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As moms, we have a lot of pressure to do it all. But someone has to say it: the scrapbook and everything else can wait. Get expert advice about staying present and doing less—and not feeling bad about it.

By Rebecca Rakowitz
March 23, 2021
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An image of a smiling mother with her newborn baby on a couch.
Credit: Getty Images.

This week we hear from five moms who had lofty plans for their maternity leave. The newborn days are about a lot of things, but one thing that does not need to be on any new mom's plate is a to-do list.

"When you are a new mom, your job is to keep your baby alive," says Whitney Casares, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P. "To help your baby to grow and to develop appropriately, and to take care of your own mental health and physical health. That's it."

This week on That New Mom Life, Dr. Casares, pediatrician and creator of Modern Mommy Doc, breaks down how moms can better manage their time during their maternity leave. She shares her tips for prioritizing self-care, staying in the moment, and doing less. She even explains how to manage your tasks by sorting them into the following categories: the non-negotiables, the swappables, the contaminators, and the heartstrings.

Learning the difference between the four? That's a non-negotiable. 

Listen and subscribe to That New Mom Life on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. That New Mom Life will be back again next week with more postpartum insights.

Upcoming topics this season:

  • Body changes
  • How to share the parenting load
  • Establishing routines
  • Sex and romance as new parents
  • Preparing for what's next

If you have a story to tell or want to learn more about That New Mom Life, email us at thatnewmomlife@meredith.com. 

Listen to episode 6 right now:

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Desiree: You know what? The only way that I have found, for myself, to allow me to stay present, is to stop what I'm doing and take a few deep breaths and soak in the moments with my kids.

Grace: It is easier said than done, but it is possible. And I totally agree with you. It's about pausing and taking that breath and just reminding yourself, this is just a phase of life. It doesn't all have to be happiness and laughter, but you want to enjoy all of it and just take it in. 

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Desiree: Hi, I'm Desiree Fortin and yes, I have drawers to organize, emails that need replying, and a scrapbook I've been meaning to start! 

Grace: Welcome! I'm Grace Bastidas and I remember the ridiculous pressure I put on myself to try to do it all with a brand new baby at home! I had my to-do list and was ready to cross things off. Little did I know! 

Desiree: We've all been there, Grace! Today on That New Mom Life we're going to talk to Dr. Whitney Casares, mom, pediatrician, and a woman on a mission to help us all thrive, not just survive, as modern moms.

Grace I can't wait to hear what she can teach us all about staying present and doing less. But before that, let's check in with these moms and hear how they learned to let go.

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Mom 1: Being a first-time mom and trying to stay present and do less around the house is tough. Especially if you're a neurotic, clean freak like I am. 

You want to relax when they're sleeping, but it's like your laundry is piling up, the dishes in the sink are piling up, your bed isn't made, there's spilled stuff on the floor. You know, it's a lot, and I also have two dogs, so it's even worse for me, I think, cause I'm always cleaning up after them too. 

But you know what? Your baby doesn't stay a baby forever. Like fast forward seven months later—and I don't care about the dishes in the sink or about my bed not being made. And you just want to enjoy the moments with your baby. 

Mom 2: My first year of motherhood was challenging in a number of ways. I had launched my business and my son was born in January two months after that. So I always felt that I was being pulled into different directions. 

I knew that I should be savoring every moment of this new phase in my life and just, you know, loving on my little newborn, but at the same time, I was just looking forward to the moment when he would take a nap so that I could get back to my business because being a mom for me, wasn't enough.

And on his first birthday, I remember I was journaling and I came to the realization that I had wasted this entire first year of motherhood focusing on what I wasn't accomplishing in my business, instead of just enjoying the beauty of everything, of having a new baby, which was really hard for me.

Mom 3: When I went on my first maternity leave, I thought I was going to get all of these things done. I wanted to do the photo album from our honeymoon. And I was going to get a great head start on her baby book and the photo album for her first year. 

And I thought, well, a baby sleeps a lot of the time. And even if I sleep some of the time that she does, I'll be able to do all these things. And none of it happened. I mean, sometimes the house was clean and sometimes I cooked, but I definitely never started any of those photo albums. 

And here I am on my third leave, and I've accepted that my ideas of being productive during maternity leave are just unrealistic. And I finally gave away all of my scrapbooking supplies and I do remain full of hope that maybe if not during this leave, at least sometime this year, I'll maybe hopefully start the photo albums for each of their first years!

Mom 4: After I had the baby, I was like, you know, I'm on maternity leave. I'm gonna have time to just do a bunch of stuff and also study for my real estate license.

