Dear Moms, It’s OK to Put Yourself First

When 2020 began, like so many other people, I had high hopes. I had just been promoted to a new position at work. My daughter had just transitioned to a new Montessori program from an in-home daycare. My son was thriving at his Montessori school and had a core group of friends whom he loved. My husband’s business, which he had started less than two years earlier, was growing rapidly.

Then, in March 2020, everything fell apart. We went into lockdown. My kids came home from the schools they loved. Because of my new promotion, my job became busier than ever while my husband’s business slowed.

We all became cranky and irritable. I didn’t have enough hours in the day to finish my work, let alone spend time with my kids. My kids missed their friends and their routine and were growing tired of only spending time with us. My husband took on the bulk of childcare during this time while worrying about whether his business would ever pick up again.

I gained weight. A lot of weight. Because the only joy I found every day was that late-night bowl – or, if we’re being totally honest, carton – of ice cream after the kids went to bed, and I finally logged off my computer for the night. And I spent most of my day sitting in front of a computer so I was barely moving my body throughout the day.

This continued for the next year, even after my kids went back to school. The stress of the pandemic compiled on top of the normal stress of raising young children in a two working parent household had a firm hold on our family. Truthfully, I was miserable. I was sad, angry, resentful. I said to my husband one day that I felt like there was nothing to be happy about in my life. I had lost perspective.

One morning in early fall of 2021, I screamed at my son. I can’t remember exactly what happened and what provoked me. But I do know that whatever it was did not warrant my response. There is nothing my son could have said or done that deserved the anger that I unleashed on him. After I dropped him off at school, I came home and sobbed. I was deeply ashamed of what I had done. The behavior I had just modeled in front of my children.

After an hour of feeling sorry for myself, I logged onto my computer and went to my employer’s Employee Assistance Program and called. My employer had been encouraging us to seek help if we needed it for some time and I kept reminding myself to do it but had never taken the step until that morning. They immediately found me a counselor in my area, and I promptly made myself an appointment.

Seeking therapy was my first step in prioritizing myself. I realized that I had completely lost myself after having children. My life revolved around them. There was nothing left for me. Plus, I never believed my problems were real problems. I have a devoted husband, two wonderful kids, a big house, two cars, plenty of ice cream in my freezer… what’s there to complain about? My parents are survivors of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and frequently told me stories about what they endured as children and young adults. I always used that as a measurement of what true suffering was so all my problems seemed trivial in comparison.

But a therapist told my husband and I during a parent coaching session, “kids are rarely healthier than their parents.”

That was a total mind-blowing moment for me. I realized that if I don’t get myself together, I’m not the only one who suffers. Therapy is necessary for me to be my best self for myself and my family.

My next step in prioritizing myself was body movement. A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how I introduced more movement into my life. While moving my body is good for my physical health, it is just as much of a benefit for my mental health. This is time where I am alone with my thoughts. I can choose what I do while I move whether it’s listening to a podcast, music or just the sounds of nature around me. On rare occasions, I’ll share this time by going on a walk with my husband, or running while my son rides his bike, or sharing my yoga mat with my daughter during a workout video. But I try not to do this often because I recognize the time is a gift and I must cherish it for my own sake.

Finally, I prioritized myself by making a career change. I had been feeling overwhelmed and increasingly frustrated at work. I was doing too much and not feeling fulfilled. I loved the company. I adored my co-workers. I had built a solid reputation of trust with leaders. But it wasn’t enough. I needed a change.

An unexpected opportunity came up in the beginning of 2022 and after much thought and discussion with my husband, I decided to take it. It was an opportunity to reset myself mentally and to reset expectations professionally. This was an opportunity that is challenging me in ways that is helping me grow and develop an entirely new set of skills. I’m excited about work again and feel like a valued member of a team.

It’s not lost on me that I am able to take all of these steps because I have privilege. I am privileged to have access to mental health care – to be in a place where time and money is not a barrier for me to seek help. I am privileged to have a partner who supports me and happily steps in when I need time to move my body. I am privileged to have choice when it comes to employment and the luxury of waiting for the right opportunity. I wish every woman had access to these resources because I believe these are the truly meaningful ways we can put ourselves first. We must expect more than just a trip to Target by ourselves or a bubble bath (though if baths and bubbles are your thing, go for it!).

I’ll close with this: May is fast approaching and it is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health care should be accessible to everyone and treated with the same importance as physical health. If you or someone you know needs help in the Kansas City area, visit Metro Council of Community Behavioral Health Centers for resources in our area. Nationally, you can contact the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI or visit NAMI’s website.