If Mama Ain't Happy...
Reclaiming Your Life
“I can put an oxygen mask on six people before I pass out.”
— Anonymous mother
Sarah Thomas wasn’t happy. The stay-at-home mother of two children under age three knew something was very wrong. “I’d lost all sense of my own identity,” Thomas said. “I was irritable, resentful and ungrateful.” Previously a loan officer for a mortgage company, Thomas said that she felt disconnected from herself. “And very mad at myself for being ungrateful, because I had so much to be grateful for.”
“Having a baby is so life-changing,” said Renee Trudeau, career work/life balance coach and author of The Mother’s Guide to Self-renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate and Re-Balance Your Life. “It brings up questions and insecurities many of us didn’t even know we had.”
For Thomas the shift was devastating. “For a long time I faked it pretty well,” she said. “I was keeping it all in and going along with this dance for everyone. But finally I reached the point where I was no longer willing to go through life feeling this way.”
Trudeau, a self-described type A personality, was a marketing and public relations executive in Austin, Texas before becoming a mother and finding herself, like Thomas, “changed and disconnected.”
“I had a real yearning to have a dialogue with other women on how to reconnect with who you are post-baby,” Trudeau said. Out of this yearning she created what she calls Personal Renewal Groups, where women can come together, connect and share their innermost thoughts and feelings in a safe environment — where they can learn to practice the art of self-care.
Self-care is something Jacquyn Cleary, M.S., licensed professional counselor in Tulsa, said she has been working on with women for 30 years. “What I’ve been trying to help young moms see is that good self-care leads to good mothering. If I take care of myself I will be better physically, mentally and spiritually,” Cleary said. “Even though we seem to be in a self-indulgent generation, mothers still just do, do, do, and then get mad at their husband when he doesn’t help.”
According to Cleary, women have a tendency to feel they must perform their job perfectly. She says mothers tend to pay attention to all the technical aspects of parenting — laundry, cooking, homework, pets, shopping — but don’t take care of themselves. “They are always stressed, never feel adequate and feel they shouldn’t take a break because they aren’t keeping up as it is.”
Trudeau believes that “by filling our cups first, we tend to feel more generous and can avoid building resentments toward others who demand our energy and time.”
In her business as a life balance coach, she teaches the following benefits of good self-care:
• We feel more loving, which makes us better friends, partners, parents and more fun to be around.
• We feel more alive and whole, able to function at our best and do all the things we want to do.
• We renew and restore our energy supply and create energy reserves so we’re able to weather unforeseen challenges more easily.
• We can be more present and calm, so we can respond wisely, intuitively and effectively to a variety of circumstances.
• We can experience profound spiritual and personal growth.
What is Self-Care?
If you think self-care means squeezing in a pedicure between a PTA business meeting and your daughter’s soccer practice, you’re correct. But it also means much more. “Physical self-care is a big part of the overall picture,” Trudeau said. “But eliminating critical self talk, not over-scheduling, releasing the need to be perfect, hiring a babysitter for dates with your partner or yourself, saying no, refusing to do things out of guilt and giving yourself much-needed rest and downtime to refuel, are also integral to total self-care.” Finally, Trudeau said self-care involves “getting in touch with what you value most and making sure that your life reflects those values.”
Cleary agrees that having your life reflect your values is an important part of self-care. She suggests that families create what she calls a “strategic mission”: a plan for the family based on the parents’ values. “If you don’t know where you are going as a family, you are going to have a stressed out family.” She said parents need to sit down together and decide what they want for their family. For instance, if you want your children raised with spiritual principals, how are you going to implement that? Will you begin attending a church? If so, what church? If you want your children to be good citizens, are you volunteering as a family? If family time is important to you, are you setting aside an evening a week for family night? Are you keeping a family dinner hour?
Once you have a plan for your family based on your values, a nagging level of guilt will be diminished. You will feel more at ease knowing your family is on a path instead of just barreling along haphazardly.