So I would try to study, and it just would not work. I had a C-section so I had to recover. My son was not the best sleeper. I would be exhausted, and there's no way my brain could memorize all the information that you need to know. 

So I decided, you know what? I have to be realistic with my time. And I have to adjust to being a mom and having a new baby, someone who needs my attention 24/7. And actually my goal is to this year get my real estate license.

Mom 5: I gave birth to my son, and a couple of weeks later, my book was officially published. I literally recall breastfeeding my tiny newborn son and uploading my book to Amazon.

It was almost surreal. I did feel some pressure and stress. Like I felt like, oh my gosh, I have this tiny human depending on me. And I've never experienced this before. And oh my gosh, the pressure of making sure the book launches on time.

But, you know what? I had my husband, my parents, and my suegros (in-laws) in my corner. As a matter of fact, my mom stayed with me for the first 40 days after I gave birth. So I'm gonna tell you right now, I could not have done any of it without her. 

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Desiree: Ok time to talk to today's guest—Dr. Whitney Casares, mom, pediatrician, author, coach, and creator of ModernMommyDoc.com. She helps moms find the joy in the chaos of having a newborn.

Grace: Dr. Whitney, thank you so much for joining us today. You're on a mission to help moms bring back joy in all areas of their lives, including parenting. But let's be honest, while we love our children deeply, being a mom is not always enjoyable. 

Dr. Casares: Amen on that! So that's why I'm on a mission for joy and not happiness. If I was to count the number of times that I have been unhappy with my children or with my situation in the past week. And let's see, I think that it's a Tuesday today. It would be about 40 already. Right? 

So I am not on a mission for moms to find that moment-to-moment every single second of their day, they feel perfectly happy and excited, but more that they have that inner peace and that inner sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. That they have kind of a North star and a framework for their lives that makes them feel like they're heading in a direction that makes them satisfied.

Grace: You said that motherhood hit you hard. What happened? 

Dr. Casares: How much time do we have? I am one of those people who is a go-getter. My first baby really brought me to my knees. I thought that I knew everything about parenthood because I talked to other people about it before I had kids. And because I knew all the stuff in the books.

And when I had her, she threw me for a loop. She didn't sleep more than 45 minutes at a time. For the first 13 weeks of her life, she was fussy and colicky when she was awake. I remember my husband and I driving around the city for hours and hours and hours.

I remember a night that my husband turned to me and said, "Are you going to shake this baby? You are so angry and upset."

I mean, I could not imagine who I had become—this pediatrician who I was having a horrible time. And she never got easier actually, as she got older. But in those moments when she was young, I realized that it wasn't just about my book knowledge and about what I understood were kind of the practical ways of taking care of a baby that mattered the most. 

I realized I had to find some way to take care of myself, even in the midst of a whole lot of chaos and honestly pain and postpartum depression and anxiety. How to kind of find a way out and to find myself again. 

Grace: Well, you talk about being a go-getter and so many moms can relate. And for some reason, a lot of women think, "My baby's born. And now I can take all this time to work on those little projects I've been meaning to get to."

Why do we feel like this need to get so much done in that time when we have this teeny tiny baby to take care of?

Dr. Casares: Yeah, I think there are a whole host of reasons. Most important, I think there are a lot of societal pressures on us as moms, as women. That we need to be in charge of everything, that we should be able to do everything, that we should be able to kind of pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. 

The other thing is we have in our society an addiction to busyness. We have a hard time being still, and being. And as women, our appearance and our performance a lot of times defines our worth. 

And so when we find ourselves in these moments where there's nothing that we should be doing, there's nothing we can show to the world other than we changed 13 diapers today. That can be really hard to reconcile with and just to be quiet in that moment. 

And so deciding that we're going to be able to learn how to kind of be still and be present in the moment because sometimes actually be even more difficult than just keeping ourselves distracted by to dos and things on our task lists.

Grace: It's hard to get over that idea that our main preoccupation now is to change diapers, as you said. You know, keep a nap schedule, stay on top of feedings. How do we make peace with that? 

Dr. Casares: I talk a lot in my books, and I have experienced in my own personal life, really coming to grips with accepting the stage of life and the stage of motherhood that you're in.

So thinking about that this is a packet of time. This is a tiny little part of life that will be over eventually, that eventually I will not have this be the thing that defines me, but that it's OK that it does. In that moment that's all my child needs is really for me to be connected with them in these very, very simple, basic ways.

