Why is Self-Care so Hard?

A recent survey found that most moms work an average of 98 hours/week, both in and out of the home, and the average mom gets a mere 17 minutes of free time to herself each day! (1)

Ask any mom about the “invisible workload” of motherhood and she'll know what you mean. It’s not always something we talk about, but instead we resign ourselves to the fact that it seems to come with the territory. It’s not just the chores or the kids, the job or the errands, it’s all the planning and considerations that take up space in our days, nights and minds that begin to take their toll. It’s the late night runs to the store to be sure your kid has the brown bag lunch needed for their trip; it’s the trips to the pharmacy on your lunch break because they’re out of vitamins; it’s squeezing a 20 minute phone call to the school counselor into a 10 minute slot because it’s the only time you have. Or the many, many lists you carry with you either physically or mentally for today, tomorrow and three months from now.  

We all know that in order to be a “great” mom, you must feel great about yourself and your life! We’ve all heard that “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” yet does that change our habits and compel us to practice mom self-care? Of course not… “I’m too tired!”

If you’re tired, stressed, running on caffeine or cold meds (because you don’t have time to be sick), you’re not alone momma. We all know self-care should be a priority, but with so much on your “Mom plate,” the family’s needs and many responsibilities always seem to come before our much needed personal time.

I’d stand to say it’s actually much more complicated. There’s a number of reasons I believe Mom Self-Care is so difficult and believe it or not, it has nothing to do with lack of time.

1-It wasn’t modeled for us.

Chances are, if you’re currently “mom-ing,” you were raised in a household that didn’t model or talk about self-care, regardless of race, income or location. You can probably identify with the statement, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Although I don’t doubt for a moment that we were loved and hopefully cared for, our parent’s generation (now grandparents) were the baby boomers. They were raised to be reserved under the idea that children were to be seen and not heard. As a result, and probably without their awareness, they were raised to work hard, not complain and if they were fortunate to treat themselves to something special, by all means, they kept it a secret, even from us, their kids. They were great for telling us “what” to do or even suggest “how” to do it, but they weren’t about to tell us “why.”

I can vividly remember my mom taking time every week to do her nails. She didn’t pay to go to a salon, instead she sat for a few hours each week in her recliner gluing on tips, filing, filing, filing, buffing and filing some more. As kids, my sister and I knew she was not to be asked to do anything for us during this time and that she was unavailable. Although she completed this ritual for many weeks, months and years of my childhood, she never explained why she was doing this or why she chose to do it herself. As an adult, I can assume it was therapeutic. It made her feel good about herself to have nice nails and she was able to carve out a few hours each week to just focus on herself.  As a child, I rationalized that self-care was a luxury that costs too much money to have done by someone else and self care was laborious.

My husband comes from an equally loving family. He and his two older brothers had a stay at home mom (who had a propensity for volunteer work) and a dad that ran his own, successful, manufacturing company. His parents loved to travel and although they always made sure to treat the kids to ski trips and beach vacations, they also had a tradition to travel alone, as a couple or with couple friends during his birthday at the end of January. Although he still badgers his mother with guilt (in a half-joking manner) he knows that it was the best time for his father’s company for them to travel and that it afforded him other winter time, family getaways and cool birthday presents from their travels. But again, because he was not privy to the conversation about “why,” his take away was that self-care takes you away from your family and makes others feel undervalued and unimportant.

2-We don’t know what to do when we get the time.

Because self-care is not something that many of us practice regularly, when we do get the chance, we’ve often forgotten what we like to do. It’s like when we go out to dinner with our husbands for a much needed date night, but all we can talk about are the kids or the house chores we need to get done. We’re so programmed by our daily ins and outs of our lives that we have a difficult time breaking away from “doing” rather than “being.”

And what’s worse, is that we’ve convinced ourselves that because we have so much to do, self-care can be anything that helps us to execute those lists. I’ve recently joined and on-line moms’ group that asked this exact question, “What do you do for self-care?” So many responses were to clean while the kids sleep or make lunches in advance for the week. Although cleaning and organizing may bring you satisfaction or help you to be more efficient, it’s not self-care! Self-care is not how we execute our mom to-do list. Instead, it’s what we do for ourselves with that time we’ve creating. Now don’t get me wrong, if doing chores brings you joy in the sense that is balances you, brings you peace or balance, then by all means, clean until your heart’s content, focusing on that one single task, but if it’s simply a way for you to cross things off your list and create time that you’re not using for yourself, then it may not be self-care.

