This is what moms get wrong about self-care, according to a therapist

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Most mamas will tell you they know that self-care is important. Just like the pre-flight instructions, you know you need to put on your oxygen mask first so you can take care of other people in your life. But what happens when the idea of self-care becomes just one more thing you think you should be doing?

According to Kaitlin Soule, LMFT, a therapist and the author of A Little Less of a Hot Mess: The Modern Mom’s Guide to Growth and Evolution, most of what we learn about self-care from mainstream culture is wrong. And it’s not really what mothers need.

“Pedicures, massages, weekends away—those things are wonderful, but they [alone] don’t often help our feelings of burnout.” So what is true self-care for moms, and what are you supposed to do when life already feels overwhelming? We asked Soule to share her tips with Motherly to help mamas learn to practice authentic self-care in everyday life.

What is self-care, and why is it so essential for mothers?

“Self-care starts with us giving ourselves permission to say yes to ourselves beyond our roles as parent, partner or professional—something we as women have been socially conditioned to have a hard time doing,” Soule shares.

According to Soule, most of the messages mothers receive about self-care focus on escaping reality and checking out. “But I think it’s the opposite. I think it’s about tuning in.” It’s not about green juices or monthly pedicures [although these are nice] but about focusing on what nourishes us long-term.

But what happens if we know self-care is essential but feel like we can’t make it a priority? “We put ourselves on a fast track to burnout, anxiety, depression and a life that doesn’t feel like our own,” Soule tells Motherly.

Related: 5 ways to make peace with mom guilt and actually prioritize your self-care

Self-care isn’t selfish

Even if you know self-care is important, you may feel like you can’t find the time or feel guilty about putting your needs first. But without prioritizing yourself, Soule explains that mamas begin to lose themselves. “We can only do that for so long before we start to experience feelings of bitterness, resentment and anger and risk pushing away the very people we love the most,” she says.

So how can you shift the way you think about caring for yourself? Soule advises her clients to picture their own child with a new baby. “Would you want her to live her life as though her needs didn’t matter anymore? Would you want her to forget all the parts of herself that made her so uniquely her?” Soule asks.

Related: The science behind self-care: Why it’s more than pampering

She explains that mothers have to let go of any thoughts that self-care is selfish, or it will be too easy to find reasons not to make time for themselves. “Challenge the things you tell yourself or the things you’ve been told about taking time for yourself—and evaluate the systems in place for equity,” Soule advises. This includes making sure your partner or other supportive family or friends share the load. You don’t have to be a supermom, and it’s OK to ask for help.

Related: 5 guided journals that would make a great gift for any mama

Starting your self-care journey

Drop the all-or-nothing mentality

Honor what you need and not what the outside world tells you to do or need. It’s OK to be imperfect and sporadic when it comes to self-care.

Soule gives an example. “If you feel like you get a glimpse of the feeling of flow or joy when you’re hiking, put that first hike on the calendar without putting the pressure on yourself to make it a regular thing. Just go, and let it be imperfectly good.”

Take mini-mental health breaks

We love our phones, and they help us feel connected to the outside world, but too much of anything isn’t great for us. Sometimes we need to put down the phone and walk away from the constant information overload.

“We need to be mindful about how often and when we’re consuming information,” Soule says. She realizes we can’t completely step away from the news (and shouldn’t), but doing something “good for our mind, body or spirit [preferably all three] before we go into consumption mode” can help. Maybe it’s a walk or a few minutes to breathe or meditate. It could even be stepping outside with your favorite beverage alone without anyone climbing on you.

Related: How mindfulness saved my motherhood

Prioritize self-care before you burn out

Take time to schedule self-care with your partner now, and don’t wait. Soule says she sees so many moms put off their needs or dreams. “I get that life is busy, but usually, the real issue is that they’re taking on way more than their fair share of the load of parenting.”

She acknowledges it can feel uncomfortable to have this discussion with a partner, “One of the most important things you can do for yourself, your marriage and your kids is set up a more equitable home.” She says this is also a perfect time to enlist the help of a therapist who can help you navigate a plan to get your needs met, along with everyone else.

Related: Why experts say you should start screaming for self-care

A note from Motherly

There’s no perfect plan for self-care. All it requires is a willingness to find space to look inward, Soule shares. “Self-care starts with getting curious. It isn’t about checking a box. It allows us to be ‘in’ our life, without feeling like we need to numb out, avoid or escape from it.”

Featured expert

Kaitlin Soule, LMFT is a therapist specializing in women’s mental health, motherhood and anxiety. She is also the author of “A Little Less of a Hot Mess: The Modern Mom’s Guide to Growth and Evolution” as well as a mom of three.

A version of this story was originally published on April 13, 2022. It has been updated.