As a busy, working mom of three I fully understand the difficulties that come with prioritizing your own needs. I often go through an entire day without eating a full meal, drinking enough water or even peeing when I need to. My mental health needs — like my meditation and yoga practice, seeing a therapist or simply enjoying time to myself — can be even harder to protect. I know that I am not alone in this experience, it is incredibly challenging as a mother to prioritize your mental health and set aside time to care for yourself. I also know that it is imperative that we shift the paradigm and cultural expectations on this topic so that mothers can experience healthy, happy, fulfilling lives and avoid the burnout and overwhelm that so many of us experience. This is more important than ever before as parenting during a global pandemic has increased pressure and decreased social support leaving more mothers experiencing depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.
When I first got pregnant my own needs were suddenly eclipsed by this tiny, fragile, cherished fetus I carried around for nine months. What I ingested, how I experienced stress, even the medications I needed to take all would now affect the growing being inside my belly. It is a slippery slope, being cognizant of your children’s needs can quickly turn into losing sight of your own needs altogether. I am a mother, but I am a person first and just like everyone else, my body and mind have needs.
When tennis star Naomi Osaka set clear boundaries to protect and prioritize her mental health by declining to participate in press conferences during the French Open, she made it clear that her mental health was just as important to her as her professional success. Although there was a lot of backlash in response to her decisions, Osaka has also received a lot of vocal support. Parents can learn a lot from the 23-year-old tennis superstar, as Amanda Vacca therapist and founder of Mindful Living Counseling and Consulting in New York told SheKnows “Prioritizing mental health is a basic need; not something that anyone should feel guilty about doing. You owe an explanation to no one… Had Naomi Osaka injured her shoulder, would she be receiving the same response from the media? Shame on the individuals who gave her backlash. Mental health is just as important as our physical health, and it’s our job to stand up for ourselves.”
“Had Naomi Osaka injured her shoulder, would she be receiving the same response from the media?”
So how does one go about doing this? Knowing I want to prioritize and protect my mental health is not the same as knowing how to stand up for myself and make it happen. SheKnows spoke with Dr. Indra Cidambi, Medical Director and founder of Center for Network Therapy in New Jersey to gather some actionable steps towards prioritizing our mental health and setting and enforcing healthy boundaries.
“Boundaries are important to preserving mental health by reducing stress and maintaining healthy relationships,” Cidambi said. “Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries helps to avoid feelings of anger, resentment and disappointment contributing to better mental health and balance.”
She adds that it is difficult setting boundaries in existing relationships: Once we become comfortable with the rhythms and routines of our lives it becomes incredibly challenging to make changes and once those around us become comfortable with the way we do things as a unit it can seem almost impossible to do things differently. Let this serve as a reminder that, when possible, set healthy boundaries early on in any new relationship so that you don’t have to climb this uphill battle in the future.
“…When possible, set healthy boundaries early on in any new relationship so that you don’t have to climb this uphill battle in the future.”
If you, like many of us, find yourself consistently putting your own needs last. It is going to take some considerable work within yourself and within your relationships to change this dynamic. Cidambi reminds us “Communicating your feelings in a non confrontational manner on a consistent basis when your boundaries are violated is key to maintaining boundaries. Also, recognize that it is hard to maintain boundaries when you don’t feel worthy. Engage in hobbies [and] activities that boost your sense of self-worth.”
This is where the internal work comes in. I am not going to prioritize my needs or set aside time for myself if I don’t believe I am worthy of my time and energy. I am not going to pay for a gym membership or for therapy if I feel unworthy. Only from a place of worthiness can I confidently ask for the things I need. As Brené Brown tells us “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”
If you haven’t cleaned the house this week, Mama, you still deserve to go to yoga. If you haven’t finished the laundry, you still deserve to talk to a therapist. If your fridge is empty and you’re eating cereal for dinner, you still deserve a candle lit bubble bath. If you need outside help to cultivate this sense of worthiness don’t be afraid to ask for it, seek out professional help, talk to a trusted friend and spend some time journaling or meditating on your inherent worthiness.
Self-care is a popular topic these days and a booming industry that benefits when we feel unworthy. When the wellness industry tells us we need to buy a new face cream or workout plan to become worthy, it’s not really telling us what self-care is. “Self-care can be loosely defined as taking appropriate action to maintain or improve your physical and mental health,” Cidambi says. “Exercising regularly, indulging in hobbies, participating in activities that boost your self-esteem, expressing yourself and talking about your feelings, spending time with loved ones are all examples of self-care.”
Self-care will be different for all of us, because different things comfort and nourish us. In order to develop an authentic self-care practice that is true to you, you must connect with yourself and discover what makes you feel good, what fills your cup, what sets your soul on fire, and whatever that is, find small, meaningful ways to incorporate that into your life. But what can you do to even start prioritizing your mental health and really caring for yourself?
“Some good starting points for making your mental health a priority include: setting aside alone time each day, creating a support system, and living in alignment with your values,” Vacca says. “Seeking professional support can help you further explore your feelings and experiences, and help you set boundaries when this may be a challenge.” And, of course, it all comes back to boundaries: “Establishing and holding boundaries is simply insurance that your needs will be met — allowing you to meet the needs of your children.”
Before you go, check out the mental health apps we love for giving our brains a little more TLC without breaking the bank: