The Sustainable Mom

The Sustainable Mom: Building a Stronger Family Through Self-Care
When I first heard the popular saying, “if a mom is happy the family is happy,” I cringed a bit with a sense of yearning and dread. In theory, I know that I am responsible for creating my own happiness and that if I do not attend to my own needs that my family structure suffers. In practice, I have a difficult time putting my happiness and myself first. I also know that I am not alone in this struggle. I would like to share two of the most common challenges to a mother’s self-care and present some strategies to put mothers back on top of the pile.

1. The supermom syndrome: Assuming too great a share of family responsibility

As modern women, the notion that we can do it all is very tempting. We can have our careers, travel and enjoy cultural opportunities, and raise healthy, confident and socially responsible children. But how many of us knew that we couldn’t do it all by ourselves? Chasing the delusion that we have to do it on our own may be creating unhappiness.

Doing it all without the support of an extended family or community runs counter to our natural process and structure. A woman’s brain is wired to relate, to talk through, and to solve problems in a collaborative way. Women need a support system in a physical sense; we need others.

When we lived in tribal groups, women naturally supported our relational wiring. Grandmothers, sisters, cousins and friends provided women with ever-present open ears, hearts and hands. Now it is standard for new mothers to spend most of the day alone with small children. At-home moms are struggling to meet the needs of their children and forgetting their own needs. We are losing touch with our natural rhythms and practices for well-being. This brings us to the second common challenge to self-care: putting ourselves first.

2. The vicious circle of politeness: Self-forgetting confused with selfless service

I was first introduced to the “vicious circle of politeness,” while visiting a friend’s family in Gujarat, India. One afternoon, while browsing for antiques in the local market with our Indian hosts, my husband innocently purchased some potato chips from a vendor on the street. Suddenly, my friend’s Indian cousin ripped the chips from my husband’s hands and replaced them with most expensive snack on the cart. The cousin scolded the cart-keeper for selling the chips to a “guest” and letting him pay for them. My friend just sighed and told my husband to eat the expensive snack. Then she turned to me and said, “welcome to the vicious circle of politeness.” The reality was that despite their best intentions, our hosts thought they knew what was best for us, while ignoring what we really wanted. My husband wanted to eat something familiar and was instead stuck with the exotic snack in order to continue the circle from polite host to polite guest. As a mom I see this “circle” carried out daily.

Moms are constantly engaged in a circle of getting almost what they want and need. I caught myself in this situation recently when I switched a yoga class to join a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. I ended up pushing myself too hard with the new instructor and pulling my hamstring. On top of that I really didn’t get to see my girlfriend as she rushed off after class to finish up a project. I had politely switched my schedule to accommodate a friend and ended up with “almost” what I wanted.

The question I come back to is: why do I continue to place the needs of others in front of my own? The brief answers that I have come up with may sound familiar to you:

• I don’t really know what I want.
• I don’t ask directly for what I need.
• I am too busy to take time for myself.
• I either don’t have or trust in a support system.
• I take responsibility for the happiness of others.

Knowing why we put others needs in front of our own is perhaps a longer journey worth taking, however, for more immediate ways to take care of yourself start with this question: how do you put yourself back on top and experience happiness again? Here are some further suggestions that you can put into practice right away:

1. Create a strong self-care foundation by discovering what really makes you happy. Try this simple exercise (you will need a piece of paper, writing instrument and a timer).
• Start by noting how you are feeling right now. Are you elevated, depressed, anxious…happy?
• Set the timer for four minutes. Make a list of everything that makes you happy. Write down, as fast as you can anything that comes to mind without judgment, or correction. When the timer goes off, stop writing and make a brief note of how you feel. You might be surprised to notice that the simple act of writing down the things that make you happy will elevate your mood in a positive direction. Now you have a starting point to finding your own happiness (you may have a few surprises!)*

2. Set clear intentions that carry this foundation into the future. Intentions are positive pictures of your deepest desires. The more detailed your pictures are the greater opportunity you will have to receive what you really need.

3. Join a mother’s group. I am grateful every day for the unwavering support I receive from my circle of moms.

4. Get rid of commitments that no longer serve you. The clearer you get about what really helps you, the easier it is to give things up that are draining your precious resources.

5. Do one thing each day that you enjoy just for yourself…even if it is only for 10 minutes.

6. Ask directly for what you need. You are most polite when you are honest about what you need.

7. Let go of trying to make everyone happy. Your children instinctually know what they need to be happy. Being a nurturing parent does not mean giving your children what you think they need. Help your child experience happiness by being a good role model.

I hope you are inspired by this list and have some of your own ideas and practices to add. If you are feeling overwhelmed or very depleted, even thinking of something to do for yourself can seem like another notch on your expanding to-do list. However, you have to start somewhere to break the cycle of stress and depletion. A good place to begin is by appreciating all that you have in your life. The simple mantra of gratitude is a good start as it places you in the present moment. It is only in the present that we can truly experience happiness and the wonderment of being alive. It takes practice to put our own needs first, but as we get stronger we will have more energy to care for ourselves and for others.

* Exercise adapted from How We Choose to be Happy, by Greg Hicks and Richard Foster.

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  • lea watkins May 2, 2009  

    Laura, thank you for sharing your thoughts on Motherhood. it is a good reminder that we are not alone in our struggles and that the simple acts of reaching out and looking in may be the most profound.

  • Bill Hoppin July 8, 2009  

    Really well written, I enjoyed this a lot.

    I hope you are well!


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