As a mom, when you hear that it’s important to take care of yourself, your eyes might glaze over and you may be thinking something like: “Another thing I need to add to my to-do list: ‘self-care.’ How am I supposed to do that?”
That’s the reaction Elizabeth Sullivan sometimes gets from her clients.
And she also gets it.
As a mom to two boys, Sullivan has the same reaction when her husband tells her to take a break or take time for herself. “I’m often like, ‘Oh great, now I can do the laundry in peace.’”
Sullivan is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in helping moms and the entire family. While she personally and professionally understands that it’s hard to fit in self-care as a mom, she also knows that without it, you risk your relationships, health and entire sense of yourself. The unnecessary martyrdom hurts the entire family, she said.
“It really kills the spirit, and it makes everyone around you feel crabby and guilty, too. In order to thrive and flourish together, we must include ourselves in the list of people in our family that need nurturing and care. And getting the balance of all the needs feeling right is the art of parenting.”
What is radical self-care? It is personal, Sullivan said. It may be something special or new, which refreshes and reenergizes you, she said.
Each mom arrives at her own unique meaning through self-reflection, she said. Sullivan uses the term “radical” to underscore the urgent nature of the burnout most moms feel.
“I am trying to light a fire that says, ‘if you don’t figure out how to take good care of yourself, you may lose everything.’”
Another way you can view self-care is as a set of principles or values that you pick and remind yourself of, she said.
Sullivan shared these examples: “pleasure, attention, prioritizing, being present, adjusting, slowing down, mindfulness, getting twice the support you think you need, exploration, kindness…and laughter, laughter, laughter.”
Moms often give lack of time as a big reason why they don’t take care of themselves. But as Sullivan said, “[I]f it were an emergency — if your kid was sick, if someone’s life depended on it — you would deal; you would do what needs to be done. Well, someone’s life does depend on it: your own.”
Again, radical self-care requires reflection. You know how best to take care of yourself when you know yourself best.
Sullivan suggested trying these journaling prompts to help you delve deeper:
- Imagine three days to yourself, no family obligations whatsoever — what happens?
- Pen a love letter to yourself.
- What do I need more of right now?
- I’m angry about…
- I’m sad about…
- What do I want to contribute to my marriage?
- How could my spouse take care of me?
It also can help to ask yourself: How can I make things more fun, silly, open and alive for myself?
Sullivan shared a range of activities her clients engage in along with ideas to try. “[R]emember, it can’t be dutiful or martyred. It must be something that really makes you feel alive.”
- Swimming with a close friend every week.
- Learning or doing something new, such as reading poetry, biking to work, sewing, rock climbing or sailing.
- Joining a community chorus.
- Scheduling an extra day into your work trip to enjoy the hotel and amenities.
- Attending a calming yoga class.
- Listening to a podcast on a topic outside your experience, such as learning Spanish or practicing mindfulness.
- Getting a plot at the community garden for planting flowers for yourself.
- Reading a page-turner on your commute instead of working.
- Stretching in bed every morning.
- Saying a mantra when you’re struggling with anxiety, such as “You don’t have to be good.”
- Paying close attention to “any inkling you get of something you might like to do [such as] surfing, essay writing, horseback riding, running. Any time there is a clue to your inner wishes, write it down to make it more real.”
Sullivan realizes that self-care may feel foreign to moms. She suggested speaking with a friend who’s non-judgmental and a great listener or making an appointment with a therapist. In fact, she said, it helps to have a support team.
“Mothers are the foundations of our families, and you cannot give from a resource that is out of material.” It’s important to renew yourself, she said.