In my former life I traveled for work. Every time a flight attendant would give a safety demo and say, “Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others,” it got me thinking. Really, does it make sense to help yourself first? What if you are stronger and more capable? It seems so selfish. That was me even before kids.
A few years and two NICU babies later and it makes a whole lot more sense. It’s taken me awhile to get there but I now believe that self-care is a big piece to guarding against mommy burnout and caregiver stress.
Do any of these statements sound like you?
- You have little time for friendships outside of your family.
- You and your spouse rarely talk about anything other than your kids.
- There is an ongoing tension in your home environment.
- You feel isolated, like no one can understand your NICU and postpartum struggles.
- Your sleep is regularly interrupted.
- You have stopped exercising and you are over or under-eating.
- You can’t concentrate and have difficulty making decisions.
- You feel little joy in life and have a hard time doing things you enjoy.
If any of these describe you, you may be experiencing some form of caregiver stress.
Caring for your new preemie, or baby with special needs, may be one of the most meaningful things you’ll do, but it can be extremely stressful too. It can take a toll on your mind, body, soul, and spirit. Learning how to practice good self-care will help diminish your stress and build your resilience so you can be the best mommy you can be.
My first intentional step toward self-care happened while my second baby was in the NICU and as we were transitioning to life at home. I started by sitting down and having a long hard look at everything I was responsible for and what I needed most to function well. Like any good firstborn who is enduring a traumatic hospital stay I started making lists. This helped me clear out my head and focus on the important things. I recommend you do the same.
Brainstorm everything you need to do and make a list of your priorities.
Start by writing out everything you absolutely must do. Important things like calling the insurance company, signing your big kid up for preschool, paying the electricity bill, etc. Then make a list of basic necessities like eating healthy, sleeping while baby sleeps, taking a shower, and inviting a supportive friend over for coffee. These may seem obvious but don’t negate their importance. By putting these things at the very top of your To Do list, they will remind you to care for your own needs so that you are fueled to give to your baby. Don’t forget to include something you enjoy doing as well. It’s easy to let things slide while you are caring for a fragile baby. Making lists is a great way to organize the mess of thoughts in your brain. Once you know what your priorities are, it becomes easier to see how others may be able to help.
Let others help you.
This was hard for me. It meant admitting that I wasn’t able to do it all on my own. For years, I lived by the mentality that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. The truth however, was if I didn’t do it it wouldn’t get done the way I wanted it done, in the timeframe I wanted it done. Maybe no one will do it the exact same as me, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t do it well.
There are a couple of different ways to allow others to help you. Sometimes you have family and friends who step right in and take care of the needs as they see them. Sometimes they ask what they can do. Sometimes you need to ask them specifically. If you’re independent and self-sufficient like me it’s hard to raise your hand and say, “Hey I need you.” I began to realize that my friends and family truly wanted to give me some relief, whether it be coming to hold my baby while he was in the NICU or dropping off groceries on my doorstep. I thought that I was asking too much of them. Allowing others to help is often a gift for them too. People really do want to help in tangible ways. Sometimes they don’t know how. That’s when you have to put yourself out there and ask. If they can’t, they’ll simply say “no.”
It may be worth it to pay for someone to clean your house or mow your lawn. This can be more financially burdensome, but even if it’s just during your NICU stay, as you are transitioning your baby home, or during your baby’s surgery you won’t regret it. These are practical things that need to get done. By hiring someone else, you have more time to take care of yourself in the way you need – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Do something that you enjoy.
This is a critical part of self-care. It’s easy to feel guilty about doing something you love, but sometimes even a short activity that you enjoy can go along way in energizing you in your role as preemie mom. After my second baby came home from the NICU, I remember hiding in my closet. I would play some calming music and write for 10 or 15 minutes. Other little things you can do to relax include: taking a bubble bath, going for a brisk walk, getting a massage, going on a date with your spouse, or wandering around Target for an hour. I think you may find, like me, that once you do something to nurture yourself, the guilt lessens. After I do something I enjoy, I go home ready to resume my role as mommy with a much better attitude then when I left.
“Put on your oxygen mask first” means to care for yourself as you care for others. You can’t help your baby(ies) if you don’t have what you need to function – good food, clean clothes, a hot shower, decent sleep, a shoulder to lean on. Even someone else to hold your baby for a bit. Eventually you’ll realize good self-care starts with the little things. Start small, but start somewhere.