When you’re a working mom, it can easily feel like you have no time for genuinely restorative breaks—or any break for that matter. Which can quickly lead to everything from resentment to burnout.
But mothering doesn’t have to be one massive hustle without any respite. We just think it does. And these narratives dictate how we spend our hours and our minutes—minus real, meaningful pauses.
Namely, we have “outrageous expectations” for ourselves in every arena of our lives, according to Lauren Smith Brody, mom to two and founder of Fifth Trimester Consulting, which helps businesses improve their culture for new parents and offers back-to-work coaching for moms.
For instance, we think we need to Parent with a capital P, said Amialya (Mia) Durairaj, MSc, a proud mom of 2-year-old identical twin girls who were born three months early. Durairaj helps new moms of special needs children incorporate their newfound identities as parent advocates with their desire for fulfilling careers. She’s the co-creator and moderator of Mindful Return’s Balancing Career with A Special Needs Baby.
“This is especially true for moms of special needs kids who get frequent feedback from specialists about all of the exercises and therapies we should be doing more often.”
As a new mom, Durairaj was convinced that she determined her girls’ developmental progress. (“In retrospect, it was pretty narcissistic of me!”) Which meant that she didn’t sleep enough and didn’t take good care of herself. Which also meant that she’d frequently get sick.
Over time, though, she had a realization: “A village would be far better at raising my daughters than a frazzled, martyr of a mom.” She also realized that it’s important for her daughters to see her taking care of herself, so they can do the same for themselves as they get older.
Another reason we rarely break has deeper roots: “We don’t value ourselves as much as we should,” said Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, a healthcare attorney and founder of MindfulReturn.com, which offers online courses to help parents transition back to work after having a baby. For instance, most of us are a lot more likely to attend an evening yoga class if we promised to meet a friend there than if we’re going alone. Because we tend to honor our word to others, but not so much to ourselves, she said.
Breaks are vital for our sanity and survival, said Mihalich-Levin, also mom to two. Without white space in our day, she said, we can’t reflect on the bigger picture. “We lose perspective on what’s really important in life. And we sacrifice our [mental and physical] health. Our families and employers would appreciate if we’d operate on fuller tanks, I’m certain.”
But how can you take breaks when so much needs to get done? Here are five tips for carving out genuinely fulfilling pauses in your days, even with a towering to-do list.
Use your commute. Brody underscored the importance of knowing what helps you to feel like you’ve cared for yourself—and your commute is a great time to focus on that. For instance, a psychologist she interviewed for her book The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity and Success After Baby suggested tending to one of our senses.
Maybe that’s taking a bite of chocolate. Maybe it’s applying lavender-scented lotion. Maybe it’s listening to a podcast. For Brody, it’s hearing the opening song of The Daily, the New York Times podcast, because it reminds her that she’s “planting her feet in the world.”
When Mihalich-Levin’s kids were smaller, she’d stop to sit on a park bench or inside a hotel lobby for 5 minutes on her way to work. She’d turn on the app Insight Timer, and simply breathe. “It didn’t take much time, didn’t extend my commute by much, and completely changed my mindset before I stepped into the office. If you have 5 minutes to check Facebook, you have 5 minutes to sit still and decompress.”
Add a regenerating activity to your routine. Durairaj, also a writing consultant and owner of Little Octopus LLC, suggested engaging in an activity that regenerates you, and doing it at the same time every week. “Hold that time as sacred.”
For instance, every Saturday afternoon Durairaj’s in-laws take care of her daughters while she gets a foot massage or takes a long walk with a friend who also has kids with special needs. “I look forward to it all week. It restores me!”
Sink into small pauses. “I try to find little pauses every day to keep my equilibrium,” Durairaj said. For instance, she meditates for at least 10 minutes while her daughters nap. Every morning, she also spends several minutes savoring her cup of coffee before they wake up.
Every morning in the shower Mihalich-Levin sets an intention for the day, stretches and savors the solitude. Focusing on herself—versus her clients’ or kids’ problems—gives her a better start to the day, she said.
Relinquish some control. A big reason it’s so hard to take a break is that we try to give everything to everything. We do this so things don’t fall apart. But this tight grip is ever-exhausting (and while you try to hold it all together, you just might feel like you’re falling apart).
Mihalich-Levin also struggles with the need to control it all. One of her Mindful Return students shared this invaluable perspective with her: “If I give even 75 percent at work and 75 percent at home, that’s already 150 percent of me.”
For 2019 Mihalich-Levin has adopted the word “trust.” She said: “I’m leaning into the idea that I can take care of myself and trust that everything else will indeed fall into place.” Can you lean into this idea, too? What can you remove from your to-do list? What can you delegate? What can you let go of to make room for yourself?
Reconnect with friends. Turning to your supportive tribe, even for a bit, can provide a transformative break. For instance, a 10-minute phone call or a 15-minute coffee date with a friend can fill you up for a week, Brody said. A text chain might do the same. Brody has one with three close friends, where they share everything from laughs to work wins. “I feel a part of something bigger than just me.”
Taking breaks is vital for our well-being. And what these breaks look like, of course, is entirely up to you. As Brody said, the key is to “use your time in a way that feels good.”