For the past decade I have made my living helping moms take care of their mental health. After experiencing postpartum anxiety two times, I focused my work as a health journalist on the mental health issues women face during the reproductive years and how to raise awareness of—and get treatment for—them. Eventually, I convinced an editor that I should write a book on how to take care of yourself during pregnancy and early motherhood.
And then I asked her to delay the book by a year. I realized I was not taking care of myself and would be a hypocrite if I told other people how to do that before I learned how to myself.
Over the course of that year, I experimented with what depleted me and what replenished me. First, I worked on increasing my social connections in my new home of Atlanta, Georgia. Excited to finally have space to invite people over, I hosted many gatherings and drank many cold beers on our screened-in porch. Fun, but not restorative. Hosting is not the same as connecting and took more energy than it gave me. Drinking was, at best, a pleasant escape, and, at worst, something that increased my anxiety. I moved drinking and entertaining to the depleting column.
I joined a fitness boot camp and, for the first time in my life, exercised daily. There I gained community while strengthening my body and mainlining the endorphins of exercise. Score one for replenishing (even if sometimes I let my competitive streak push me to an injury or two).
I felt ready to return to the book work and tried other avenues of self-care along the way. Fiddle lessons were amazing at first. Playing music and singing in a group “filled my bucket” in a big way. But, as my book deadline loomed, daily practice became a chore, rather than a pleasure. The fiddle still flips from restorative to depleting depending on what else is going on. This past year, it has spent more time in its case than in my arms. That’s OK, I know it’s always there for me when music becomes a welcome release again.
Researching the importance of sleep for your mental health for my book convinced me of its importance, so I made it a priority. I discovered that, for me, good sleep is a prerequisite for basic functioning and not getting enough is a precursor to anxiety and bad moods. I added sleep to my replenishing column where it has stayed. I stop screens an hour or so before bed, get in bed a half hour before I want to be asleep and read, and I keep my wake-up time consistent most days. This helps me get seven to eight hours of sleep nightly.
Then my book came out, and the work of publicizing it was as exciting as it was stressful and exhausting. So, I planned a two-week family vacation in France, intending to leave my computer and deadlines behind. But, just before leaving I got a plum assignment writing about the current science in mindfulness for Time magazine. I was working on it up until two hours before we were supposed to leave the house. I hadn’t packed, and spent a frantic hour trying to find my passport. I did, we made the plane and, on vacation day two, I got shingles. At 45, I was young for shingles. I knew in my gut that the cause must be stress.
When I got home, I decided to prioritize stress reduction and try out the meditation I had been writing about for Time. I signed up for an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course.
That was the game changer.
Daily meditation and mindfulness courses have helped me slow down, listen to my body and finally deeply understand what makes me feel strong and good and what makes me feel breakable and bad.
Self-care now means good sleep, consistent exercise, and daily meditation. These were all things I once thought of as luxuries incompatible with my busy life as a mom and writer. Now, I see them as the foundation that enables me to meet those responsibilities with less stress and more joy than I ever have.
And my meditation practice helped me set an intention for how I want to take care of myself this year. No resolutions for me, just four words: “Be Where I Am.”
On the surface that means trying to be present moment to moment (meditation is critical to that), but even deeper is respecting where I am emotionally on any given day and taking care of myself based on that.
I exercise five days a week, but when my body doesn’t feel like it, I skip it. And I make sure to take two rest days for my body to rebuild and to avoid an injury that could sideline me for weeks. When I get a bad night’s sleep and the schedule for the next day feels overwhelming, I figure out what I can skip. When someone asks me to help out—take in that foster dog, sign up to volunteer for that event at my daughters’ school, join a book club when I know I can’t read a book a month—I say, “I’m sorry, but that won’t work for where I am right now.” Maybe it will later, maybe not. (For the record, I don’t think I will ever be able to read a book a month.)
When I’m feeling irritable and don’t have it in me to be the emotionally connected parent I strive to be, I tell my kids how I am feeling and ask for some space. That way, I don’t take my mood out on them and so time with them doesn’t make my mood worse. Then, when I’m feeling better, I lean in and give them my attention in a way that is more meaningful for all of us.
On the weekend, when I find myself with a moment to myself (yes, this does happen as your kids get older!), I resist the urge to hop on the computer and get work done or waste time on social media. Instead, I sit down on the couch, pull a blanket over me and try to read a book (usually I end up snoozing—win-win!). I don’t see breaks like that as lazy or not getting to something on my to-do list. I see them as part of what I need to do to stay strong and fully take care of myself.
Taking care of myself is at the top of my to-do list, and I’m getting better and better at it. So, I don’t feel like a hypocrite when I give out advice on it. And that advice is to conduct your own experiment in learning how to take care of you. Getting good sleep and consistent exercise are two proven ways to improve your mental health. The science behind the benefit of meditation to your emotional well-being and lowering stress levels is also solid. Those are good starting points.
Think over your life to the times you felt most grounded: What were you doing then? Singing in glee club? Attending religious services? Hiking every weekend? Doing martial arts? Writing in your journal regularly? Make a list of activities—big and small—that have helped you in times of stress or hardship or have just made life more enjoyable. And then add them in one at a time and see how you feel.
Self-care is not just a monthly mani-pedi; it is not one-size-fits-all; and it is not a one-off. Self-care is a journey to find—and then prioritize—what returns you to yourself, takes away more stress than it adds, and leaves you feeling rested and whole. That’s the goal at least. You won’t always meet it. But take it from me, you’ll get closer with every step.