6 Ways to Maintain Connection with Yourself in Early Motherhood
It is important to nourish a relationship with yourself, but not for the reasons we are typically told. You don’t need to take care of yourself so you will have more to give to others. You don’t need to have a strong relationship with yourself to receive validation from others. You don’t need to practice self care because it is subtly moralized as right and superior. Nourishing a relationship with yourself is rewarding because it enhances and stretches your capacity for joy, pleasure, and contentment in everyday life.
There is never a time where this is more important than in the recalibration required when you add a new baby to the family. Having self care practices in place during this time can make or break your mental-emotional well being. Here are six ways to maintain a connection with yourself in the transition–that do not depend on external motivation:
1. Buy clothes that fit your changing body and your new identity.
Clothes may seem superficial to some people, but having a wardrobe that functions well for your life at present and expresses your true sense of personal style, goes a long way towards feeling fully human. It’s too easy to be reduced to a vessel during the years of peak childbearing; suddenly, your body is a shared resource. You are not just yourself.
Building a wardrobe that works well for you, makes you feel comfortable and beautiful, and allows you a small act of creative self expression every day, can set the tone for how you feel about yourself. You don’t need to put off being yourself until after the baby weans. You don’t need to be a non-person until it’s practical to invest in clothing that you love. In total, the transition to adding a new baby to the family can last upwards of three years (or longer!). You deserve to feel your best during that time, and to have clothes that fit your body as it is.
There is no need to torture yourself with boxes of old clothes you used to fit into (and hope to fit into again some day). There is no need to tell yourself that you are not worth the money it takes to buy a handmade dress on Etsy that you adore. You are absolutely worth this small, reasonable luxury. In fact, it is a necessity. In fact, it is not an unreasonable ideal for all of your clothes to be your favorite.
Be extra! Wear something gorgeous even if the baby will spit up on it 10 minutes later. Get rid of the clothes that no longer fit you. Even if you lose the baby weight eventually, you will be so changed by the experience, chances are your old clothes will no longer reflect who you are anyway. Embrace the season of life you are in, and update your wardrobe as your body and your life transforms. Even an ordinary act of self care like getting dressed every morning is a ritual. Bringing intention and self love to this ordinary act can have an enormous impact on your sense of connection to yourself.
2. Start lovin’ on your inner child.
It is never too soon to begin the therapeutic practice of “re-parenting” your inner child. The journey of parenthood is intrinsically linked to this healing work, and it will help you reclaim and retain core aspects of yourself throughout the transition to motherhood. What was your 6-year-old self like? How about your 11-year-old self? Your 15-year-old self?
Take time to revisit old photographs and recall memories from these key developmental phases. Oftentime we learn to cut off pieces of our authentic self as we age. We are shamed or otherwise “corrected” for expressing the innate qualities that facilitate our unique gifts. For example, you may have been the world’s most extroverted, spirited child, but at some point learned to play small and quiet to avoid the shame of “being too much.” What happened to that child? Can you give her some extra love? Can you tell her it’s okay to be her boisterous, amazing self? Can you help her feel safe being herself now?
The deepest struggle and blessing of motherhood is that we are given the opportunity to break intergenerational patterns by watching ourselves replicate them. It’s a bit of a catch-22. We have to hear our own mother’s voice come out of our mouth before we can rewrite the script. And, of course, if our mother’s voice is coming out of our mouth, we can assume it is also the voice of her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother…
These patterns do not start with you, just because you aspire to be a mold breaker. Take care not to shoulder more responsibility than is fair or reasonable for one person to carry. You are the totality of your ancestor’s choices, traumas, and triumphs. You can revere them and lament them all at the same time, and learn how to give your predecessors the same grace you give yourself. You do not have to be a good parent, only a good enough parent. Regardless of attachment to outcomes, extending yourself this kind of re-parenting can only have a positive impact on your relationship with yourself and your children.
3. Balance time alone and time with your friends.
One of the most pervasive hardships of early motherhood is never being alone, while sorely lacking adult company. Both needs are crucial. Both needs allow you to feel more like yourself. Prioritize carving out space to be alone and time to spend with friends. Put it on your to-do list, right alongside the neverending errands, deadlines, and emails. If your to-do list does not include claiming fun and pleasure, you may want to ask yourself why these things are considered nonessential?
The idea that enjoyment is nonessential is so deeply enculturated, you may find that it feels like a little rebellion every time you determine that “coffee with a friend” is equally important as “paying the bills.” Enjoyment is, in fact, a birthright. You are allowed to enjoy your life! Full permission. Take what’s yours.
There is a saying by John Rohn that goes, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Who we spend our time with defines who we become. If the only adult person you are around on a regular basis is your spouse/partner, you are sure to lose touch with deeply important facets of yourself. Each relationship connects you to different sub personas, interests, and growth curves. We are each a beautiful conglomeration of archetypes, and we should never try to be just one.
Likewise, experiencing yourself outside of the context of your family (the role you fill in your family), is hugely illuminating. While our fate may be tethered to our family life, we are still individuals with individual arcs we must follow in order to feel at peace.
Who were you before you had your children? Who are you now? Get to know yourself again. Ironically, the more work we do on ourselves, the more we realize we are who we are, and can embrace that essential self without any judgement or need to change. Time alone is the only way you can nurture this individual actualization.
