I have long been a critic of the standard self-care narrative. Too many mamas, myself included, feel that “taking time for self-care” is considered a “cure-all” and often something they feel that they’re not able to fully or appropriately accomplish, which can often leave a mama feeling like it’s one more thing she’s not doing “right” and that’s not good, plain and simple.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: self-care is absolutely essential. I take no issue with caring for oneself through eating, taking vitamins and medications, general basic hygiene, and the like. These are means of caring for ourselves that are pretty basic essential life functions. And, yes, even at times some of us have struggled to do even those. These tasks are essential and necessary. My critique is distinct from this.
My criticism is with the narratives and social construction surrounding self-care, more specifically, when we speak about women’s self-care and even more so mothers’ self-care.
“Give yourself the same care and attention that you give to others, and watch yourself bloom.” → translation: you are the reason you’re suffering.
“You can’t take care of someone else until you take care of yourself.” → translation: you are not able to take care of your baby.
“Take time for yourself.” → translation: there’s enough time to do it all, and you just aren’t managing it right.
Have you ever heard one of these messages and thought, “That’s it! I didn’t even think of it. I just wasn’t taking care of myself. Silly me. I’ll get right on that!” No! Hell no. What I mean is that no one is leaving self-care—that feels genuinely and readily accessible—on the table. Therefore, telling someone to practice self-care often feels like looking at someone with a gushing wound and telling them they “should get that looked at.”
No one would disagree with the idea that taking more time to rest, indulge in hobbies, and socialize would be ideal. Personally, I’m a huge fan of taking a bath.* Hydrotherapy is my jam. It is self-care — absolutely! Do I love it when I get to lock myself in that bathroom and sink into that deep tub for 20 to 30 minutes once a week — heck yeah! When I get out of the bath, is my job (motherhood) any different — No. My child is still going to get sick in the middle of the night. We’re not going to find that just-right pair of socks in the morning. We’re going to forget that Thursdays the older one has band practice before school. Am I able to better handle these normal complications because of my bath? Maybe. It depends on the day.
The bath is great, but it’s not a cure. It’s not going to stop the hard and challenging realities of parenthood. When we talk about self-care as a solution to this big picture reality and then a mama doesn’t feel better after she finally indulged in that bath, it can feel like a heavy dose of defeat. That’s not good.
Stop telling mothers to take care of themselves and start taking care of them. If we see a mama who is struggling and overwhelmed and we don’t ask ourselves how she got there and instead tell her she needs to do something else, we’re failing her.
Don’t tell mamas their tank is empty without acknowledging how it got empty or how to refill it. Doing so is dismissive and traumatizing. They know it’s empty. They experience the emotional and physical consequences of its emptiness.
It’s not like there are pockets of time available to do more for yourself and you’re just opting not to do them. No. No mother feels this way. Mothers feel MAXED OUT. They are juggling all of the things. Mothers are both carefully and chaotically orchestrating hectic schedules (from baths to field trips to band practice) and more moving parts than they thought possible to not only hold their families together but to also propel them forward every day!
We often call this the “invisible work” of motherhood. It’s all the things we’re juggling and carrying around that often go unseen and unacknowledged, and we’re often doing it without a village. Raising tiny humans without a village is super hard, and telling mamas that it will be somehow less hard if they’d just take care of themselves is highly problematic. These narratives MISS THE POINT. They ultimately imply mothers are somehow responsible for their own state of exhaustion and overwhelm. Such statements fail to recognize that raising tiny humans is just really hard and that feeling this way isn’t a personal shortcoming. Our narratives can also imply that self-care will solve a broader problem: motherhood is simply exhausting.
So, where do we go from here? We’ve established that we need self-care, mothering without a community is extra hard, and our narratives around this subject can be problematic. It’s a bit of a pickle, isn’t it? The ability to parse out these pieces can help us navigate these waters with a little more insight and awareness.
While I’d love nothing more than for everyone to stop with this current narrative, I know that’s not realistic. Sadly, mamas, I think we’re the ones who have to lead here. We need to be that catalyst for change. I know—one more thing, right? I think it’s a mix. We need to change the narrative, but we also need to take ownership of our needs, ask from them to be met (by our community), and accept what is available or offered. Ideally, we need to do this before the seas are raging—when we are melting down and burning out. Our needs and ways to meet them vary for each unique situation. So, go easy on yourself and be realistic as you reflect on all this self-care business.
Here are some thoughts about exploring this issue from both a personal and a community level.
Needing a break is normal: You don’t have to be everything to everyone all the time, mamas. Know when you need to walk away and catch your breath, then make a plan to make that happen. In need of a break? Absolutely totally 100 percent normal. A gentle reminder that the baby will be okay if you do something for yourself. It’s okay to leave your baby with a loving caregiver to go to dinner with friends, catch a movie with your spouse, or even head to the gym for some exercise. If that’s what you need to feel good, do it.
