I have an inner eye roll every time I read or hear the phrase “self-care.” The idea smacks of narcissism to me and brings up images of weekly mani-pedis at the salon and buying expensive purses because “I’m worth it.” Plus, it just sounds expensive. I hear that I need to take better care of myself and I think, “How much is this going to cost me?” It’s also something easily put on the back burner when you’ve got two people growing inside of you who need care, and two people growing outside of you who need care, not to mention a husband who could use a little TLC occasionally. Never mind the dog. There’s just a lot of people to take care of in my house.
To take care of others, though, we ourselves need to be healthy and well. In the moment, it may seem easier to just eat the leftover mac & cheese from your kid’s plate at lunch rather than cook for yourself. It might be easier to read another book or sing another song at bedtime, despite the fact that you really could use a 15-minute reading break yourself. If you are a born & bred people pleaser, like I am, it’s hard to disappoint people – especially the ones you love more than life itself – by saying, “You know what, right now I need a few minutes to myself.”
What Happens When We Neglect Self-Care?
The consequences neglecting self-care are dire. I’ve been open about my postpartum depression with my second son. Although a number of factors contributed to my PPD, a lack of attention to self-care made the situation much, much worse. I focused on breastfeeding my little one, but this interrupted my sleep every two hours. After awhile, I couldn’t fall asleep even when the baby was sleeping. The lack of sleep creating anxiety, which then made it more difficult to sleep, which created more anxiety… and so on and so on. When you’re in the thick of depression, self-care can feel impossible. Ego depletion & decision fatigue, two ideas that have strongly influenced me in this effort to write about managing motherhood, kick in. Making a conscious decision to engage in better self-care become an uphill battle.
I was recently reminded of what can happen when PPD goes unchecked. A mother in Michigan named Sasha Hettich committed suicide after struggling with postpartum depression. Any suicide of a new mother affects me deeply, but this one stood out because she had a 5-month son named Gus. Five months was the point at which I started to come out of my darkest period after my Gus was born. I know that if Sasha could have just held on a bit longer, she’d still be here. It breaks my heart that her two children will grow up without a mom.
I don’t know Sasha’s entire story, but her husband spoke about how she worked hard to be a great mom – making her own baby food, doing everything the natural way, even when it was harder on her. I know this struggle because I f aced it too. Cloth diapers, exclusive breastfeeding, baby wearing, baby food from scratch – when your baby is easy, it may seem like you’re the perfect mom. Although no one would describe my older son as “easy,” he was the kid who just needed to nurse to be settled. My younger son needed a whole different routine to be calm and relaxed, and it was a much bigger struggle and I beat myself up a lot more about not being able to calm and soothe him. Letting go of being a “great” mom and settling for OK may be a first step – especially if trying to be Supermom is causing you to neglect what you need, like sleep or quiet time by yourself.
Creating My Plan for Self-Care
So how do we take good care of ourselves? And can it affect postpartum depression? For me, I’m setting a single goal for 2016, and that is self-care for our first year as family of six. I’m applying what I teach about goal setting to this personal goal to lay out a plan to make combating postpartum depression hopefully foolproof.
Because walking through how I plan to achieve this goal is more complex than a simple list, I’m going to spend the next few weeks detailing my plan for self-care using the five ways to set better goals I outlined in Goal Setting for Parents . This is a selfish writing project; I’m forcing myself to think through the steps I need to take to care for myself rather than crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. I hope, though, that in describing my thinking process and then reporting back the results of how it’s going to you that it will help other families think about how they will cope with the postpartum period that can be so challenging for many families.
First Step: Setting a goal that is specific and measurable
So self-care sounds nice, but what does it mean? I like to go back to another theory I teach in management, the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If any of our primary needs are lacking, then those will be the ones that motivate our actions. With social media and a number of parenting “identities” floating around, at times it seems as if the self-actualization part of our existence is more important. However, if our basic needs are not being met, we can’t very well have an identity as a parent. We have to tend to the basics first.
Having been through postpartum depression once, and the postpartum period twice, I have found there to be three pillars of self-care for the postpartum period, sleep, nourishment, and body care. Each of these are physiological needs at the base of the pyramid that need to be carefully tended to during the postpartum period. Each one is essential!
The Most Important Pillar: Sleep
According to my psychiatrist and therapist, sleep is the most important factor in recovering from delivery and preventing postpartum depression. They “prescribed” five to six hours of sleep a night, a clear goal that is easily measured through either setting up my FitBit or just looking at a clock.
My husband and I have discussed this at length. Both of us need sleep in order to tend to the children and to each other with gentleness and kindness. We both know that the lack of sleep makes us grumpy and downright nasty to one another, so we know that although I’m the one going through recovery following childbirth, he also needs sleep to take care of us.
We’re lucky in that we have an au pair, and we’re going to arrange her schedule so that she is taking care of our two older boys during the day. That way, much of their life will remain the same. For the first three weeks, Bob will stay home, providing that extra set of hands for the twins. We’re aiming to do a “split shift” which is what we did when our first son was born. I’ll go to bed around 7pm and sleep until about 1am, at which point we’ll switch off and I’ll be on duty for the twins.
This will require a few things, one that I’m still struggling with – hiring a postpartum doula or night nurse. This kind of help doesn’t come cheap; however, we’re not really sure how we can do it otherwise. Someone needs to tend to the twins (and perhaps even do the dishes) while the older boys are having their bedtime, and this is the time when I will also need to be getting some serious shut-eye. Although I’ve been told that we should get someone to stay with us all night, I think we’ll be able to manage it better and hire someone longer (like for the entire first three months) if we just have help between 5-10pm. But the cost is really making me cringe. I also know that this solution is cost-prohibitive to many; we’re barely going to be able to make it work, and it only will because I’ll be teaching some overload classes later on in the spring. I’ve been told by several other moms that they would have taken out a second mortgage on their house, though, to afford this kind of care. So clearly, it’s essential for many moms of multiples, especially without family help around (and really, can you ask your mother in law to stay up all night with newborn twins, even if she does live nearby?)
The second thing that this will require is a more relaxed attitude towards breastfeeding. I will probably pump for comfort before taking my snooze, but it’s likely that the twins will also get at least one bottle of formula during this time. I’ve struggled with OCD around breastfeeding with my last two children – not letting anyone else feed them, sacrificing sleep for breastfeeding, and struggling when we finally started supplementing with my second son at 9 months. I’m hoping that accepting that formula has to be part of this picture for everyone’s well being before they’re born will make it easier to accept. I still want to be that perfect breastfeeding mom, but hearing that our close friends fed their twins born at 36 weeks 11 times a day each scares me more than the idea of not being perfect. I know that I have to let go of breastfeeding perfection for my own health – which will directly affect the twins’ well-being too.
There’s a great discussion about the various ways new parents tackle sleep from the New York Times, “New Parents in Need of New Sleep,” that outlines various solutions that parents use for getting necessary sleep. The split shift seemed to work before, so we’re going to aim for that, especially if we have a little hired help around the house.
Although self-care is my only “resolution” for this year, it has many components. So I’m deeming 2016 the year of #ProjectSelfCare, because self-care isn’t selfish. It’s the baseline, and we’re lacking in sleep, nourishment, and physical well-being, it won’t be long before the rest of our life falls apart. Neglecting self-care can have dire, life-and-death consequences. Every baby needs a healthy mother. So the “specific and measurable” first goal of #ProjectSelfCare is: Get at least 6 hours of sleep every night, and take an afternoon nap when the babies are napping.
Next week, I’ll discuss some further findings on the importance of the postpartum period, especially the first 42 days, and talk about the second pillar of postpartum self-care, “nourishment” during the postpartum period.
Second photo adapted from flickr photo by Mockney Rebel http://flickr.com/photos/mockneyrebel/461875738 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license