Here are some additional aspects of self-care that Trudeau teaches:
Create a Support Network: Trudeau noticed that the people she admired most—those whose lives reflected balance, integration and true emotional health and resiliency—had strong support systems and felt free to state their needs and ask for help. If you are lacking in support, she suggests you “reach out to someone who has offered help in the past, ask a potential mentor to lunch, or start a support group to meet your specific needs.”
Manage Your Energy: Discover what your top life priorities are and ask yourself if the way you allocate your time and energy reflects these priorities. Practice saying no to requests that are not directly aligned with your top life priorities.
Good is Good Enough: Let go of perfectionism. Release critical thoughts and judgments about yourself. Relax your expectations, particularly those around parenting and motherhood.
Unleash Your Creativity: Do things that feed your creativity: painting, belly dancing, jewelry-making, creative writing, yoga, acting classes. Do it for the joy of creating, not for how skilled you are.
Reclaim Adventure in Your Life: Trying new things, taking the less-traveled path, doing something out of the ordinary is very rewarding. It can make you feel alive, open your mind, breathe new life into relationships, remind you of who you really are and inspire your children and friends.
Stay Connected with Your Partner: Make your relationship a priority by keeping regular dates, touching each other every day, connecting daily for at least 10 minutes, taking weekends away when possible, taking turns stating relationship needs, learning new tools for communication.
View Motherhood as a Spiritual Journey: Regardless of your beliefs, spiritual self-care is essential to your well-being. When you nurture yourself spiritually, you will feel more centered, trusting, and connected to a higher power. You will feel a sense of purpose and find meaning in your life. It also opens you to being more present with others (not absent-mindedly responding while multi-tasking). Feelings of joy, playfulness, compassion, empathy, gratitude and wisdom will be expanded.
Generosity and Consciousness
For Thomas, nurturing herself spiritually was a significant part of her journey toward healing. “I reached a very surrendered point on the ground where I said, ‘God, I need help! Show me the way. I‘m ready to do whatever it takes.’” Through surrender she says she began to reconnect with her deepest self—her spiritual self.
“Since my breakdown, I’ve gotten in touch with this woman I’ve become since motherhood,” Thomas said. “Wearing a suit was so not me.” Today, with her waist-length hair in two long braids and a colorful hamsa (hand-shaped) tattoo on her right inner arm, Thomas looks more like the yoga instructor she has become than the corporate employee she was. Instead of working out mortgage loans, Thomas is teaching troubled teens how to calm and center themselves through “circle conversations,” yoga and meditation in a program she developed called Attic Conversations. She is also one of the “three sisters” developing a mommy-friendly community center called 306 Phoenix House, in Crosbie Heights. The “three sisters,” Sarah Thomas, Shela Tarwater and Celeste McNeal, are working to create a community gathering place where people in need of friendship and support can come to dialogue, connect, practice yoga and share—all the things Thomas was lacking when she hit her crisis.
“I am a much more patient mother today,” Thomas said. “I enjoy my children more, but I am adamant about having my own time. When I have a break, it is not time to do house cleaning. When my children nap it is my time to read, journal and do sun salutations.”
Thomas’s hamsa tattoo is an ever-present reminder of her journey. To her it represents what she truly values in life: generosity and consciousness. “I feel my best when I am generous and when I am awake and present to as many moments as possible,” Thomas said. “It is symbolic of my transformation.”
Women and Depression
Unchecked stress and lack of self-care can lead to depression, a problem more common for women than men. And depression doesn’t just affect you, it affects your children as well. Numerous studies have shown that depressed mothers have greater trouble bonding with their children and are less likely to interact with them: playing with them, reading to them and singing to them.
According to Jacquyn Cleary, M.S, L.P.C, signs of depression include no longer participating in activities that are normal for you and/or resorting to vices that are not good for you, such as increased drinking, over-eating, excessive shopping, etc. Additional classic signs of depression include:
• difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions.
• fatigue and decreased energy.
• feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness.
• feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism.
• insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping.
• irritability, restlessness.
• loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex.
• overeating or appetite loss.
• persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
• persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings.
• thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts.
Depression is an illness that responds well to treatment. But an individual must reach out to a counselor, therapist or health professional to get started toward healing.