When my daughter was seven months old, I found myself unexpectedly a single parent.
It was a chaotic time in my life—working long hours, still breastfeeding, sole parenting, and taking care of day-to-day life (in addition to processing my own grief) left me exhausted.
I frequently found myself spooning out canned beans and cheese on a tortilla, and calling that dinner for the both of us, just to get by. My laundry piled up, and the pizza deliverer made regular stops to our home.
I still remember pulling my car over on the way to pick my daughter up from daycare, just to have a few moments to breathe before I had to put my next “hat” on.
No one knew I was struggling. It wasn’t something I was intentionally hiding, but the core beliefs I held that “I need to figure this out, and I need to do it all by myself” were so deeply ingrained.
When my daughter was a little over a year old, I casually relayed my plans to move and drive across the country to my mom over the phone. She proclaimed, “You’re driving across the country by yourself with a toddler?”
My response was very matter of fact, “Of course. I have to move, and I need my car. I’m not going to fly.” She insisted she’d fly out and drive with us, and that she wouldn’t let us drive alone. I felt guilty for making my mother fly out, but it was in that moment when my thinking started to shift.
Many of us hold a belief that accepting help weakens us. Brené Brown wrote about vulnerability, and how we admire it in others, but we desperately try not to be vulnerable ourselves.
We hear people say “practice self-care” ad nauseam, but the majority of us don’t, until we are burnt out, fed up, and there are no other options. And even then, most of us go kicking and screaming.
Here are five real ways to build your self-care plan:
1. We need to get comfortable with imperfection. Does it really matter if we make peanut butter sandwiches, a three-course meal, or grab fast food for dinner? Either way, you’re feeding your child. How about bringing homemade cupcakes or store-bought cupcakes to the school function? Most of the expectations we have are self-imposed. Cutting back on some things (for instance, getting okay with that basket of laundry sitting there for a week) can allow us more time to enjoy the things that really matter.
No one is going to remember those store-bought cupcakes; children will remember that you asked them how their day was, or that you built that fort with them after school. And for those few people who do pass judgment? Take a deep breath, realize that they too have imperfections, and watch the movie “Bad Moms” for a good laugh.
2. Take the mask off just a little, and be authentic. I’m not saying tell everybody everything that’s going on with you all the time, but it’s time we acknowledge our flaws in a real way. That might mean simply not saying “good” all of the time when someone asks how you’re doing—or it could mean revealing to your friends that you haven’t had a moment to sit down, let alone being able to clean up your house, and that’s okay.
3. Schedule time for mental health. Most people tend to wait until they feel like they need a vacation before they take it, but by that time, we often already started feeling burnt out. Dubbed my “Samantha days” (insert your own name here), I started taking one or two days off per month, and I would still put my daughter in daycare.
Use that day for anything—go kayaking, lie around the beach, or mindfully eat a meal. When I skip a month, I can feel it, but if I plan ahead, I’m much more likely to stay present in my life.
4. Accept help. It’s okay (and even suggested) to allow people to help out—it really does take a community to raise a child. Allow others to open the door for you when you are balancing your toddler and 12 bags of groceries, or let a friend watch your child so you can get a haircut.
The truth is that most people really do want to help. They just don’t want to be intrusive, or they simply don’t know how to. Start with something small like, “I could really use an ear. Want to grab coffee?”
5. Set boundaries. Say, “I’d like to, but I can’t” when you’re feeling overextended. There was one time with my daughter’s teacher gave me a day’s notice to bring a holiday treat to school, and I said, “I won’t be able to get it this time. Next time, I would really appreciate it if you wrote it down, and place it in her bag about one week before you need it.” Guess what? She gave me more notice the next time. It won’t happen all of the time, but it will never happen if we don’t speak up.