It had been five weeks since our son was born, and I had a hair appointment with my favorite stylist coming up. I’d made it last December thinking this would be a good way to get myself out of the house. Glancing at the calendar that week, I remember thinking that it seemed rather ambitious to leave for a three-hour stretch so early, but I kept the appointment, probably because rescheduling it seemed too complicated and my hours of free time kept slipping away anyway.
Suddenly it was the morning of my appointment and I was rushing around the house like a madwoman looking for my jeans (not leggings, my maternity leave uniform), my keys and my (non-diaper) bag. I had pumped the night before and had a bottle ready, I had requested an Uber, I was ready too. Or so I thought.
Yes, I kept the appointment, likely because I needed to prove something to myself–that I could “escape” the nest and things wouldn’t spontaneously combust and that my husband would be fine and the dog would be fine and my little one wouldn’t starve.
By the time I sat down in my stylist’s chair, eager for some me time and a freshened up look, tears started welling in the corners of my eyes. I tried to keep it together but my heart felt so heavy. I missed my boy.
What I was struggling with that morning and what I continue to struggle with now as a new mama is the tension in keeping up with caring for my newborn and household and caring for myself. I felt a little guilty sitting in my hairdresser’s chair–especially when fielding texts from my husband who was on a maiden voyage bottle-feeding our child–but by the time my appointment ended I felt calm, and a little giddy.
I had carved out my first tiny chunk of me time, and it was working its magic on my weary body and soul. I came home so excited to be with Jack, after days feeling overworked and overtired. As any new parent knows, the physical and psychological challenges of looking after a baby are weighty. Parenthood is a privilege–and a joyful one–but it is incredibly stressful.
What motherhood requires
Motherhood, in particular, requires a giving up of self unlike any other I have encountered in life. It starts with pregnancy, when a tiny human grows in your body over the course of several months. As your belly grows to make room for your growing child, you begin to alter your life to make room for your growing child. We moved out of the city, bought a house, cut back our commitments. A happy and also uncomfortable time, pregnancy is a practice of making room for new life.
This “making room” continues in delivery. Giving birth is a momentous, miraculous experience full of pain, wonder and joy. Your body is under an intense amount of stress–stress that will leave your body forever changed. The moment you first hold your baby in your arms, the aches in your body seem to ache less, and your heart begins to ache more because the love you have for your baby is bigger and deeper than anything you’ve ever felt. But the aches are still there, lingering in the background, reminding you of the powerful thing your body just did.
As your body tries to heal, you’re now on deck all day, all night to meet the needs of a tiny, helpless child. You’d read articles and heard advice from friends on “the importance of self-care” and though you swore that you’d be different, you surrender completely to selflessness that mothering requires.
You’re still you, and yet… your baby will always always always be a part of you. He has stolen your heart forever.
In defense of selfishness
Most of the time I feel as though I could spend an endless amount of time with my son. Time with Jack brings me so much energy and joy. And yet … there are moments when I am downright exhausted by the constant demands on my time and the lack of control I have over my day given I am breastfeeding on demand, whenever baby shows signs of hunger. I feed him 8 to 12 times a day and sometimes it feels as though we are perpetually bonded–leaving me very small pockets of free time to take care of household tasks and my basic needs (eating, showering, sleep). I call these my “windows of opportunity.”
These pockets of time are few and far between and often cause me to make hard choices between keeping our home afloat and doing something for me. Doing something above and beyond meeting my basic needs, like a hair appointment, pedicure, going out to lunch, yoga class or writing? That’s even more rare.
Any time I have an opportunity to escape the house I feel a little bit lighter and a little more grounded. I will admit that I also have a bit of anxiety being away from my son, but for the most part taking time for me makes it feel like I’m getting the equivalent of a long lunch break in the midst of a hard day. I return energized and eager to care for my son–my attitude is better, my itch to “accomplish” has been scratched, I am more loving and feel sane.
For anyone who may think maternity leave is a “break” from work, I hate to break it to you– it’s not. It’s actually trading one job for another that is *probably* more demanding and stressful than your first AND you’re on call all day and night! Now, don’t get me wrong, this work is incredibly rewarding, and I certainly signed up for this gig willingly, but raising a child is indeed werk, werk, werk, werk, werk.
With parental leave policies in America being incredibly gendered, and quite frankly, behind the times (Dads and other partners NEED more time off), the majority of care-taking work can easily fall solely on the shoulders of a child’s birth mother. I am lucky that my husband works for himself and is more available to support us than he might otherwise be if he had a corporate gig. Yet even with a present, supportive spouse, I still feel the pressures motherhood demands.
Recently I had a string of several tough parenting days. I was hit by a cluster-feeding that I couldn’t get ahead of the night my husband left for a weekend trip. I barely slept that evening–and neither did Jack. My mom was coming to visit the next afternoon and by the time she walked in the door I felt I’d reached my breaking point. Exhausted, I handed off the baby to her and headed to bed.
Even though I was dead tired, I couldn’t sleep. I was irritable and feeling jealous of my husband who was elsewhere, enjoying time with college friends. Then I started feeling down about myself–I thought perhaps I just didn’t have what it took to be a good mama. Why couldn’t I handle this? I should be stronger! I shouldn’t complain! I got in a cycle of negative self talk that could be described as “parental imposter syndrome.”
Then I finally fell asleep.
A couple hours later I woke up, rejuvenated and refreshed, and I realized in order to be a good mama, I needed to do something that I often didn’t like to do–I needed to be a bit selfish. I needed to ask for help so I could take time to recharge. Thankfully I had the foresight to invite my mom over and she was a huge help to me that weekend. With her presence, parenting on my own did not feel like a burden but a blessing. Thank God for doting grandmas.
How I’m prioritizing self-care now
It started with a paradigm shift. In an effort to my maximize my time management, I wrote and rewrote my priority list the other day.
First draft looked like this:
- Household upkeep
The I switched the order:
- Household upkeep
When life/parenting gets out of control, when my my attitude is bad, that’s a warning sign that I’ve not prioritized self-care. I know I can’t be the best, most loving mama if I put that last. It’s like the old example airline attendants use–I can’t help others unless I put on my oxygen mask first.
In this case, the oxygen is doing something just for me, something that could be considered selfish.
These days I’m keeping it simple and I try and make a point to do one thing a day that is for me. Not just basic care–showering, eating and sleeping–that I make sure to fit in! It has to be something special.
It could be a trip to Target, yoga class, a phone date with a friend or an extra long snuggle session with my dog. I keep my expectations low, and I am flexible with what works for me in the moment and what will give me the most satisfaction. Today’s treat? Finally (!) finishing this blog post.
I know I’m in a pretty intense season of life and I’ve been really itching to share more with you on this blog, but it is hard to make time to write when there is so much else to do. I am trying to remind myself that this season will pass and my son will one day sleep through the night, but until that time comes, I’m taking things one day at a time and doing a little bit here and there while trying to soak up as much as I can from this special time with my boy.
Some days I’m ready for time to speed up, but most days? Most days I’m content to snuggle my son in my arms for hours on end.
Friends, did you have to give up any hobbies when you first had a major life change–had kids? New job? New home? How did/do you make time for self-care?