And then the other thing that I am always advising women on, I don't want them to go through and like organize every single closet in their house during maternity leave. But find ways to reconnect to the other parts of their life pre-baby, that make them who they are on a consistent basis. And those can be things like listening to your favorite Justin Timberlake song that you used to dance around to maybe like at a party, that now you can dance around in your mind or sit on the porch and listen to. It can be reading your favorite book. It can be talking to a friend who really knows you and cares about you, and that you can talk about vacations that you've been on previously. 

And so, just really coaching moms on finding things that will give them a little bit of mental stimulation and a mental reminder of this other piece of their being that is separate from them and their baby.

Grace: How can we stay present in the face of everything we need to do? 

Dr. Casares: I have a framework that I use, that's called "a centered-vision and a centered-circle." And I like to think about that as you are a circle, all the things that you care the most about and want to spend your physical time and your emotional energy on, they fall within a circle. Your physical or emotional health, your connection with your family, or with your friends, or with your kids, maybe passions that you want to pursue. 

And then the things that are in life that have to get done, but are not part of the circle are kind of in this box, that's tight around the circle.And so I have this framework for trying to really push the circle of what's most important to you outside to the edges of that box and not let all the things that don't matter crush you inside.

So on the different corners of the box, I think about four different areas at the top is what I call the non-negotiables. And those are things that have to happen, but need to happen with as much efficiency or productivity as possible. So these are tasks like laundry. Well, instead of that, being a constant thing that time and time again, every single day you see the laundry pile it really bothers you. That you have a time and a place on your schedule where that happens every single week. 

On the bottom, right corner are the swappables. These are things that you can automate or that you can delegate to somebody else. These could be things like house cleaning. So you're kind of offsetting and putting those things out of your mental load as well. 

On the left-hand side in the lower corner are what I consider the contaminators. And these are all the things that you really don't need to do, but they kind of add extra stress to your life. When you have a young baby, sometimes that's like an extra coffee date with somebody you really don't want to go on. And the way that you kind of deal with those is creating an audit, and it could be daily that you're looking through your calendar and seeing what could I take away? 

And then in the left upper hand corner are the heartstrings. And those are the things you really care about, but if they're not done at the right moment, they produce resentment or they produce guilt. And so those are things like having a conversation with your grandmother. It matters to you, but man, if it's done at a time when you feel really stressed out, it's not going to work well. 

So, I tell people, "OK, let's have that be more 'quality versus quantity.'" Make it one time a month, and you can actually have it be enjoyable, and fit with your life. 

Grace: Wow. The non-negotiables, the swappables, the contaminators, and the heartstrings. It's like the battle of the band names, right? But for a new mom who is just feeling overwhelmed, what's the trick to getting it done?

Dr. Casares: I think the most important for the new moms is the automating and delegating. It's figuring out who else can take things on for you? And how can you simplify? 

So, for example, I like to talk about if you're a breastfeeding mom, then you are the breastfeeder-in-chief. And if you have a partner, that partner is the soother-in-chief. So you have a full-time job if you're breastfeeding and learning how to do this really intricate process. And so your partner, if you have one, or someone else in your village, if you don't have a partner and you're single parenting, can be the person who really helps you to learn, the soothing techniques, swaddling, and shushing, and swaying your baby.

So that, of course, you're going to do some of those things. But you're not the only person responsible for it. Similarly for things like meal prep, for example, really relying in those early days on things like Instacart delivery or relying on Prime Pantry, where you get automated delivery of your paper towels that they come one time a month. You don't have to think about it, right? Those are really simple ways that you can reduce that mental load and push your circle out to the edges of the box. 

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Grace: How can first-time moms begin with self-care and creating some sort of time for themselves?

Dr. Casares: Yeah. So I think it's important to remember that traditionally self-care we think about it, like getting a manicure, getting a pedicure or that type of thing, you know, going to an exercise class. And those can all be really great forms of self-care.

But a lot of times that's not actually for us, it's to look good or to have some performance element to it. They're fine. But as a new mom, if it feels great to get your nails done awesome. But what matters probably the most are finding things that allow you to attune more to yourself and to your own needs and to listen to what's going on inside of you and to your emotions.

So as a pediatrician, in my office, we talk a ton about emotion coaching for toddlers. Toddlers get really out of sorts. And they kind of get into their like, emotional brain as opposed to their logical brain. And as parents, we help them to actually think more logically and to be more rational by emotion coaching them. By telling them, "It looks like you're feeling really mad. That makes a lot of sense that you feel this way. OK. I bet there's a bunch of other kids that feel this way. Now, what can we do to solve it?"

And as new parents especially, actually just finding moments where we can do that same thing with ourselves, we call it mindful self-compassion where we say, "I feel so overwhelmed by this baby crying in the other room" and then like hand to heart, "Well, that makes a ton of sense. This baby has been crying for five hours, and I've been crying for five hours as my baby's been crying for five hours." And then I can imagine a Colosseum full of moms that would feel the exact same way in this position. I'm not alone. So common humanity.

