“The most important relationship you will have in your life is the relationship you have with yourself." — Graeme Seabrook, Motherhood Life Coach
That quote was perhaps the most profound one given to me in a year of researching and writing a book about how to take care of your mental health as a mom. “Your kids will move away eventually—and we all hope that the partners we have will be with us our whole lives, but crazy stuff happens!” Graeme told me. “The only person who is going to be with you until you die and who has been with you since you were born is you.”
Sitting in a coffeeshop talking to Graeme on the phone, I got the shiver of epiphany. That is some seriously profound TRUTH. And when you really take it in, you realize how important it is to take care of the relationship you have with yourself. But, so often, we don’t. We’re busy prioritizing our kids, working to support our families, and, generally, you know, taking care of almost everything (or everything if we are doing this gig solo).
When you get right down to it, we are the only part of our lives that we have total control of and total responsibility for, “but, as women, we drop that responsibility,” says Seabrook. “We kick it away. We run from it in the name of serving other people.” And it doesn’t work. Our kids don’t benefit. Our relationships with our partners aren’t stronger. And we—most importantly—aren’t able to fully enjoy this wild and unpredictable, joyful, difficult, maddening, crazy, beautiful thing called life.
“On the flip side,” says Seabrook. “When you put yourself in the center of your life and think ‘How can I be healthier and happier?’ everything starts to fall into place, because moms are generally the linchpin of the family. The better we work, the better everything works.”
YASSSS! So, here’s a question: is it working for you?
Of course, life is not sparkly, cursive writing, mug printing, meme sharing “This is Awesome!” unicorn sparkly posts all the time (or ever?). It’s hard. It’s busy. There are TONS of things to do and people to take care of. But, in the midst of all of it, are you paying attention to what you need to feel some joy and peace? Are you taking charge of the thing you have most control over—your emotional wellbeing?
If not, there is no better time than right now. So, how do you start?
Well, I spent the last few years of my career researching—and writing about—this exact question. And here’s what I have learned from moms in the trenches and experts in the field of mental health:
Your well-being matters most of all. Graeme covered that beautifully. But, if you need more testimony, listen to Kate Lynch Bieger, PhD, a psychotherapist who specializes in parental mental health in New York City: “I say this so many times a week to people sitting on my couch: ‘If you are not taking care of yourself, you are not going to be fully there for anyone else.’”
Get it? Got it? Good.
There are many routes to an emotionally healthy life. And—no matter what magazines say—mimosas and manicures are not one of them. At best, they are enjoyable—but temporary—detours. (At worst, well, that’s another article…)
Self-care is a regular practice. It’s not a one off, and it’s not a catch phrase. It’s an act of love you can do for yourself daily, weekly, or as often as you can regularly do it.
Self-care brings you back to YOU. Think back over your whole life—childhood, high school, dating, college, your first years living on your own. What were the things that you did that made you feel good? What have you done that has brought you back to yourself in times of stress?
Is there a hobby you have been neglecting? Does regular exercise keep you sane? Does your church, temple, or meditation center ground you? Do you miss reading fiction? Do your worries slip away when you are doing art? Does a deep chat with a good friend restore you? Is being in nature like pressing a reset button? Do you like to unwind with a cup of tea and a good book? Does kickboxing help you release the pressure of the week? Do you miss yoga? Remember how much you liked Glee Club? You get the idea. When you’re done with your brainstorm (here’s a list to get you started), pick one thing to introduce or reintroduce into your life in some kind of consistent fashion and watch what it does for you.
Getting good mental health support is self-care. If you are experiencing a mood disorder or anxiety, then the first line of self-care is finding professional mental health support. This can take a number of forms and does not have to be expensive or incredibly time-consuming, but it is important. As someone who has experienced postpartum anxiety twice, I’m here to tell you that you will be surprised at how much better you can feel with the right professional support. Here are ways to get the support you deserve.
Moving your body will improve your mental health. If you are drawing a blank on where to start, start with exercise. You don’t have to join a gym or train for a marathon, you just need to find some kind of consistent way to move your body that you enjoy. Why? Because really good scientific research shows that regular exercise releases the “feel-good” chemicals (endorphins) in your brain and it actually increases the levels of the neurotransmitters that affect our mood (serotonin and dopamine) just like antidepressants do. In fact, one major study found that people with major depressive disorder who exercised for a half hour three to five days per week reduced their symptoms of depression by 50 percent. Here’s a starter list of ways to move your body.
If you need one more nudge to take action after reading this, think of the role modeling you will be doing for your child or children. “When you make your well-being a priority, you show your child that this is important and necessary for everyone to do,” says Hara Ntalla, MS Ed, clinical director of the Seleni Institute. Amen.
It is never too late to learn how to make yourself feel good, and it is your job, when you have the energy, to do it. Unlike other elements of parenthood, you are the only person you can trust with it. And I guarantee you will be happy you did.
Kate Rope is the author of Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood. Kate is an award-winning freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times, Time, Real Simple, CNN.com, Shape, Glamour UK, Parade and Parenting. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, two daughters, one shy rescue dog and one outgoing rescue cat.