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The one piece of advice I’d give myself as a new mother

June 19, 2015

I’ve been a mother for nearly six years now, and it has been a wild and wonderful ride so far. As my little people grow into bigger people, I sometimes stop and think back on those first months and years as a parent. I thought parenting was all about taking care of and teaching my children. It is about that, of course. What I didn’t know, though, is that it’s also a journey for me as I learn and grow and change through this process of caring for others.

Over the past six years, I’ve learned all about infant sleep safety, how to manage temper tantrums, teething and separation anxiety, preschool crafts, teaching a child to read and much, much more. However, there is one area of mothering that has humbled me again and again, and I still haven’t gotten it right. It’s the one thing I would go back in time and tell myself as a new mother if I had the chance: learn how to take good care of yourself.

As a new parent, I would have rolled my eyes at that advice just like I did when numerous people admonished me to “sleep when the baby sleeps.”

“Are you serious?” I would have thought. “I’ve gotta get this baby to eat. I’ve gotta get her to sleep. I would really love to clean up my house a little bit. And don’t even get me started on the laundry.”

What I’ve learned over the years is that when people tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps, it’s not just a sleep thing or a newborn thing. What they’re trying to tell you is that you have to take care of yourself or you won’t be able to effectively care for others, and I’ve learned that they’re right.

Know that self-care isn’t selfish

You know when you’re sitting on an airplane getting ready for take-off and the flight attendants give their mandatory safety instructions? They tell you that if a catastrophe happens, place the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then offer help to your loved ones. This goes against all of our parental instincts. Save my children first, that’s what we think. But here’s the thing: if you can’t breathe, you won’t be able to help them and they will need your help. You have to provide for yourself first so that you are able to provide for the loved ones next to you.

It’s like that in the life of a family, too. Our children need us, and they need the best us. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we can be assured that our children aren’t getting the best version of their parents. While we may be able to soldier through the newborn phase and that first year of infancy, we will not be able to keep soldiering on over the next twenty years. (Believe me, I have tried this approach). We need care and comfort and rest for ourselves in order to be the best parents we can be. It is not selfish to seek those things. It is necessary in order to preserve the best gift we will give our children: healthy, loving parents.

Find out what it means to take care of yourself

Taking care of our families comes naturally to most of us; taking care of ourselves doesn’t. People have always given me advice like, “Go have a girls’ night, go out to dinner, go get a pedicure.” I kept trying to “get” all of these things, and it never addressed my needs (not to mention all of these suggestions are hard on the bank account). I’ve learned over time that what fills me up and makes me feel rested and cared for may look different than it does for others. It takes real work to figure out what it means to care for yourself and although it isn’t an easy problem to solve, it is an important one.

If going out and having a raucous night with friends fills you up and gives you the strength you need to continue to give to your family, then by all means do it. But if you’re like me and that approach leaves you wanting, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are the times in my life that I’ve felt most rested and relaxed?
  • What activities do I find myself daydreaming about and thinking, “If only I could do this _____.”?
  • What things that (when I make time for them) leave me feeling refreshed and rejuvenated?
  • What things leave me feeling drained and tired?
Asking myself those questions has helped me learn how to care for myself better. I know that being with a large crowd of people takes energy from me instead of giving it. Things that fill me up are quiet time alone, exercise, reading, spending time with my husband, quality time with a few close friends, and perhaps getting an occasional massage. When I make time to do those things, I return to my family rested and ready to take on the challenge again.

Get rid of guilt

I still struggle, however, with feelings of guilt when I choose to do something for myself. Even when I’m in desperate need of rest, I still feel guilty. But you know what? I’ve decided to just do it anyway. I’m so convinced that it is important and healthy for my family that I choose to take care of myself that I do it in spite of my feelings. I put on my oxygen mask so that I can be healthy enough to take care of the loved ones around me.