That is so, so powerful. Just that, that ability to kind of dig in and feel like we're like our own best friend, like giving ourselves a little hug or like a pat on the back, or just acknowledging the way we feel is actually an act of self-care and of kind of self-love. So finding ways to do that and that can be a daily thing where you say I'm spending five minutes in the shower every single day so I can just be alone with myself, with my thoughts, with my feelings. 

Grace: So we've all heard that time is precious. Is there a trick to hanging on to those memories we're making with our babies when we are present with them and enjoying the moment? 

Dr. Casares: My best trick for that has been creating experiences of delight with my kids. Because when you are sitting around with your kids in your living room and you're like watching the clock tick by, those are not actually precious moments. Those are just really long days with a very small being who doesn't really give much back to you. Right? 

And they're fine and they're necessary, but actually in those moments, I really encourage parents to put on some music that you enjoy that would not be jarring to your baby's ears. You know, put on a podcast in the background. So that way you can be with your baby, but you're not feeling like antsy about the fact that you're not doing anything productive with your life.

The more important moments are deciding, "OK, I'm going to actually set the timer for like five minutes at a time and say, 'OK, this is a moment I'm going to read to my baby. OK, this is a moment I want to actually play this little song that I found on YouTube, but I think they're going to love.' We're breastfeeding or we're bottle feeding. And this is a moment where I do have a bunch of stuff that could go on. I'm going to just stop. Pause. Recognize that this is a moment that's special to me, and try my hardest to be mindful in that way.'"

You know, that thing yogis always teach, which is like not shutting out all the other thoughts that come into our mind, but instead of letting them kind of flit in, but saying, "I'm here in this moment with my baby" and kind of doing the same thing as the mindful self-compassion, but with those really positive emotions of like, "I'm here and this is so special. I'm with my baby."

Those are the things that make our memories. 

Grace: Finally, Dr. Whitney, what's your number one tip for staying present and doing less as a new mom. 

Dr. Casares: I think it comes down to prioritization. When you are a new mom, your job, and your partner's job if you have one, are to keep your baby alive, to help your baby to grow and to develop appropriately, and to take care of yourselves. And your own mental health and physical health. That's it.

So the dirty house can wait or you have to have somebody else clean it. The to-do list of ordering supplies can wait or you got to automate it. The care-taking of the dog can wait or you have to have somebody else do it. 

I mean, really, it's about deciding what are the things that matter in this moment to me and deciding you're going to be OK with focusing only on those things, which I know is so much easier said than done.

A lot of it is about confronting our own need and addiction to busyness. Our own feeling of if we are not doing a ton of stuff every single day, and we haven't accomplished much in a day, that we're not worthy at all, we have no worthiness. 

Really attacking that notion. And then keeping cognizant of the idea that this is a finite period of time, that it changes, that it will be gone, and so to not wish it away too, too fast because there's just going to be more that comes. 

Take a breath pause, be kind to yourself because the kinder you are to yourself now, the more you learn that practice. The kinder you'll be later on and the more successful and satisfied you'll be later on too.

Grace: Thank you so much, Dr. Whitney for being with us today. Lovely chatting with you.

Dr. Casares: Yeah, you bet. Thanks for having me 

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Desiree: Well that interview with Dr. Whitney was exactly what I needed. Considering I came into this interview totally flustered. 

I had my sitter cancel like an hour before I was supposed to hop on and frantically trying to find someone on top of having to pick up my boys from school early today because they got into a physical fight. So we are winning today. Overwhelmed to the max.

Grace: But you called your husband and he came through for you, Desiree. 

Desiree: "Do whatever you have to do, but come home!"

Grace: Exactly. You know when I think about feeling overwhelmed, I, for some reason, my memory takes me back to day one. You know, um, just even when they hand you a new baby. 

And especially when I had my second daughter, I had a fairly new job, a sick parent, a toddler who wasn't potty-trained, a C-section scar that impeded me from doing a whole lot. And I think I felt overwhelmed the moment the nurses waved goodbye to me and off I went with my new baby. 

I actually remember saying, um, can I just stay an extra night? And they were probably thinking, "This isn't a hotel, lady. Get out, we need your bed."

I mean, is this your life Desiree? Do you feel all the time like I've got triplets, I've got a newborn. How am I going to make this work? 

Desiree: Absolutely! Sometimes I feel like the stars align, and you have the babysitter and someone helping with the laundry, and sometimes you're sitting in your mess. And I recently felt that next level.

I was nursing Cambria, and while I'm nursing her, my boys are fighting, my daughter Charlize is crying, and I forgot that I had something on the stove. So the smoke alarms start to go off, and I'm sitting here with a baby on my boob, and someone's at the door. 

So I'm just like, "Why? Why is this all happening right now?" It was so overwhelming, and all I did was sit there and sob. I didn't know what else to do. I just sat there. I needed that moment to just like release. You know? And I think that sometimes it's important for us to do that. Like let's just let it all out. And then, "Oh, here we go." You know?

Grace: I think we've all had these moments in which we sit there and cry or yell at the person at the door because it's just too much. And we need somebody to take this on. Right? 

Desiree: Exactly. 

Grace: So I feel your pain. And I'm glad you're here with us today. 

Desiree: Me too. We made it. 

Grace: Dr. Whitney talked about remembering the people that we were, and, you know, if it means playing your favorite music or just taking five minutes to read a book or do the things that you used to enjoy pre-baby, then do it. 

Did you have to let go of parts of Desiree in order to be a mom? 

Desiree: I think many of us as moms feel that we do let go of ourselves. But just as she said to think about things that bring you back to who you were before a baby makes such a big difference. And finding yourself again. And this is just a small little pocket of our lives, right? 

For me, before I had the triplets, I was a photographer, and I loved it. I loved taking pictures, loved capturing moments. I was in a pretty deep postpartum depression with the triplets. It was a really hard season of my life, and I had a really hard time finding the joy of that season with these three babies who cried all the time, needed me all the time.

One day, they were probably like 3 or 4 months old, I just got out my camera and I'm just like, "I'm going to start taking pictures of them every week."

Every week I'm going to make a theme, and I'm going to take a picture, and it birthed this new life in me that I just felt like I was getting a little piece of me back. It was such a pivotal moment for me in that postpartum depression. 

Grace: I love that you found a way to work that into your life. I used to love to travel and immerse myself in different cultures. I would actually join friends kind of spontaneously on their own trips. "Oh, you're going somewhere? I'm coming too."

And when I had the girls, I really tried to bring culture into my home. And I remember this one time, I decided to make dumplings. I think it was Chinese New Year. So I strapped on my 1-month-old into her baby carrier while my 2-year-old was running around, and I set up my workstation. I had about 20 ingredients, including the tiniest little wonton wrappers. 

And I remember standing in the kitchen rocking side-to-side, you know, that dance, all moms do, trying to get my baby to fall asleep in her carrier. And just feeling over my head. What was I thinking? The recipe was for about 30 dumplings, I think I got to seven or eight and quit. 

And ever since then, Desiree, I'm happy to report that Asian night in my house usually involves a takeout menu because it was just that addiction to busyness that Dr. Whitney talked about. I was just like, "OK, I've got a minute here. Let's make some dumplings!"

Dr. Whitney also talked about self-compassion and really just being a little kinder to ourselves. And I can tell you that I do feel like I was my own worst critic, and the one who put all this pressure on myself. 

As a Latina, we're often taught to be self-sacrificing, that we should put our children and family, their needs, ahead of our own. That's the example that I saw growing up, and that's what I followed. So it really does take a lot of intentionality to carve out time for myself. 

Desiree: Yeah, I feel like you kind of hit the nail on the head there when you said intention.

I think that when I went through my postpartum with the triplets, it was such a learning experience for me to really take care of myself now with Cambria and know my needs. Just like Dr. Whitney said, "You know what you need—ask for the help."

So I have a babysitter who usually shows up, and is here for me. And talking to my husband, for the Super Bowl, he was like, "I need to get out for the game," and I'm like, "Great. I need to get out with my girlfriends."

Knowing what you both need and acting on those things, I think is really important. Conversations that we have to have that sometimes feel maybe uncomfortable, but you know what you need in order to feel rejuvenated and ready to go and parent well, and have those moments with your kids too.

Grace: That's right, Dr Whitney said it, you have to be your own best friend. You have to ask yourself, "What do I need right now?"

Really focus on that present moment and listen to that voice and take a minute to be compassionate with yourself. That's what matters most.

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Grace: That's all for another episode of That New Mom Life, a podcast from Parents magazine. To find out more, head to Parents.com/newmompodcast

 Desiree: Thanks for listening we'd love you to get in touch with us and of course tell all your mom friends!

Grace: Thanks so much to Dr Whitney for her wisdom, to all the moms who shared their stories, and to our production team, Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, and Sam Walker. I'm Grace Bastidas.

Desiree: And I'm Desiree Fortin, hang in there mom, you're doing great!

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