Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Taking a Me-Day

The importance of self-care.

I was looking forward to a day of working at home until 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” where I could do whatever I wanted to do 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. “You should 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 so go work.” My anxiety and guilt were overwhelming. So I threw aside the blankets and my novel and sat down in front of my computer to work. Although I love my job, I found that I faced it that day with a sense of obligation and stress rather than enjoying it like I usually do. I needed some time off to recharge my batteries, but instead I had guilted myself into working.

I wondered why I would feel so guilty about taking a day off to do what I want to do. 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 a Super Mom complex? Do others feel this way? I decided to conduct an informal survey of my friends to find out.

What I learned is that I’m not alone. Twenty-five of my friends completed my informal survey (17 parents and 8 non-parents). A whopping 70.6 percent of those who are parents said that they took a me-day once every few months or never; 23.5 percent of parents said that they took a me-day once a month; and 5.9 percent said that they take me-days twice a week. This is compared to my friends who aren’t parents, where 12.5 percent said once every few months or never, 12.5 percent said once a month, 50 percent said once a week and 25 percent said that twice a week. Parents are not taking a lot of me-days relative to non-parents, which isn’t surprising. 

Then I looked at guilt. 64.7 percent of parents in my informal survey said that they would experience guilt if they increased the frequency of me-days. Only 37.5 percent of non-parents said that they would experience guilt. So parents are spending less time doing what they want to do and would feel guilty if they increased the frequency of their-me-days.

So what leads us to feel that we can’t spend time on ourselves? And how do we break that cycle? Have we become so achievement-oriented and focused on others’ needs that we can’t take time to do what we want to do? And do we believe that self-sacrifice is a requirement of being a parent?

The benefits of self-care

We know that self-care is essential for people regardless of whether they are parents and that chronic stress can contribute to health problems, anxiety, depression, and substance use. I know that I feel much less stressed and happier when I take time out for myself. I am also much more productive and enjoy my work more when I am approaching work feeling refreshed rather than worn down. I sleep better and feel less anxious when I have engaged in self-care. I am also a better parent when I have taken a me-day recently: I laugh more, am more patient, and have the energy to set limits when necessary.   

Self-care is a basic need

For those of us who are parents, we did not entirely lose our identity as an independent adult when we became parents. Humans have a need for self-care. Somehow as parents, we expect ourselves to focus only on our children, jobs, and other responsibilities and put our own needs last. If we put our own needs last though, those needs will never be filled, contributing to us feeling stressed and to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.

Self-sacrifice and parenting

There is no question that parenting involves a certain level of self-sacrifice. A parent does have to put their child’s needs first many times and think of what is best for their child rather than what is best for oneself. But the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. If a parent sacrifices too much of him/herself, the parent can cease to be who they really are and end up quite unhappy. That does not benefit the child or the parent. Instead, remaining true to oneself can provide a wonderful role model for a child and a balanced view of a parent as not just a parent, but a human being. As with most things in life, self-sacrifice in parenting is about balance; tipping the balance too far in either direction can be problematic. So how do we break the cycle of guilt about self-care and ensure that we don’t lose ourselves in sacrifice?

Tips for breaking the cycle

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. That time may never come. So plan a me-day ahead of time and put it in your schedule. Drop the kids off at a trusted family member’s home and take some time to do whatever you want to.

Give yourself permission. You can take a me-day but be so consumed by guilt during the day that you are unable to enjoy it. Instead, use what is known about self-care to fight the guilt that you feel about taking time for yourself. We are more productive, patient, and calm when we have allowed ourselves time to rest and unwind so taking a me-day benefits everyone.

Turn off your computer and only take phone calls that are emergencies. In this day where email is just a click away and you are accessible to everyone 24 hours a day, it is difficult to find a way to be entirely independent of others’ demands. A me-day should be demand-free so disconnect from these technologies.

Schedule a little me-time every day; whether it’s an hour or a half hour. This will keep you refreshed between your me-days. However, this should not be a substitute for a me-day.

Everyone needs to recharge their batteries and to reconnect with their own needs and desires. If we can find ways to do this in a guilt-free manner, we can really enjoy our time as parents and people. But self-care without guilt is something that takes practice and support from others. It is something that I continue to struggle with, but hopefully, we can all get better at this together. And with your support, maybe next time I’ll stay in bed guilt-free.

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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