Over-dramatic wails and cries cut through the peaceful quiet of my light-dimmed bedroom. He’s not quite two years old, over-tired, and thrashing around while I try to calm him for a much-needed afternoon nap. I draw him close as I attempt to sing one of his favorite simmer-down songs, but he won’t have it. His back is arched and he claws at me while kicking off his blanket, desperate to escape the clutches of sleep. With screams in lieu of words, he is very clearly saying to me, “No sleep, Mama! Anything but sleep!”
Despite his protest, I know he’s at the end of himself and pushing sleep aside is no longer an option. He fights me until there is nothing left to do but give in to sleep.
This scene is familiar to many moms of toddlers. There is a point at which a child needs sleep before there will again be any peace, joy, or delight in the day ahead. It seems toddlers are content to run themselves ragged until their tanks are past empty. Sadly, so are moms.
As I laid there with my son thrashing in my arms, I first thought, “Kid, why are you fighting it? This is what you need right now. Sleep is not optional,” and my second thought was, “You respond to your body’s cues and needs the very same way, Emily.”
Guilty, as charged.
Like my overtired toddler, I ignore the early cues that I am depleted and running out of steam. I fight off the more insistent signs that I am approaching the end of myself as I become easily irritated by the chaos around me. Inevitably, I reach a fateful moment when I do my own bit of thrashing—losing my temper, or breaking down with a heavy cry over the dishes in my kitchen sink, or ducking out of the action to scroll on my phone to escape my reality but not really rest—completing one more trip around the constant cycle of inadequate self-care.
For years, I have spent my physical and mental well-being like a credit card, often charging more than I pay back into the system. I’ve been racking up a personal debt of depletion in a self-perpetuating cycle that hasn’t been easy to break. My perspective about self-care has been skewed by the (erroneous) belief that it is just some buzzword; a trendy or luxurious pursuit that is beyond me. Until recently, I’ve thought of self-care as something that may be great when you can squeeze it in every so often but is ultimately something non-essential to mothering well. I carried around cliche mental images of pedicures, bubble baths, and a nightly glass of wine that haven’t matched up with my desire for a deep sense of peace within myself and satisfying rest. As a result, I wrote off the term and accepted the out of bounds exhaustion, broken down postpartum body, and sometimes soul-crushing loneliness as part of the job. I have ignored the cumulative effect of twelve years of gestating, birthing, and nursing six babies, in denial about the stress I’ve put on my body and mind. Although I have made small investments in my overall health, my attempts at self-care have amounted to little more than occasional escapes from reality, that have served to distract me from dealing with the debilitating depletion I am currently experiencing. Until now, I have had no vision for how to engage substantial, meaningful self-care habits that nourish and restore me.
True self-care is about recognizing my deep, personal need to be physically and emotionally replenished, so I can serve my family with patience, perseverance, and love. I am learning that if I don’t take personal responsibility for my self-care, for my overall well-being, no one else can do it for me. I can’t wait for my husband to recognize what I need from non-verbal cues and shove me out the door for some personal time. I can’t expect my children to cease needing my care, and if I want some rhythms of rest into our days at home, I’m the one that has to establish them. Momentarily escaping the responsibility of motherhood is not the same as investing in my present and future wellbeing.
There is no way around the reality that my family needs me to arrive to my roles with energy and vision. My husband longs for a joyful companion and a generous lover. My children depend on my gentle guidance and encouraging words. Someone has to lead the charge for nutritious meals and an orderly home where we can find peace in the midst of a tenuous social landscape. And me? I must begin to see that in order to do all of those things, I can’t “give it my best shot” and resign myself to a dramatic crash-and-burn every few months. I have to value myself as a human person who has real needs, real limitations, and real desires that long to be fulfilled. I must build my life around wholesome and restorative habits that allow me to be a strong and steady presence for my family without ignoring myself in the process.
I know that other people live busy, exhausting lives as well, but moms are the only ones I see who are consistently, willfully, and repeatedly railroading themselves through the parenting years because they think there is no other way. There is another way, mamas. I’m not claiming that it’s an “easy” way, because I am finding that some of the habits required to become truly healthy in mind and body are not all fun, nor immediately gratifying.
Successful self-care requires attention, constant re-evaluation, and the self-awareness to know what we need at a given time in order to be replenished. It requires resolve to keep the promises we make to ourselves that will lead to a pattern of flourishing we can sustain through whatever ups and downs we encounter in our marriages, families, friendships, and careers.
I want to ask you to re-examine the role of self-care in your life; what it has looked like up to this point, and what it could look like going forward. This call is not meant to be an ideal foisted upon already-weary moms, but my hope is this series—this conversation—will help you identify the cycles and habits in your life that are not serving you or your family well. My hope is that you might emerge with a new or renewed perspective about how worthy you are of being nourished and rested, whatever chaos and challenges that are tucked in around that.
I want you to recognize that deeply restorative and nourishing habits are not out of your reach, and that self-care is merely the daily, faithful, and flexible-but-committed pursuit of stewarding your life well. It is an invitation to make thoughtful, strategic choices to live within your personal limitations, cultivate contentment with the life you have, and understand that you have the potential and the power to change your life one ordinary day at a time.
I want you to see that self-care is essential and that engaging it is not as costly, nor as complicated as many of us make it out to be.
Emily Sue Allen is the founder of the Kindred Mom blog and podcast and is passionate about helping moms flourish in motherhood. She is a contemplative, creative soul who celebrates the beauty of a humble, handmade life and deeply values the power of encouragement. She lives with her husband and six kids in the Pacific Northwest, and personally blogs at lightandloveliness.com. She invites you to connect with the Kindred Mom community on Instagram or Facebook.