With two children under the age of 3, a loving husband, and a work-from-home job she adored, Nessa Myers had the life she'd always dreamed of. Yet she found herself feeling increasingly frustrated and resentful and couldn't figure out why.
Eventually, she turned to her counselor, who encouraged her to re-examine her schedule: It was brimming with activities for the kids but woefully lacking any of her own. It was then that Myers realized she was denying herself the opportunity to recharge at the end of a long day or curl up with a good book—things she enjoyed before her daughters were born. "I wanted a chance to just be me, the person," she says.
For many parents, Myers' story might as well be their own. Raising a child may be rewarding and joyful, but it can also be all-consuming, and one of the first casualties is free time. Consider a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, which found that 59 percent of people say they spend the right amount of time with their children. And yet more than half of all parents say they don't have enough time away from the kids to spend with friends or on hobbies.
So where's the disconnect? It may boil down to a host of reasons, including modern parenting styles. "We live in an age of overparenting—we treat it as an Olympic sport," says Samantha Ettus, best-selling author of The Pie Life: A Guilt-Free Recipe For Success and Satisfaction and a mom of three. "We're confusing the amount of time we spend with our kids with the quality of our parenting. The quality of your relationship with your child isn't directly correlated to the time you spend with them." And once you accept that, she says, it's easier to figure out what you actually need to be the best parent you can be.
Old-fashioned mom-guilt also prevents many of us from taking advantage of solo time. After all, what kind of mom puts her own needs ahead of her kids'? Turns out, a pretty good one. That's because practicing self-care actually helps make you a better parent, points out Kristy S. Rodriguez, a pre- and postnatal wellness expert and advocate, author of the newly released book Pure Nurture: A Holistic Guide to a Healthy Baby, and owner and founder of Pure Nurture. "It's essential to our health and well-being," she says. "The more we fill ourselves up, the more we have to give. And as moms, we have to give a lot."
Do what you love
There's no one definition of what constitutes healthy self-care—it can be girls' brunch once a month, hitting the gym twice a week, or keeping up with your annual wellness exams. Experts suggest finding whatever mix of activities that leaves you feeling balanced, happy, and fulfilled. And don't forget your social life—that counts as self-care, too. "I think every parent needs an adult night out each week, period," Ettus says. "Go out with friends; make that part of your schedule."
"Most of the things that are good for you are good for the kids," she adds. "Having a happier, more patient mom is better for everyone." Plus, you're showing your children that joy and fun are important parts of life.
Carve out time for yourself—and keep it
To turn a once-in-a-blue-moon activity into a full-fledged habit, you'll need to do it frequently and consistently. Some moms, like Kristy Tillman, have found success by scheduling an assortment of standing "dates" with other people. An avid runner, the mom of two works out several times a week while her husband cares for their sons. (She reciprocates so he can exercise each week, too.) Before the family relocated to Europe, she had a regular weekend date with a friend and each month attended a book club meeting. Tillman and her husband also had a subscription to their city's symphony, which gave them regular built-in dates.
In fact, making plans with other people—whether friends, a personal trainer, your partner—can help ensure you keep them, since you're less likely to back out if someone is depending on you. It also helps if you plan ahead and mark the time in your calendar, just as you would a doctor's appointment. "Determine what your quality alone time will be this week and then make a plan," Rodriguez says. "Once you have a plan, figure out some motivation to keep that special time set. Create a no-cancellation policy with yourself."
Take advantage of outside motivators to stay on track, too. Rodriguez, for example, enjoys yoga and barre class but has been known to let other demands take over. "However, if I schedule online with the studio, I'm more likely to go," she says. "Why? Because if I don't, I'll have a pay a cancellation or no-show. fee. That's my big motivation. Whatever it takes, right?"
Build a support network
To help ensure your self-care doesn't fall by the wayside, enlist your partner or a babysitter to take over when you're not there. And don't apologize for making yourself a priority, Ettus says. "Instead of saying to your children, 'I'm so sorry I'm going out,' say, 'Guess what Mom's doing tonight? I get to go out with friends and it's going to be so fun!'"
By the same token, don't feel guilty about asking your partner to step in. "It's not called babysitting—it's called parenting," she says. "The more opportunities you give your partner to be alone with the kids, the better relationship they'll have."
Fact: Even the busiest moms can squeeze in some time for self-care. "Find five minutes. Start there. That's all you have to do," Rodriguez says. "Sit and look out the window. Lay down on the floor and reach your arms out to the sides, letting your heart open and expand. Meditate. Take a few deep breaths. These are just a few ideas—there are thousands more. Just start with five minutes." Myers has discovered the power of finding small pockets of time for herself. At her counselor's encouragement, she and her husband each now take a few hours for themselves every week. Sometimes, she retreats to her bedroom and reads. Other times, she writes for her blog or naps. "Overall, the time off has helped so much," Myers says. "It's still a work in progress, but having a night to myself has made everything so much better. Nessa the person is no longer lost in the Mom and Wife shuffle."