My whole life I’ve convinced myself that I love to organize. From closets to cabinets, kids toys to counter piles, I used to think it brought me so much joy to have things organized and in their place. Now, after years of therapy and meditation, I’ve come to see this behavior differently: it’s often a mechanism of control and avoidance. It’s no surprise that I typically begin an “organista” state when I’m trying to avoid an uncomfortable emotion or need control in my life. By recognizing this pattern and cultivating this awareness into my meditation practice, I’m able to identify what’s weighing heavily on my mind and heart and put my efforts towards compassion rather than flying into “hyper-productive Mom mode.”

3-Self-care=Mom Guilt

Ever worked so hard to align the planets, making it possible for you to skip out for an evening with friends or an appointment at the spa only to be burdened with guilt so great that you can hardly enjoy yourself? I have, too many times. Ever wonder where that comes from? Sure it’s easy to say it’s my kids, or my husband or my mother-in-law that make me feel so guilty, but believe it or not, they are not the source; you are! Guilt is one of the many manifestation of self-imposed conditioning that comes from many rigid thoughts, patterns of behavior, judgement and shame that has been in existence much longer than any of us.

Mindfulness helps us to dig a little deeper into these pre-conditioned responses and with practice learn to “wear” these judgements and habits of behavior and thought a little more loosely.

For me, guilt and fear show up a lot! Feeling guilty that I can’t please everyone, be everywhere and solve every problem that causes my loved ones suffering. Fear that I’ll be judged as a “bad mom” for letting my kids drink an iced coffee, run up the slide or giving them permission to not do all their homework. Of course this is unreasonable and even detrimental thinking, but how often do I make choices about what to do with my time because of the voice in my head saying, “Bad mom, Bad daughter, Bad wife.” According to Brene Brown in her book, I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t), I know I’m not alone. “There is a constant barrage of social expectations that teach us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate. Everywhere we turn there are messages that tell us who, what and how we’re supposed to be. So we hide our struggles and protect ourselves from shame, judgement, criticism and blame by seeking safety in pretending to be perfect.” No wonder we are all exhausted; Between trying to achieve perfection and then pretending when we are not, that’s a lot of energy!

So how do we feel better, take care of ourselves and perhaps even enjoy our crazy, hectic lives a little more? The answer might surprise you. Do nothing…sort of!

In the end mommas, there’s only 24 hours in a day and hopefully you’re sleeping for at least 6-8 of those hours. Even if you’re the “average mom” mentioned above, working 98hrs a week (14hrs/day), guess what? It still leaves you with 2 hours a day (including 8 hours of sleep). So what will you do with your precious time? “A recent study by mobile insurance.com revealed that the average person spends 90 minutes a day on their phone.” (Mobileinsurance.com) I personally think that’s a low average, but for argument’s sake, that still leaves 30 minutes a day which is more than the 19 minutes previously stated.

There’s a saying in Meditation that if you don’t have an hour to meditate, you need at least 2 hours of meditation. Now I’m not suggesting anyone sits and meditates for two hours a day, but perhaps we could adopt a mindfulness practice that honors ourselves, our lives and our families. Dr, Elise Bialylew, Founder of Mindful in May, discovered that just 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation over one month was enough to support positive emotions, reduce stress, increase self-compassion and strengthen daily focus. (Thriveglobal.com)

I know personally, one of the many gifts of my mindfulness practice is that it not only serves as a “re-set” for my body and mind, but it also affords me the clarity, patience and pleasure to efficiently accomplish the chores of life. In the end, no matter what you to do to take care of yourself, know that it’s not just for you, but for your family as well. It’s so important for us to pay attention to how we manage our stress, for our children’s sake. They are watching and learning and processing (sub-consciously) everything we model for them. What lessons are they learning from watching you?

Amy Rubin