- Identify and claim your needs. What are you feeling? Get clear about that. Claim those feelings (get familiar with them). Consider what you want to do about your feelings. How might you be able to meet these needs? (Hint: there are often various ways to meet them.) A trip to the grocery store for 30 minutes can feel like a refreshing thrill when you’ve been dealing with a sick baby all day, am I right? If you have a partner who is coming home at the end of the day, be proactive. Let them know you need that escape/self-care session.
- Take inventory and communicate. Who are your people (your village and community) and how can they help you? Then, tell your people (partner, friends, the grandparents, etc.) what you need and ask for help (as you define it).
- Yes, you are worthy of this support, but it also may take more than one conversation for your people to “get it.”
- Yes, your co-parent and spouse works hard all day, but it’s different work than you’re doing [mostly] at home with a baby (or being the default parent, even after you return to work outside the home).
- Yes, you have to actually communicate. We have to figure out our needs and then communicate them. Our partners aren’t mind readers. I know, I know. Believe me, I wish they were. True love’s kiss and all that happily ever after stuff would be so much more bliss if they were mind readers!
- Make a plan. Be strategic about spacing out your helpers. Perhaps your spouse can take parental leave for the first days or weeks. If this is an option, do it! Following their return to work, have another person (maybe grandparents) lined up to assist. After their departure, the other set of grandparents. Ideally, you could fill up that first month or so with this type of staggered help. Fill in with community members as needed.
- Accept the help, even imperfect help, when it’s offered. It’s ironic how we may be able to get through all of the previous steps here and then, when our community does show up for us, we can be reluctant to accept it. Knowing what you need (help, support, love, rest, nurturance, etc.) is essential, but we’ve also got to be willing to let the people that are willing and able helpers in. That’s on us. So, open the door.
- Hire help. If you don’t have family or an extended network of friends or community to help you, especially in those earliest days and weeks, consider a postpartum doula. Hiring help isn’t always an easy option, but their help can be priceless. To help with this, many doulas even offer payment plans or a registry to help offset the cost.
Defining Imperfect help: friends or family who show up to love on you and your family in all their messy human ways. These helpers might come with some suggestions and advice that make you want to roll your eyes all the way back into your head. Accept it anyway. Annoyance, the need to roll your eyes, and even frustration are all feelings that shouldn’t cause you to turn down loving and willing helpers. Significant and long-term emotional distress and, most certainly, any type of traumatic experience are well-founded reasons for saying, “no thanks.” In short, accept the help. Let people help you even if they do it a little differently than you’d prefer. Accept it.
As a perinatal mental health therapist I worked with a mama who came to see me during her third pregnancy to work on some strategies to help her potentially avoid the postpartum anxiety she’d experienced after her last birth. We talked about many things during our sessions and one strategy she’d put in place for herself for the upcoming postpartum was a string of family helpers that would come stay with her for a spell.
After having her baby she made an appointment and came to see me. She came in with her older two children (ages 2 and 4) and a brand new baby (about 2 weeks old) in tow. She told me that she was feeling very overwhelmed and tired.
I asked about her support team, “Didn’t you say you had a lot of family lined up to help these first few weeks and your spouse took time off of work?” “Well, yes,” she responded. “Were they helpful?” “No. I mean, yes. They’d offer to help, but I just felt so guilty about accepting it. So, in the end, I just ended up doing things myself. I was hosting and entertaining them as guests.”
We talked about her feelings of guilt and ways to view help as a gift. Just as we wouldn’t turn down a gift someone gave us at our baby shower, we should not turn down help either.
This mama’s story is just one example of how our needs and the self-care narrative intermingle to impact our experiences. And while her situation is unique to her, the response to help (guilt) is common. Our cultural narratives often encourage us to believe that the need for support is a sign that we are weak, the needing help is a burden, or that we display incompetence if we need it. It’s natural to want to reject it, if we believe this to be true. What I hope for you is that instead of rejecting the help, you’ll reject that narrative.
Self-care means accepting that we’re not meant to do it alone. Reconciling our knowledge about our own needs and what community support can look like may be challenging. I encourage you to reflect on your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the self-care narrative and the need to accept help as part of self-care as you continue navigating your parenthood path.
* Bath is being used an an exemplar of a commonly recommended self-care suggestion. there are plenty you can substitute with.
*** This essay is a excerpt from the forthcoming book, Dear Mama, You Matter: Honest Talk about the Transition to Motherhood by Amanda Hardy, PhD, LMHC