I wake up at 7 a.m. to hear my toddler calling from her crib, "Mom! Mom!" It's Saturday, so I wonder why my early-riser husband who's no longer in bed didn't intervene and let me sleep until 8. I stumble upstairs, past my 5-year-old daughter watching cartoons.
"Where's Dad?" I ask.
"He went for a run," she answers.
Two hours later when he strolls into the kitchen fresh from a shower, I feel stressed and frustrated. He started his day off with some rewarding personal time, but I had to be there to get our toddler out of bed and make breakfast. I barely had a minute to get myself ready for the day since my little one woke up. Not to mention that I struggled to find 15 minutes for myself at any point in the past week. And here comes my husband, clean, relaxed, and ready to take on the day.
I want to be mad at my husband, to tell him he needs to be there in the mornings so I can have a minute to breathe before mom-mode starts. I want to say that it would be nice if I could be the one to wake up in the morning and go for a run. But that wouldn't be fair of me.
The truth is, my husband is just great at self-care, and I am terrible at it. The only one getting in the way of me taking time for myself is, well, me. That likely explains why I'm the one in a bad mood on this Saturday morning.
Our family dynamic of stressed partner versus relaxed partner is not an unusual one. Research from the American Psychological Association indicates women consistently rate their stress levels higher than men do.
And stress makes you sick. It's a nasty cycle for the overworked parent to find herself in. Do more, stress more, feel worse, repeat.
I spent plenty of time feeling bitter about how easy it was for my husband to relax, and then instead of staying mad, I decided to steal his secrets for self-care.
Secret #1: Exercise is non-negotiable
Scientists believe exercise produces stress-fighting brain chemicals and may even help the body practice handling stress. Even before we had kids, I could see the impact of exercise on my husband's mood. If illness or injury interrupt his running schedule or if work obligations cut into his gym time, he is just not as happy. He runs most days before the sun or the kids are up. He also briefly sets work aside and hits the office gym most days.
But how could I integrate his habits into my day as a stay-at-home mom of two small children? Despite the benefits, women are more likely to skip exercise when they are stressed. To combat that tendency, I adopted these two strategies:
Secret #2: Eat mindfully
Women are more likely than men to skip meals or overeat when they are stressed. I will admit there are days when my whole diet consists of bites of my children's food and a king-sized candy bar from the gas station. At the end of the day, I would rather skip dinner or order takeout than set foot in the kitchen. My husband, on the other hand, preps a week's worth of steel cut oats on Sunday, takes his lunch to work on most days, cooks dinner when he comes home, and almost never darts into the gas station for a candy bar fix. I think carefully about the balance of every meal I feed my kids... why not put the same thought into my own care and feeding? When I do, days go more smoothly for all of us.
Secret #3: Make sleep a priority
Is it any surprise that less sleep equals more stress? Still, there's an army of insomniac parents out there, staying up late just to enjoy some Netflix or true crime podcasts. Do you wonder how my husband manages to run before sun-up? Easy, he is snoring by 10 p.m. every night. Meanwhile, I'm up until well after midnight, desperate for time to myself because I haven't built it into my day like he does. I spend the week sleep deprived, with stress building, until I crash on the weekend, missing fun family activities. So I came up with some sleep strategies:
Secret #4: Do "nothing" more
When both parents are home with the kids, men report spending more time relaxing than women, according to an Ohio State University study. Who's stopping me from reading a book, chilling out on the couch, enjoying an afternoon walk to the park? Not the kids, not my husband—I am.
Exercise, sleep, and eating well are just a few ways parents can practice self-care. My husband regularly puts a record on the turntable and kicks back on the sofa with a book. My natural tendency during these quiet hours is to collapse under the weight of self-judgment for all the things still unchecked on my to-do list. He doesn't have a to-do list.
For years, I didn't dare relax and pick up a book when the children were underfoot. I was too determined to watch and control everything around them. What happens If I got lost in a book for 10 minutes? She might pull all the toys off the shelf or dump her crackers on the floor! Eventually, I realized she is going to do that whether I'm watching or not... but she might also get some wonky feedback from my anxiety and exhaustion if I don't learn to relax.
Consider sports reporter Kristen Hewitt—she felt that pressure last year when she skipped her daughter's award ceremony for a workout. She got backlash from a lot of other parents on the internet, but it's likely most of them were just jealous that they wouldn't allow themselves to take the time they need to care for themselves. I admire Hewitt, also a mom of two girls, and her determination to model self-care for her daughters.
Giving myself permission to step away from the family and take a few hours for me has not been easy. Everyone tells moms to take care of themselves, but the pressure to give all our attention to the kids still very much exists. Once I started to take time for myself, the emotional weight of motherhood felt much lighter. My girls spend their days with a happier, more relaxed mom, and they are learning we are all better for each other when both mommy and daddy regularly take care of themselves.