As moms we know how important it is to practice self care: put our own oxygen masks on first so we can help our kids, right? But when it comes down to daily life, most of us don’t have the first clue where to start.
As I write this post, I’m staring down the barrel of winter “break” from school. That means a lot more time on mommy duty and way less time for writing, exercising, socializing, and sleeping. I have to admit, though, I’ve become a tad bit spoiled since I became a single mom. Most moms don’t get a two-day break every other weekend while daddy takes over.
I’ve become a master at self care on those weekend breaks. But when it comes to self care while the kids are at home—that’s another story. The two modes give me whiplash and often rob me of the joy of parenting.
Enough is Enough
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, it all came to a head. The boys came back after a week away with dad, and they hit me like a freight train. I had spent the whole week resting and preparing for their return with a fridge full of healthy food and play dates lined up. And still, by 3pm I was on the phone with my mom in tears.
“I have everything I could possibly need to support me this weekend, and it still feels like hell,” I confessed.
My mom proceeded to tell me what I already knew, “Melissa, those boys have your number. They don’t act like that for me or their dad. You’re gonna have to put your foot down.”
To be fair to my parenting skills, no one else spends as much time with my boys as I do, and having an extra needs son in the mix makes things a bit more tricky. It’s true, though. I save the worst of myself for my mom. There’s no one else in the world who I feel comfortable enough with to let it all hang out. As karma would have it, my boys do the same thing to me.
That afternoon my boys and I had a “come to Jesus” moment. They’re finally old enough that I can give them a speech and expect it to at least somewhat register. It went something like this:
Look, we have to make some changes. You guys have a really good life: friends and toys to play with, good food, and a mommy who loves you. But we’re all spending too much time being grumpy and unhappy. Mommy is the boss around here, and if you can’t start following directions, things are going to stay tough. I want you to listen, be kind to each other, and help mommy take care of you and our house. Can you do that?”
Make Yourself a Priority
Since that day, I’ve been much more vigilant about self care in addition to enforcing boundaries and caring for my boys.
Most of that doesn’t involve bubble baths or chocolate. Instead, it involves caring for myself through setting and holding boundaries, and remembering that in addition to my boys’ never-ending list of needs, I have needs that are worthy of meeting. Here’s how I’m doing it.
1. Sit down for meals. I can’t count how many times I get up during meals to fetch a napkin, refill a water cup, provide second helpings, or sweep up a spill. These days when a request comes in, I say, “I’m eating my meal right now. You may get that yourself or wait until I’m finished.”
2. Stop being the maid. When there are dishes to be done or toys to put away, it’s easiest in the short run to do it myself. But I’m tired of watching the house blow up and chasing the mess during the times that the boys are at home all day. I’ve started integrating more regular responsibilities into their days, which helps me and makes them feel responsible for our living environment. It’s paying off. Last week my 6-year-old made my bed as a surprise for me.
3. Use screen time wisely. My boys go to a school that encourages no screen time. While I love this influence, the side effect is that I spend a lot of time either letting my kids run wild while I take care of business or feeling guilty when I cave and put a screen in front of them. About a month ago, my 6-year-old bought his own tablet with quarters he saved from doing chores. When that thing is on—oh my gosh—the peace. I fully intend on taking advantage of an hour a day of this so I can drink coffee and write over the winter break. (Be careful though—overuse backfires and leaves me with irritable, moody kids.)
4. Stop being the referee. Siblings bicker. It’s a fact of life. But most of the time when my boys get into it, I don’t consider it my problem to solve. Usually I tell them to work it out themselves. If the whining and screaming doesn’t stop, I take the toy away.
5. Move your body. Exercise is so very important for your mental and physical health. And as long as your kids are at home, there will never be a right time. Find something that works for you and occupy your kids with whatever works. As a new mom I rode a spinning bike with my colicky newborn in a Moby wrap. Gym daycare was a thing for me for a while. Now I save my pennies by doing yoga in my living room or riding the elliptical in my garage while the boys have screen time or play trains and cars. I’ve also been known to do lunges by the blowup pool in the backyard.
6. Send them to bed. This is another “just do it” tip. Whether you’re single or married, you need your space to care for yourself and your romantic relationship if you have one. I was an attachment parenting, breastfeeding, co-sleeping enthusiast when my kids were very young. Even I found a way to get my kids in their own bed at 8pm. It took work on all of our parts. The rewards were entirely worth every discomfort along the way. If you still want to enjoy co-sleeping, try putting some boundaries around it by using it as a weekly or every-once-in-a-while treat.
Become a Self Care Master
Don’t get me wrong—it’s no Mary Poppins playhouse around here yet. We’re still learning. But home life is improving.
When we do hit a setback, instead of reverting to my typical “I can’t do this” self talk, I’ve started saying “Show me how.” Then I step back, keep an open mind, and look for the opportunity to move forward in a way that respects both me and my boys.
How do you practice self care in tandem with the never-ending responsibilities of being a mom? Which of these 6 tips are realistic for you to try out this week?