Don’t get me wrong, I think the concept of self-care is a beautiful thing. Many experts argue that regularly setting aside a chunk of time to put ourselves first is critical to our mental health. And I don’t disagree.
Before I became a mom, I certainly indulged in my fair share of self-care. I took long leisurely walks, splurged at fancy restaurants, went to the gym twice a week, got pedicures on the regular, saw a naturopath, and went to acupuncture on a weekly basis! I was part of a Book Club and a Foodie Club. I travelled a lot. I read novels from beginning to end, and actually watched movies in one sitting. I made sure to catch up with friends over a glass of wine (or 3!) and I gave myself permission to order dessert when I felt like it.
Then I gave birth to my sweet baby boy. After the whirlwind of the newborn phase passed, I expected things to calm down a bit, I thought I might gain back some of that elusive ‘me time’ that had disappeared along with my pre-baby waistline. But mix multiple food allergies with a toddler who still doesn’t sleep through the night… and let’s just say the whirlwind is still going strong.
So forgive me if I don’t like being told that I must find a way to carve out a bit of extra for myself—or else. The next time I read that the world isn’t going to end if I leave that pile of dishes until morning, or that my load(s) of laundry can wait, I may actually lose it.
Because the truth is, my new reality means that they can’t wait.
Ignoring a pile of dirty dishes means we don’t have a bottle ready for daddy’s bedtime shift, or clean containers to pack my toddler’s (safe) food in before we send him off to daycare. A skipped load of laundry means the little guy won’t have enough layers to keep him warm when he goes to the park, or that the one hat that doesn’t make his eczema flare up is lying under a bunch of sweaty socks.
Contrary to what these self-care articles would have you believe, the above scenarios are much more detrimental to my mental health than skipping out on a bubble bath or foregoing a cup of tea and a few chapters of my juicy new novel.
Mostly because if you get behind on one thing, it means you’re behind on everything… and life isn’t very fun while you try to get caught up again. In fact, it’s extremely stressful. Especially when you’re low on time to begin with.
As a food allergy mom, I don’t have the luxury of extra time. And I’m tired of self-care articles telling me that if I don’t magically produce some, I’ll be a miserable person, a terrible wife and a shitty mother.
Because here’s the thing: I went against my better judgment last week and left behind a kitchen that looked like it had been hit by a tornado to accompany the hubby and the babe on a 40-minute stroll around the neighbourhood. (It’s our latest pre-bedtime trick. It usually helps us get him down easier.)
Every night my husband sweetly invites me to join them, to check out all the cool Halloween decorations in the neighbourhood, to enjoy a bit of fresh air, and even get a little bit of exercise in. And every night, I tell him I should stay home and get a head start on kitchen clean-up duties. But this particular night was a Friday. So I caved.
It was for my mental health, after all.
And you know what? The walk was amazing. The air was fresh, but not too cold. The decorations were SO cool. And our little chatterbox entertained us the whole way. By the end, I had almost convinced myself that I could do this every night, that my husband and I could use this opportunity to get a bit of quality time in, that maybe this is how I’d lose that final bit of baby weight that just won’t seem to go anywhere.
Until that is, we got home and I saw our very messy kitchen. (Right eye twitch.) Then I spent a reeeally long time trying to put the baby down… to no avail. (Left eye twitch.)
For the next 3 hours, my husband and I alternated between trying to put our little energy ball to sleep and cleaning. My husband would play with him while I loaded the dishwasher. Then I’d read to him while my husband tidied up the living room Then we’d switch again. Until finally, our exhausted baby crashed for the night. And it wasn’t much longer before we followed suit.
Self-care requires time—time I do not have. Above and beyond our challenges with baby’s bedtime, I also spend countless hours doing ‘food allergy mom’ stuff: reading, researching, asking questions, sharing information, meal planning, lunch prepping, grocery shopping, label reading, recipe browsing, trying to spread awareness and, of course, worrying.
It may go without saying, but here’s what I don’t spend time doing these days:
- Being active. I’ve gone to the gym maybe a handful of times since my son was born. He is now 22 months old. Although I guess rocking a 27-pound toddler to sleep every night counts as activity, right? RIGHT?!
- Straightening my hair. These days, I barely recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I guess it’s really only important if my son recognizes me… and since this frizzy-haired woman is all he’s ever known, I guess we’re good.
- Walking. I drive everywhere now (something I swore I would never do in the city) because I’m never not in a rush. Another thing I thought I’d never do? Spend my “free” time driving a bunch of toy vehicles around my living room.
- Reading. I haven’t picked up a book since my son started solids. Unless you count the thousands of times I’ve read him Goodnight Moon… not to mention the multiple readings of his many other favorites.
- Going out with friends. It’s hard to spend time with friends without kids when my ideal time to meet up is when they are likely just waking up. And when food safety is such as issue, it’s even tough to plan play dates with fellow mama friends. Lucky for me, I’m my toddler’s “best friend” (or so he likes to tell me). And we get to hang out a lot.
- Chatting with colleagues. Because I quit my job when I realized I wouldn’t be able to go back to work full-time and manage my son’s 6+ allergies, I don’t get to enjoy those chats around the water cooler… or over a beer after work. But hey, I do get to chat about excavators and cranes over a cold glass of milk with my new BFF!
- Going shopping. While it feels like I spend half my life circling grocery stores, I pretty much never step foot into clothing stores anymore. You know what that means? I’ve mastered the art of saving time by wearing the same thing every day—though not necessarily by choice.
This is what life is like for me right now. And the truth is, I’ve accepted (if not embraced) it.
And yet, these self-care articles keep pushing the idea that by not prioritizing me, my mental health will suffer.
I would argue that the kind of pressure these articles puts on new moms / allergy moms / moms with bad sleepers / single moms / moms who work two jobs to pay the bills / mom with twins / moms with triplets / moms going through a divorce / basically any mom who doesn’t have a live-in nanny* only makes us feel like we’re not living up to the ‘super mom’ status, resulting in the exact opposite effect that they are aiming for.
Let me repeat, I love the idea of self-care. And maybe one day I’ll have time to indulge in some ‘me time.’ But right now, I have other priorities (like, keeping my food-allergic kid alive), so I really don’t need to read another blog post telling me to take the night off because “the dishes will still be there tomorrow.” Believe me, I know they’ll still be there tomorrow. And therein lies the problem!
Read more articles by Kathleen O’Hagan on Allergy-Bites.com