Not long ago, I came across an Instagram post making a bold statement about self-care. Directed at moms, this post said that a shower and solo grocery shopping shouldn’t qualify as self-care—that we need to reach way, way higher than that.
I paused for a moment, unsure whether to hit the “like” button or blow right on past. It felt like a simultaneous pep-talk and slap in the face, all wrapped up into one. My inner therapist (I’m a therapist who specializes in maternal mental health) nodded excitedly in agreement, like, “Yeah, we deserve more!” while my mom-self was scanning the room, hoping that no one noticed I hadn’t actually showered yet that day.
My yoga mat is dusty. My vitamins have probably expired, although they taunt me every day when I open the fridge. I haven’t opened my meditation app in months. I don’t even remember what book I’m “reading.”
There’s a part of me that truly needs more, yet another part that’s running on fumes, and the constant demands and lack of support for parents are draining the battery.
The conundrum is that self-care is what recharges you, but what happens when you can’t even bring yourself to achieve your daily water intake goals, let alone find time to exercise or develop a hobby? When your tank is empty, it can be so hard to do anything but scroll your socials and let Netflix devour your evenings.
Now to be clear, as a maternal mental health therapist, I wholeheartedly believe that self-care is the foundation to wellness in parenthood. When self-care goes, everything goes. And yes, as moms we deserve to fantasize about things other than checking items off the household to-do list or using the bathroom without little visitors at our feet. Believe me, I want an inspiring morning routine. I want to pick up my paint brushes again and tap into that part of me. I want to go out with my friends, go back to a gym, work at a coffee shop.
But when the reality is that you’re at home hiding from COVID 90 per cent of the time, or trying to survive those early years with literally no help, then that solo grocery trip might truly be the highlight of your week—and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe that rare ten minutes that you locked yourself in the bathroom is the only glimpse of you-ness that you’ve had lately. And your goal to shower once a day might seem ridiculously uninspiring to some, but guess what? These days, even your daily basic needs can feel like an insurmountable chore.
We tend to inflate self-care and think of it as being a large commitment. Book the spa day, light candles and pamper yourself. But during the hardest seasons of life—such as mothering young children through a year-long pandemic, when family is literally not allowed to help—it makes perfect sense that your self-care efforts must be reduced down to the absolute basics. If all you’re managing is to close the door behind you for a mere few minutes or run errands without the kiddos, that counts for something too. Don’t discredit your small victories or feel bad if the bar is low right now. In fact, a low bar is exactly where most mamas need to start.
In my practice, I often ask moms whether they’re taking any time for themselves. I usually get a firm “Nope.”
“I have no time,” they tell me.
“I have no help,” they say.
And this is not because these moms simply haven’t cracked the code. It’s structural—our world is no longer designed or built for two working parents. Pandemic aside, you probably don’t have your aunties, grandparents, and sisters near you, and your fellow mom friends are barely getting by and in no place to help. Nor do you have any sense of that “village” you’ve always heard about. We sometimes expect life to flow more easily once the kids are in school, but trying to survive the daily hustle and juggling act can feel more like a circus than any kind of sustainable routine. So parents are left scratching their heads, knowing the kind of lifestyle and balance they desire but feeling like society just isn’t set up that way.
With young kids, it’s normal to feel like it’s impossible to fit yourself into the shockingly full schedule. When that becomes a habit, or the new norm over time, moms tend to forget to add themselves back onto the list. There’s no fault or shame in that—we were never really taught how to in the first place.
We’re exposed to a self-sacrificing narrative of motherhood that seems to praise a woman who gives herself away entirely to her new job as a mom. I hear moms telling me they feel guilty that they want time away from their child. They wonder if there’s something wrong with them for needing some separation. “Is it normal to want to go back to work?” they ask. “Is it weird that I just want to be alone?” they cautiously admit. “Why am I so angry? I just want everyone to go away for a bit!” they tell me in confidence.
You know what? I do, too. And no, it’s not weird. You’re not wrong for wanting your emotional needs to be met, too.
This notion that mothers should happily give themselves away creates so much anger, resentment and sadness. It can feel that parts of you have been lost and you have no right to want them back. The narrative pushed on moms often seems to say “You’re a mom now. This is the best job in the world. That should be enough.” Plus, it’s really confusing when you eventually choose to care for yourself. You know that you need time for yourself… but you feel guilty taking it.
