REALISTIC Ways Moms Can Deal With Stress — When 'Self-Care' Seems Totally Absurd

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self care for moms
Family, Self

Yoga class? Yeah, right!

Self-care seems to be the mantra of everyone these days.

“You must prioritize self-care!” or “You have to carve out time for a yoga class or you will pay for it later."

Let’s be real, though, how many single mothers, full-time working mothers, or even stay-at-home moms have the time or the luxury of taking a weekly yoga class, going to the gym, or getting a massage?

Picture a single mom who works full-time. If she wants to work out, it means leaving her kid in childcare an additional hour or two, and that much less time to spend with her child.

Or imagine a married mom of two kids under three, working part-time on the side. If she gets away, the dishes and laundry remain undone — the list of work grows and that creates more stress.

This is not meant as a guilt trip to those of us who figure out how to prioritize time for regeneration. And it's not to say that we should not prioritize self-care. 

I do carve out time for my Qigong practice about once a month. I’ve been practicing Qigong for about 12 years and it was my number one priority before becoming a mother. While I don’t practice nearly as much as I used to, I still do carve out this time by taking the debate out of it.  

When there is a class, I go. I don’t engage in a back and forth with myself — I just make it happen. And I don’t feel guilty about spending the money or the time to make this happen. But this means I am often spending my savings to attend. A luxury not all of us have.

But I also know that as a single mom and a solopreneur, I feel intense pressure to be productive every minute that my son is in child care or asleep. For the past year, I’ve been writing a book, shifting the focus of my coaching business, and developing an online course. 

There’s no paycheck other than that from my own hours worked, many of which aren’t even paid at this point as I develop my business. When I take a night off work to take a bath, I feel equal parts indulgent and stressed out by the list of things that remain for me. Many times, I feel more relief when I keep working and cross something off the list.

Most days and weeks, self-care isn’t something I can prioritize. It feels like an impossibility. A myth perpetuated to make us feel even worse.

Moms must learn to prioritize themselves. You can’t care for another being unless you care for yourself, you say. You must learn to carve out the time or you will crack, you may be screaming as you read this.

But let’s face it, for many moms, finding time to do a yoga class or get a massage is not going to happen –at least not on a regular basis. And perpetuating the idea that it is possible, just makes women who can’t find the time, feel guilty.

Despite this reality, I am in fact a huge advocate of self-care — just not in the way we usually think of self-care.

It is true that your children do need you to be your best self. They need you to recharge so you can give of yourself.  

So what’s the solution?

Finding moments to regroup.

What if self-care didn’t require carving out time, but instead took place in the moments in between? A conscious breath here and there, a moment to feel your feet on the ground and become present, a few seconds to notice your irritation or exhaustion and reset.

Our ability to stay focused and grounded, to recharge our reserves — that part is malleable. And that can happen in a few moments.

No matter how jam-packed your day, you can still find moments of presence to create sanity and self-care all day long. I can’t find much time to go to a Zumba class, but I can find little moments to re-center myself and bring myself to the present. I can continually come into my body.

Here are some examples:

  • Instead of hovering over my plate of food, doing dishes or cleaning up between bites, I can sit down to eat and pay attention to flavors and textures of my food. 
  • Instead of checking my phone, I can sit in the sun feeling my body fill with light and noticing my body moving in and out with my breathing, while my son digs in the garden.
  • Instead of getting impatient while I'm waiting for what feels like an eternity for my son to get into his car seat, I can stand squarely on my skeleton, and feel the support of the ground, while allowing myself to pay attention to my breath.

Those quick moments bring me back to myself. I instantaneously shift my mental state.

Instead of churning over a never-ending list of things to do, feeling like I need to hurry up so I can get to the next thing, I feel a sense of relief — a pause from my all-encompassing readiness. I’m instantly present to my son and able to drop in to enjoy what he’s doing instead of worrying about the future or the past.

I feel better able to handle whatever is happening. When I string many of those moments together, life feels more doable. I feel more in control. And, that is the best self-care I can think of.

And, in doing so, I'm teaching my son to continually return home to himself. 

Kids are little sponges--they are noticing our nervous system and mental state all the time. He will mimic my actions unknowingly, so I'm giving him a gift of how to be more present in life.

Why does it work?

There’s a ton of neuroscience out there to support why taking even one conscious full breath can help reset the system. That’s another article unto itself, but the short explanation is that it kicks the parasympathetic nervous system into gear, taking us out of a fight or flight response and into the relaxation response. 

From my perspective, informed by many somatic practices but in particular Qigong and Feldenkrais, these moments help to collect our Qi which becomes dispersed during the day. Our energy or attention is outside of our bodies most of the day.

Being a parent of a child at any age, but particularly of a toddler, this exterior attention is highlighted as we constantly scan the environment for hazards, reminding our child to stay safe, thinking ahead about risks, remember snacks and diapers and on and on. In short, we are on high alert about the needs of our child at all times.

When instead we take a moment to feel our bodies —f eel the breath within the body, allow our bodies to be supported, it invites the Qi to return — even for just a moment. We literally collect ourselves, giving ourselves a moment to regroup.

For me, it feels like I literally pull myself off the walls and back into my body. I instantly feel like I’ve arrived home.

From a Feldenkrais perspective, I focus on allowing the skeleton to support my body. I stop trying to hold myself up and rest on their supportive structure of my skeleton as much as possible. This gives my muscles a chance to stop working — it signals to the body that it can stop being hyper vigilant — and guess what — that sends a signal to the brain that it too can stop being hyper vigilant. 

The body and brain get the message that they're safe.

From the perspective of cultivating mindfulness, you become aware of your actual state of being — you become aware of your thoughts and emotions that are constantly running in the background. You can react to them appropriately or do something to shift your state.

So, if getting big chunks of time to take care of yourself feels impossible right now, you can still care for your outlook by finding lots of mini-breaks in your day.

How can you find short moments in your day to reset your system? Need a list of short mini-breaks you can do waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting at the park watching your child play? Get Sarah's list of mini-breaks here. Sarah Kowalski is a somatic coach and founder of Motherhood Reimagined. Her memoir is due Oct. 17th, 2017. 

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