Prioritize your physical and mental health to be a better mother
“Mama, have you gone dancing this week?”
It was an innocently observed, strikingly insightful question delivered by my then-six-year-old daughter. I stopped what I was doing and considered her question. Had I gone dancing lately?
No. Instead, I’d become overwhelmed in the familiar and slightly comforting way that results when being busy and consumed with responsibilities creates efficiency, a deep lack of patience, and swift, unending movement. I found myself spinning from the dishes to the laundry to the drying rack back to the laundry, over to the phone, into the kitchen, and repeating this ritual.
No wonder she asked me if I’d gone dancing. Because she knows that when I go dancing, I’m fun to be around. I’m relaxed, happy, and just as organized, but in an easy and carefree kind of way. I laugh more, much more. I turn up the music and dance in the kitchen and hip-bump with her while we put away dishes and cook. I don’t react to spills and mistakes and carelessness the same way.
But when I forget to take care of myself, things change. All of this never-ending busy work translates into treating my daughter like someone who has to be managed, moved from place to place, and rushed often and uncomfortably for a six-year-old, whose sense of time orients around the present moment rather than the future obligations of her mother’s world.
The fact that my daughter was able to ask me this question highlighted a huge shift in my mindset around self-care and being “selfish.”
For the first few years of my daughter’s life, I struggled with engaging in any activity that separated me from my daughter, any activity that was for me alone.
I couldn’t picture myself doing what I loved most—going out dancing—without also picturing an array of judgmental characters pointing fingers and berating me for being so selfish, being such a bad mother.
And so I found myself becoming angrier, more constricted, and in general a much more short-tempered, irritable, frustrated mother. The deep irony is that I thought this sort of self-denying behavior was what “good” mothers did.
I couldn’t even imagine asking for quiet, uninterrupted time with a book or finding a babysitter so I could go to a dance class or asking for any number of other things because I couldn’t face the labels I’d internalized about what being a good mother was.
My daughter, however, could always feel what a good mother was to her. It was me when I was joyful, playful, engaged with her, eager to connect and teach and snuggle. It wasn’t me when I was mired in resentment, frustration, anger, and misery.
To my embarrassment, more and more often I found myself short-tempered, snapping at her and longing for the hour at which I could put her to bed. I found myself disliking this version of the “good mother” that I had crafted, and I started seeking out the ways in which I had kept myself healthy, sane, and happy before having her.
By rediscovering the things that brought me pleasure, separate from ideas of motherhood and goodness and badness, I rediscovered my ability to feel whole and happy.
I got selfish because this is the truth. I go dancing, and I’m a good mom. Period.
On a regular basis, I started going to dance classes because they made me happy. I started accepting invitations from friends to go out dancing because that made (and still makes) me happy. I started reading books from start to finish by myself in coffee shops or after bedtime (instead of trying to do more things). I started stretching (and this I shared with my daughter, on a yoga mat on our living-room floor).
There’s a little more to getting healthily selfish than just dramatically changing things. Getting selfish in a healthy way involves educating your loved ones about what you’re doing.
My daughter wasn’t very happy with me when I started going to my weekly evening dance classes. But I went anyway, preparing her for my absence by speaking with her about how the classes made me smile more and feel happy. I explained that my body felt better, and therefore I could be a better mom, less snappy and impatient. When I framed it as how it affected my behavior toward her, she started to understand.
After a few weeks of this new routine, she could see the difference in my mood, and it was the week that I skipped my dance class that she asked me: “Mama, have you gone dancing this week?”
I said, “No, why?” and she said, “Well, I just noticed you’re getting a little grumpier with me.” This showed me that my selfishness was not actually leaving my daughter to go dancing but denying myself the time to dance because of how it ultimately impacted her.
Our children are subject to our moods, our judgments, our behaviors, and they don’t have much choice about what they have to live with. They’re stuck with us. However, we have a great deal of control over how we show up to our children. Being selfish in ways that nurture your spirit, recharge your energy, and reconnect you with a deeply felt sense of aliveness and joy is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. Being healthy adults, even if it comes with the label of “selfish,” is the least selfish thing we do as parents.
So what does it mean to get selfish? How do you nurture your own joy and sense of grounded presence?
Each of us finds a source of health, vitality, and power in different things. The fact is, it doesn’t matter what that source is. It matters that you discover what it is and ensure you bring it into your life in a consistent and committed way.
Make dates with yourself; have fun; and remember what it is to be an adult woman, to play, to create, to connect, and to recharge physically, emotionally, and mentally. Make that time for yourself nonnegotiable. Don’t try to integrate it with parenting. This is all about you—don’t forget that.
Getting selfish makes you a better person, and it makes you a better mother, able to cope with anything that comes up. And, in turn, that is the selfless thing to do.
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