I’ll never forget the day I learned how completely imperative it is that I prioritize self-care.
My husband Dan was driving our family back home after we spent a week evacuated from Hurricane Michael. While he was in the driver’s seat, trying desperately to focus on the fallen-tree-laden interstate ahead of us, I was in the passenger’s seat, listening to an audiobook with my ear buds, trying to drown out the noise of our two boys screaming at each other in the back seat for the entire four-hour car ride.
I could feel it rising in me, this welling up of anxiety, hot like lava, bubbling just beneath my heart, increasing in severity as the screaming continued. With each passing second, my husband grew more demonstrably exasperated, and my mental health kept plummeting. Finally, with one last screech from my six-year-old, the ticking time bomb that was my entire person went off. I exploded.
It was like I was floating outside of my body, staring down at what was happening. From up above I looked down to see a deranged woman screaming her head off. She turned to her husband, who was driving their car at 70 miles per hour, and lashed out at him. She accused him of not loving her or her children and wanting to leave them all. She craned her bulging neck to turn around and shout horrible things at her children from her reddened face… things that made both little boys cover their ears and cry.
For the next several hours, I continued to float next to myself, watching as I terrorized every person I loved. I watched myself spout lies of hatred that, though they were projected at others, truly reflected how I was feeling about myself. A few hours later, when I returned to my body, I fell apart in a heap of tears and asked both my children and my husband for forgiveness.
And then I vowed to make a change to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
Some Googling led me to discern that what I experienced was a mental, or nervous, breakdown. I’d been super stressed with work, pouring energy into my friends and was enduring the trauma of a Category 4 hurricane hitting the Florida panhandle where I live.
Now that some time has passed and I’m on the other side of this scary event, I see that, while some of those triggers (an act of God, specifically) weren’t in my control, the others were, and I made a lot of choices that brought me toward mental destruction. As a freelancer, I didn’t have to take on more work, but I did. I didn’t have to over-extend my social calendar, but I did. I didn’t have to put exercise and eating well on the back burner, but I did. I was putting everything – literally, everything – in my life before my own personal needs and my family ended up paying the price.
In humility, I opened up to one of my clients about what happened and he did something I didn’t expect; he told me to build thirty minutes into each of my days specifically for self-care, and then bill him for it.
At first I was shocked and overwhelmed with his generosity, and I thanked him. He reminded me that, while kind and thoughtful, his new self-care mandate wasn’t completely altruistic.
“You’re not a good employee when you don’t care for yourself. I need you to be a healthy person to do good work for me, and I care about you, so I’m willing to pay for it.”
So now, self-care is the top priority on my list each day (and how sad is it that I had to be paid to do this?). I’m still working out what that looks like for me – is it getting up at 6 AM to write? Is it getting a gym membership? Investing in a weekly massage? Scheduling a girls’ night out with my friends? I’m still experimenting, and I’m still no expert by any means, but after putting a call out on my Facebook and Instagram feeds, I’m finding that I’m not the only mother out there (working or not) who struggles with finding the time to care for herself. If you’re one of those moms, I have some thoughts for you.
1. You have permission to put yourself first. I know you don’t know me from Adam (though I am decidedly girlier), and I cannot possibly be the first person to do this, but I need you to hear me when I say that YOU HAVE PERMISSION (and maybe even compulsion) TO BELIEVE YOU ARE NUMBER ONE. You aren’t second to anyone, including your newborn/toddler/preschooler/elementary kid/preteen/teen/adult child/partner/cat/dog/neighbor/neighbor’s sister/etc. The sooner you get this, the better. Full disclosure? I’m still not sure I believe it. But each day I’m telling myself this, hoping that one day it will become gospel.
2. It’s okay to admit you need some help. Long before my mental breakdown, I could see the signs of it brewing. I could feel the tension in my back when I had a conversation at work, or the pang in my stomach when my three-year-old would throw a tantrum over the dinner I made. I should have asked my husband for help a long, LONG time ago. I should have opened up to my friends. I should have risked being open and vulnerable about my mental health before it unexpectedly exploded, leaving a scarred family in its aftermath.
3. Self-care takes trial and error, but it’s worth it. If I’m honest, I sucked at self-care long before I was a mom. I should have been more diligent in honing this craft before I had two kids to care for and a marriage to sustain, so I’m way behind in the game, but my mental health depends on me continuing to try. A friend of mine likened this situation to being pregnant. “Listen to what your body’s craving right now,” she told me. “Is it craving silence? Friendship? A kid-free weekend? Listen to what sounds ‘good,’ and then lean into that craving unapologetically.” I love this advice because it squashed my twisted idea that self-care is a rigid formula or checklist.
4. Talk about it. I think the biggest problem with the self-care epidemic is that we’re all too prideful to admit that self-care is something we need. It sounds narcissistic or self-centered. We are made to feel guilty for not being martyrs. But the more people who gain the courage to speak out about this, the better. We’ve got to acknowledge the workaholic-friendly society we’re living in and normalize pushing against those expectations. And we’ve got to have grace when we, or others, don’t get it right.
As for me, I’ve since reached out to a few close friends and admitted what I am going through. I’ve asked for advice, yes, but also forgiveness. I’ve also asked for help and accountability, and my friends are stepping up in a big way. Last night around 10:00 I got a text from my friend Paige reminding me to get into bed so that I could get up early and care for myself in the morning.
And so I went to bed. And I got up the next morning when my alarm went off. And I walked out to the kitchen, made myself a cup of hot coffee, and then walked back to my dark office and lit a candle. Then, I opened my laptop, turned on some classical piano music (my absolute favorite) and devoted some time to the book I’m working on, until my sons’ alarm went off and it was time to get ready for the day.
Was it earth-shattering? Life-changing? Not exactly. But I did notice a distinct difference in how I interacted with my family that morning. Because I’d taken the time to remember who I am besides a wife and mother, I was able to be more kind and patient with the people in my house who depend on me.
Tomorrow, I’m going to do it all over again. And the next day. And the next day. And I’ll keep asking for advice and accountability, and I’ll continue to evaluate my mental state as I go.
I’m trying to make myself priority number one. I’m not going to lie to you – it feels really weird. But it also feels really good. So I’m going to keep doing it until it doesn’t feel weird anymore.
And you should, too.