’t have vague plans to take that new gym class with your friend; you have an obligation-by-calendar to do your level best to get there.
5. Recruit a network. Networks work two ways in the pursuit of self-care. First, if you gather some like-minded friends in a similar situation, you can brainstorm things to do together as a group, like go to those Friday night free concerts in town this summer. Second, you can agree to swap babysitting with each other so that you each get to indulge in whatever me-time you prefer.
6. Make your needs clear at home. It’s all well and good to suggest self-care, but what if your partner isn’t on board or available to help? Ask yourself if that’s really true. The thing is, with some exceptions, most partners or spouses would be happy to help you find some time to yourself if you’d just say, specifically, what it is you need. So speak up: Instead of screaming “I need time to myself!,” say, “I would like to stay in bed on Sunday mornings to catch up on reading the paper. It would be great if you took the kids to the park for an hour or two.”
What kinds of self-care work best for you?