My girls are five and six years old now, but I remember when they were babies, I resisted accepting help because it stirred up really uncomfortable feelings inside. If I was getting help, if I wasn’t doing my “job” as a mom, then I felt guilty. It was as if I was doing something wrong. I desperately wanted a break, and I needed my partner to step in, but every time he did, I felt like the balance tipped and I was on the wrong end of the scale.
I hear this theme come up in my work as a therapist all the time. Moms feel a sense of guilt if they have help. They also feel guilt if they can’t magically carve out the time for cute and colourful bento box lunches and perfectly renovated, Instagrammable kitchens and kids in cute coordinating outfits. The expectations are impossible: we’re expected to be burnt out, yet we’re also supposed to have photo-shoot-worthy homes and be good at self-care.
This is where it gets interesting: self-care can bring some relief to your suffering, but society also perpetuates the mommy martyr ideal—that “good moms” are exhausted and consumed by motherhood, surviving on reheated coffee alone (you’ve seen the joke-y memes). In this sense, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and constantly expending emotional energy trying to figure out which side of this overly-simplified narrative you should be. How do you reconcile these two?
So the challenge with self-care isn’t just about finding time. It’s about convincing yourself that you actually need that time, and deserve it. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. And it means intentionally re-writing the story you tell yourself about what a good mom is.
When you’re depleted and overwhelmed, you’re more easily frustrated, angry, and short-tempered. You feel irritated toward your family, and you struggle to show up as your best self. So, how can you prevent depletion and burnout? It comes down to how you fill up your own cup. And if that looks small right now, let it be small!
Many moms have shared with me that they feel so disconnected from themselves that they don’t even know what they need. They feel lost.
My suggestion is to start small. Like very small. Start with your basic self-care needs.
Self-care is essentially anything that you do that helps you feel well and cared for overall. This includes your physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual needs. You see, anything you do to take care of yourself in these areas counts. Calling your mom back, cleaning out a drawer, blow drying your hair, reconnecting with your spirituality—that’s all self-care. Getting out into nature for a quick moment (with or without the kids) is self-care, even if it’s only for a tiny portion of your day. Actually taking those vitamins that you spent a fortune on. Painting your nails so you feel creatively expressed. Putting on your music instead of Let it Go on repeat. Those are self-care. Drinking a massive jar of water before noon. Flossing your teeth. Taking a shower.
Taking a breath.
Those all count towards meeting your self-care needs, my friend.
A mom recently told me that she hadn’t showered in six days. Now, before becoming a parent, I might have questioned how the heck that happens. But now I know. I get it. I’ve been there. The demands are endless. But here’s the thing: no one but you will add your name to the priority list.
The problem with not doing these basic things, like enjoying a solo shopping trip or showering alone (which is the reality of many parents), is that the overwhelm is cumulative. When you feel like you never get a break, despair creeps in. This is about self-maintenance mode. Sure, you might not be in a place where you’re able to spoil yourself or do your favourite pampering rituals. But committing to basic maintenance activities (like eating regular meals, or standing outside for five minutes in the morning) should be non-negotiable in order to survive the tough times. Think about what would happen to your car, your home, your bank account if you neglected each of these little things for a period of time. Those would seem minor on the day-to-day basis, but over time, they’d add up and become catastrophic. The same goes with your emotional wellbeing.
You need breathing space. You need some time where your hands are free. You need privacy. And no, these little moments alone aren’t going to relieve all the pressure you’re under, but they’ll at least give you a moment to exhale and the minimum you need to get through your day, sanity intact.
And given where we are these days (coordinating Zoom classes for six-year-olds, worrying when our aging mum will get her vaccine, holding down a job), we need to grab hold of every moment we can find.
We need to temporarily lower our expectations of ourselves and get back to the simple and attainable things that bring joy, balance, and wellness. If locking the bathroom door so you can shower alone, or slowly wandering the grocery store aisles alone brings a glimmer of joy or much-needed headspace, then go with it. Was it a trip to the spa or a sushi night with your best friend? No. Did it help you feel a moment of reprieve and reset the direction of your day? Possibly.
Can we let that just be good enough? I think so.
Kate Borsato is a mental health therapist and educator for moms, and lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and two daughters. She also creates many online and social media resources to support moms to navigate motherhood and take care of their mental health, which you’ll find here.