4. Embrace the caterpillar goo.
We are bombarded with messages that we should try not to “lose ourselves” to motherhood, but sometimes it’s kinder to lean into the metamorphosis. Let yourself be annihilated. Motherhood is supposed to change you. Don’t let the “shoulds” of self care become yet another way you feel like you are “failing.”
How can you lose yourself, anyway? Where do you go? Aren’t you right there?
Your “self” cannot be lost, but it can become…goo. Caterpillar goo! The kind where you break down in a chrysalis to reemerge a butterfly, the next phase of your personal evolution coming to fruition. These death/rebirth cycles never end, motherhood simply turns up the intensity dial.
Our children need us, we are the center of their universe. It is perfectly understandable to give your whole self to the endeavor. It is equally understandable to resent this self sacrifice.
Regularly check in with yourself about which pole you are currently occupying, and work to hold both of the experiences at once, instead of swinging wildly between extremes. When do you need to claim space for yourself, and when do you need to accept the reality that motherhood is an all consuming commitment? Which approach feels kinder at any given moment or in any given season?
Learning to feel okay with whatever experience we happen to be having is the key to accessing a true sense of autonomy. When we feel okay with whatever experience we happen to be having, we are free. The experience no longer rules us. It is simply what is happening.
5. Learn what it means to become “better resourced.” AKA: slow down.
Slow the freak down. Lower your expectations. Keep your nervous system regulated. Easier said than done, right?
It may not be easy, but it is straightforward. We just have to pause long enough to do it. Nervous systems are predictable in that when we get “flooded,” our bodies go into fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or faux. The key to catching yourself before you are flooded, is slowing down, breathing, and getting out of your mind and accessing sensation in the lower half of your body.
Even if you fail to catch yourself before the flood, you can always backtrack and come down or up from whatever response your system is having. Picture your bare feet in the mud. Breathe into your belly. Feel the earth holding you, gravity pulling you downwards. Imagine your seat plugged into the core of the planet, like a battery that never runs out of energy or a food source that you can feed from any time you need to fill up.
Scarcity mindset and climate change anxiety can sometimes be a major blockage to really allowing yourself to feel how eternal and abundant the earth’s energetic resources are. You can never take too much grounding energy from the earth. There’s always more. It’s always there. You can gain secure attachment from the earth in a way you cannot from the other overwrought human beings around you.
Our cultural upbringing has primed us for near constant states of urgency and productivity. Meanwhile, the natural rhythms of our body are as slow and gentle as our resting breath.
Babies and young children are our best teachers when it comes to slowing down. They do not exist on clock time, they are fully attuned to the immediacy of the present without being urgent about it. If you find yourself rushing throughout your day, ask yourself: Is there true urgency in this moment?
Usually, there isn’t. Even if we are late for preschool drop off, there is no need to rush. Even if we feel like we are disrespecting someone else’s time, there is no need to rush. Even if where we’re going and what we’re doing is very important, there is no need to rush. Do it, but do it calmly and slowly. Seek simple, sensory pleasure in all that you do.
6. Find ways to feel successful in this new season of life.
Judging your productivity or self-worth in the same way that you did before having a baby will usually leave you feeling depressed. I often recommend clients make a ‘ta-da’ list (everything they accomplished) instead of a to-do list (everything they think they should get done). Celebrate accomplishments that used to feel relatively small. Sometimes (especially when you are postpartum) even washing your face in the morning and cooking yourself a nourishing breakfast is a heroic feat.
Adjusting standards can look like a number of different things. In general, “good enough” is a potent spell to combat perfectionism. Cleaning the stove “good enough” is better than not cleaning it at all. Washing and drying the laundry but not folding it or putting it away is still functional. A stack of clean dishes is better than a stack of dirty dishes. Keeping yourself and your baby fed, rested, and relatively clean is the prime directive.
Take time to articulate what makes you a good mother. Simplify it. Focus on your list, not other peoples’. We each have our unique strengths...and asking for support never hurts either!
Maybe you are not the kind of mom who stocks the fridge with homemade Keto snacks, but you are the kind of mom who fills your home with books and stories and podcasts. Maybe you don’t play with toys with your kids, but you take them for nature walks every day. Maybe you lose your temper sometimes, but you always model to your family apologizing when you mess up.
Because of our brain’s negativity bias, we are usually doing better than we think we are. Focusing on the things you know you need to work on (the things you are doing “wrong”) is like a well worn grove. It takes effort to pull yourself out of the negativity bias and focus instead on where you are succeeding.
It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. If you are connecting with yourself because you are holding yourself to standards of perfection or are trying to serve yourself so you can serve others, you are very likely setting yourself up for cycles of extreme productivity followed by extreme burnout. Underlying intentions and motivations matter.
If you are connecting with yourself because the practice is rewarding in and of itself, and because you are entitled to enjoy your life, your care efforts will be much more sustainable!
To deep dive into the importance of self care in a society that constantly repackages and rebrands impossible standards for women, check out my friend Beth Berry’s book, Motherwhelmed: Challenging Norms, Untangling Truths, and Restoring Our Worth to the World.
To continue this conversation, book a free 30-minute connection call, no matter where you live!
Life Beyond Birth provides support for expectant parents, and new babies & their families, online and in-person. Find a class or contact Molly at www.lifebeyondbirth.com.