Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

How to Take a Day for Yourself

The biggest obstacle is guilt. Here's how to get past it.

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I was looking forward to a day of working at home when the thought occurred to me that it would be so nice to return to bed and read novels all day—to take a “me day” and do whatever I wanted with no worries about responsibilities, household chores, or work. I returned to bed, read a few pages of a novel, and was then hit with guilty thoughts: "Get up and do something useful.” “You have a lot of work to do today.” “The groceries aren’t going to buy themselves.” “This is not working from home. It’s a workday. Get to work.” The anxiety and guilt were overwhelming. So I threw aside the blankets and my book and sat down in front of my computer to work. And although I love my job, I found that I faced it that day with a sense of obligation and stress rather than enjoyment.

I needed some time off to recharge my batteries, but I wondered why the idea of taking a day off to do what I want to do made me feel so guilty. I work hard and I know the importance of self-care. In fact, I recommend it to others. So why doesn’t it apply to me? Is it Super Mom complex? Do others feel this way?

I decided to conduct an informal survey of my friends, and learned that I'm not alone.

My informal survey was completed by 25 people, 17 of them parents. Among the parents, 70.6 percent said that they never took a me-day or did so only once every few months; 23.5 percent said that they took a me-day about once a month; the rest took me-days more often. Of respondents who weren’t parents, however, only 12.5 percent said that they never took a me-day or did so only once every few months.

I also asked about guilt: Among parents, 64.7 percent said that they'd experience guilt if they increased their frequency of me-days; only 37.5 percent of non-parents said the same.

It seems parents are spending less time doing what they want, and would feel guilty if they did it more. What leads us to feel that we can’t spend time on ourselves, and how do we break the cycle? Have we become so achievement-oriented and focused on others’ needs that we can’t take time for ourselves?

The Benefits of Self-care

We know self-care is essential for every adult and that chronic stress can contribute to health problems, anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse. I know that I feel much less stressed and happier when I take time out for myself. I'm also more productive and enjoy my work more when I feel refreshed rather than worn down. I sleep better and feel less anxious when I've engaged in self-care. I'm also a better parent: I laugh more, I'm more patient, and have the energy to set limits when necessary.   

Self-care Is a Basic Need

Although all humans need for self-care, somehow parents have come to expect ourselves to focus only on our children, jobs, and other responsibilities while putting our own needs last. But if we put our own needs last, they will never be filled, contributing to stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental-health problems.

Self-sacrifice and Parenting

There's no question that parenting involves a level of self-sacrifice. A parent often has to put their children’s needs first rather than thinking of what is best for himself or herself. But the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. If parents sacrifice too much of themselves, they can cease to be who they really are, and end up quite unhappy. That does not benefit the child or the parent. But remaining true to oneself can provide a wonderful role model for a child, and a balanced view of a parent as a human being.

So how do we break the cycle of guilt about self-care?

  • Schedule me-days. Our schedules are packed with responsibilities and activities for others.  Without scheduling time for ourselves we will continuously wait for a time when things are less hectic or when we have achieved all of our goals. But such a time may never come. So plan a me-day ahead of time and put it in your schedule.
  • Give yourself permission. When your me-day comes, you wont be able to take full advantage of it if you're consumed by guilt. To fight the guilt, use what we know about self-care: We are more productive, patient, and calm when we have allowed ourselves time to rest and unwind.
  • Turn off your computer and only take calls that are emergencies. At a time when email is always just a click away, and you're accessible to everyone 24 hours a day, it's difficult to find a way to be entirely independent of others’ demands. But a me-day should be demand-free so disconnect.
  • Schedule a little me-time every day. Whether it’s an hour or just a half hour, this will keep you refreshed between me-days, but should not be a substitute for a me-day.

Everyone needs to recharge and reconnect with their own needs and desires. But self-care without guilt takes practice, and often, support from others. It is something that I continue to struggle with, but hopefully, we can all get better at it together.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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