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July 19, 2016

Mothers often neglect their own needs in order to put family first. Psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings explains why it’s so important to take some time back for yourself.

Self-care, self-compassion, being kind to ourselves, taking care of our own needs (however you want to describe it) is the most essential and least talked about aspect of motherhood. In fact, we don’t even have the words to discuss the topic. Self-care sounds so formal and all the other descriptions sound weird or slightly risqué (self-love: not a good conversation starter).
Not only do we not have the words to discuss making our own wellbeing a priority, even the suggestion of self-care carries a taint of ‘selfishness’. And as we all know, selfishness is the ultimate mum insult.

The irony is that self-care is smart and a degree of selfishness is essential. If only we had a better word than selfish, this would be an easier message to sell.
As someone far wiser than me said, ‘Sometimes you have to be selfish to be selfless.’ By looking after our own needs we are helping not only ourselves, but our families and friends. People who look after themselves are physically and psychologically happier and healthier. Calm, happy mums are more likely to have calm, happy kids. Stressed mums equal stressed families. Of course, this doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of others, it simply means prioritising ourselves when the time is right and giving ourselves the same respect and care that we would give others. 

Have you ever blown up over something minor?  Told your family that you are over it, on strike, never picking up another toy, washing another dish or cooking another sausage – and you’re leaving to run off with Matt Damon? In my family this is known as ‘Mum has gone mental’. I prefer to think of it as a sign that I have overlooked my self-care. For me, self-care is preventative; it is about allowing myself sanity-saving time. I don’t cope well with the needs of my busy family if I don’t give myself some time out.

All of us get worn down and depleted. Giving to others is essential to parenting and a loving thing to do. Ignoring ourselves is a crime. Take some time to look after yourself and use these tips to start today.

Look after the basics 

Eat some decent food. Be honest, how many times have you snacked off the kids’ plates and not bothered with a proper meal? Would you let your kids go without veggies and graze on leftovers and biscuits? If you wouldn’t allow them to do it, don’t do it yourself.

Prioritise your sleep 

Parenting is exhausting. Get yourself into bed earlier in the evening, or ignore the mess and sneak a quick day nap in the lounge while your baby sleeps. Sleep deprivation is a killer, so do your best to catch up on zzzzzs, especially if you are up and down in the night.

Deal with the guilt 

The first thing to realise is that guilt is every mum’s nemesis. It is the baddy we all wrestle with. The most common reaction mums have to thinking about their own needs is to feel guilty and selfish, but you don’t have to feel guilty. Guilt is, without doubt, our most over-used and least valuable emotion. If you are genuinely neglecting your kids then guilt is valuable in that it will cause you to change your behaviour, but if you’re prioritising your children and taking a little time for yourself every now and then, make a choice to banish guilt. You can choose – so choose not to dial into being a martyr and doing everything for everyone else, exhausting yourself in the process. You can create your own path and do what is right for you and still be a loving mum to your family. If you need any more reason to banish guilt, think about your children. You are their role model. They are learning how to be in the world by watching you. You can choose to raise your kids in a healthy environment and show them a mother who is clear about her needs and able to strike a balance between looking after herself and looking after everyone else. What a wonderful gift to give them.

Set your own standards 

You don’t do your children any favours by raising them to believe they are the centre of the universe and that you are their minion, there to meet their every need. Obviously, this advice is age-appropriate, but even toddlers can begin to learn that you will respond to their needs but you need one minute to finish your tea. Sadly, you will have to teach this lesson over and over and then over again. You’ll take two steps forward and one step backwards with this – I am still teaching my teenager that I am not her slave. But it is beyond worth it to keep repeating this message. Set up a family culture where everyone pitches in according to their age and ability and you are not the dumping ground for all chores and responsibilities. I know it is easier to do things yourself, but that is short-term thinking. Play the long game; you want to raise independent, self-reliant people who value others. This is a message our kids need to internalise at home.

Set boundaries with other mothers 

If there are people who make you feel inadequate because they seem so perfect and completely dedicated to every aspect of their child’s needs, limit your interactions with them. And while you’re at it, reassure yourself that you’re doing okay. Competitive parenting is a no-win game. Perfection is impossible in parenting. Good enough is good enough.

Find the time 

Warning: There will never be a window of time that magically opens for you to look after yourself. The universe doesn’t work this way. You will need to skilfully identify, mark up and then claim the minutes to create a little space for yourself. Look at your mental ‘To do’ list with a critical eye. I guarantee you that not everything on it is absolutely essential. Cross a few things off and see if anyone even notices. Then take those precious moments of time for yourself. One idea to try is to think like a man. (You might think this is sexist, so I will speak from personal experience). My husband always said that if he was a stay-at-home dad (he wasn’t!), he would work in at least nine holes of golf every week. The reality is he probably could have done it because he would have made it happen; he would have shamelessly bargained with other parents for time out and he would have said ‘Yes’ every time my mother offered to help. He is a practical man. He isn’t weighed down by feelings of guilt or obligation. He wouldn’t have stayed home to do an extra load of washing. He would have looked for ways to get what he needed and come home happy. Get creative with finding time for yourself. It is better to get small chunks of time regularly than to have a girls’ weekend away once a year.

Be true to yourself 

Losing yourself in motherhood is the easiest thing in the world to do. Before you know it, all of your conversations, actions and thoughts are focused entirely on your family and you can’t even remember what used to give you pleasure. You are not alone. For many mums, the habit of putting others first is so ingrained that when they do get some time they are not sure how to spend it. Start small and look for pastimes that give you a spark. Forcing yourself to do yoga or go running when what you really want to do is lie in the bath and read, is counter-productive. Be true to yourself.  Don’t try and meditate if what you love is browsing fashion blogs or watching episodes of Breaking Bad. Be smart. If you love craft, but it takes a while to get all your materials out and then hide them from the kids again, pretty soon it won’t be worth the effort. Pick small achievable projects and stick with them. 

Share yourself with your family 

Let your loved ones know what you are good at and what you love to do. You are an interesting person; let your family know what makes you tick. Ideally, you want them to see you as a whole person who likes herself and has her own interests.

Ask for help 

If you want more help around the house, ask for it. Be clear about what you need but don’t be picky. If it’s not done to your standards, let it go!

Stick with it 

If you’re not getting the time out you’ve claimed, re-negotiate. The kids will get sick, work will get busy and your self-care is likely to suffer as a result. Just get back to it and keep at it, don’t allow your time out to fall by the wayside. You need it!

Support each other 

I don’t believe our society supports self-care, so let’s support each other. Let’s talk about it. Let’s empower one another to look for ways to carve out pockets of time and peace for ourselves.


There is no right or wrong way to look after yourself. The key is to just do it and keep doing it. Essentially, it is about being kind to yourself. We are kind to others and we teach our kids to be kind. It is just as vital to be kind to ourselves. Self-care isn’t selfish, it is smart and healthy. Start today.

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