Putting Your Family First Doesn’t Make You a Better Mom
Getty ImagesCaiaimage/Tom Merton
Most parents will tell you about how they hazily go through their earliest days with their newborns, living in isolation on no sleep, constant am-I-doing-this-right? anxiety and stress, and a steady diet of takeout and whatever casseroles or lasagnas were generously donated through some kind of life-giving meal train. The only thing that matters in those first few fevered weeks is making sure the little one is okay.
But I’m here to tell you from first-hand experience: That. Is. Not. Sustainable.
For some reason, that’s a lesson that every parent has to learn the hard way. It’s just so easy to continue the pattern that’s established in those earliest days: putting the children’s needs first and foremost, while grabbing a nap or whatever bite to eat you can scrounge up only after the kids are taken care of and in bed, feeling too tired to maintain your adult friendships. I remember days spent pureeing farmers’ market sweet potatoes for my daughter when she was a baby, only to microwave a burrito for myself after she finally went to sleep for the night — after midnight.
The tendency to put yourself last is especially prevalent in moms: According to a joint survey done by HealthyWomen and Working Mother, 78% of moms report they put off taking care of their own health because they were too busy looking after their loved ones. When asked to rank the amount of time spent managing the health of various family members, the same moms put them in this order: Kids took the most time, then pets, older relatives, spouses or significant others, and then (finally) themselves.
Seriously, three places behind the family dog.
But after everyone from the kids to the cats are handled, there’s not that much left over for Mom: A survey of 2,000 parents found that moms and dads, on average, get only 32 minutes of “me time” each day — which, frankly, seems high to me. A study in Britain put that number at closer to 17 minutes, which feels more on the mark. How are mothers supposed to be functioning human beings when we give ourselves less than half an hour a day to manage our own needs?
The answer is, moms can’t. Which is why I believe moms need to take their self-care into their own hands, putting “me time” up at the top of the family priority list — even if it means something else that would benefit the rest of the family gets bumped down to the bottom.
If you think about it, it makes sense: Taking care of yourself puts you in a position to be a better mom overall. If you spend all day preparing healthful veggies (or preparing six different meals for pickier older kids) while scarfing junk food in the wee hours like I did, you’re going to feel tired, hungry, and foggy in the morning. (Trust me.) Which means you’re not going to have the energy for another round of puréeing and swaddling. Eventually, you hit a wall.
But don’t just take it from me. “Self-care is a necessity, not an indulgence,” says Emma Bennett, LCSW, who specializes in working with new moms. “We need to nurture ourselves just like we nurture our children. If we don’t take care of ourselves, feelings of depletion, resentment, and isolation could potentially arise. I feel more centered and present after taking time to engage in self-care, and strongly believe in building it into my daily agenda.”
The “build it into the daily agenda” is the key point: If you don’t actually make space for your self-care, it isn’t going to happen. I’ve shuffled around some of my own priorities.
That doesn’t mean I get to go to the gym, make from-scratch meals, and attend a spa appointment every day (as much I would like it to). For me, I’ve chosen sleep as my biggest non-negotiable. Even more than even exercise, sleep is the gas for my tank, what puts me in a position to more clearly see everything else that needs to be done and be able to think strategically about approaching it.
So now if I hear my daughter through the monitor in the middle of the night, I’m likely to elbow my husband in the ribs, roll over, and shut my eyes tight. (Don’t cry for him: We make space for him in the after-work hours, so he can do what makes him feel most human, be it a workout or, most likely, a trip to the movies. We also take turns sleeping in on weekends. We’re both pretty lucky that we get to do that for each other.)
But getting to laze around doesn’t just make me feel rested. I actually think it sets a good example for my daughter. “Our children look to us and how we treat ourselves,” says Bennett. “This goes for many things: how we speak to ourselves, how we treat our bodies, how we value our time. Modeling healthy self-care can be helpful for our children to witness and internalize. We are teaching them that taking care of yourself matters just as much as taking care of your family.”
I don’t want to raise a daughter who puts herself last and doesn’t believe she deserves her own “me time” to spend however she wants. And chances are, if I hadn’t changed my ways, at some point she would have noticed my midnight burrito habit, and that would’ve made just as much an impression on her as my insistence that she eat her greens.