An Exhausted Mom's Survival Guide

Self Care is a topic I have very little natural interest in.  In all honesty any time I hear people talking about "self care" I think about Oprah type motivational speakers, or ladies ministry groups painting flower pots and I want to gag.

I realize it may seem odd to make that assertion and then proceed to write about the topic.

I find in our culture today we are inundated with "self".  We are implored to love ourselves more, to exult ourselves higher,  and to put our own needs ahead of those around us.  It's everywhere, even drilled into every child via innocent cartoon characters.   "Just follow your heart" and "Believe in yourself" are the theme of most every children's program I overhear my little one's watching.  After a while I just find it nauseating.   Self love, self esteem, self preservation, self glory self...self...self...me..me...me...blah...blah...blah.

We are raising generations of completely delusional, hyper-sensitive, narcissistic nut balls who expect the world to validate and celebrate their every whim, desire or thought.  Social media has only poured fuel on the fire of self worship.

Biblically speaking we are commanded to love others as we love ourselves.  This is making the assumption that we already naturally love ourselves. We generally don't need to make it a goal or put any effort into it.  We are selfish by nature. Even when we serve others we are tainted by self serving motives and hopes.  If anything our problem is not a lack of self love but a distracting preoccupation with it.  The command is to love others and love God.

Because I need regular reminders to set aside my own bent toward selfishness and self preoccupation I avoid most topics of "self" altogether.  Simply because they often wander down that trail.
I'm convinced that my own joy has little to do with how much comfort, luxury, and ease my life contains. I'm also convinced that rather than seek to focus on ourselves more, we are far more content when we get over ourselves.

That being said as a caregiver to many small people, including children with various health considerations and special needs, I can't ignore the topic of self care altogether or lump it together with all the other nonsense.  I've been trying to figure out what does a healthy concept of "self care" look like for me, while also being committed to caring for others?

I'm going to back up a little and let you in on what started me thinking about this topic.

In about November of last year I hit a wall.

I'm naturally a push through, tough it out, do the next thing, and take the next step kind of a person. I'm really great at ignoring flashing warning lights, making another cup of coffee, and muscling through.  Tired is just a normal state of being when you have six children but cumulative months and years of stress, demands, sleep deprivation, and constant busyness had started to take their toll.  I entered a new state of exhaustion that I could no longer afford to ignore and I had nothing left to push through with.  I guess burning the candle at both ends only works until it melts and you burn your fingers on two flames.  Then you have no choice but to drop what's left.

It's hard to explain unless you've been there.  Completely drained to the dregs. I became so overwhelmed with the energy it took to just muddle through the day that anything extra expected of me was next to impossible. Just the thought of getting the kids out the door and into the car took more than I had to give, and anyone with kids knows there is always somewhere to go and something that needs to be done.   I seriously felt like the gravity pull had increased exponentially and like I was walking knee deep in mud.

My mind was a fog, my spirit was dull, and my body was weak.
Totally done.

So, that began my self assessment.  I've always viewed my body as a sort of a functional machine. Something of value that was given to me as a gift and that I need to steward well.  Clearly I wasn't doing a very good job.

In Hebrew there is a word "Nephesh".  {soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion}.  It encompasses what it is to be human. Our "nephesh" makes up our whole person. When any of those components of who we are is undernourished or wounded the others parts suffer as well.  When multiple facets of who we are become drained we're in trouble.  A downward spiral can happen relatively quickly and the more exhausted you become the less strength you have to pull up out of the nose dive.  Sometimes all you've got left is a weak cry for help to a God who hears and knows. Weakness is not something that should be feared, in fact in understanding our own weakness we are made strong.  My problem is remembering to stay connected to the one who will continually fill me as I pour myself out.  I unwittingly cut myself off from the Creator of "nephesh" and the source of life.  Before anything else I must nurture my affections for Him and remind myself of who I am.

I should clarify that I am naturally a very low maintenance girl.  My idea of a manicure is using a pair of nail clippers when my nails start to get in the way.  I have had a pedicure once in my 38 years of life.  I get my hair cut and highlighted twice a year. I absolutely hate shopping. I'm not much for fashion, or dressing up, or beauty products, or going out on the town.  I'm a home body who enjoys very simple pleasures. I think it's harder for people like me, those who don't require or expect much pampering to take care of themselves.  My idea of "Self Care" may look very basic and unspectacular.  But it's the basics that are essential.

Here are a few very simple things that can help pull us out of that nose dive of exhaustion and complete burnout.  These may seem painfully obvious but sometimes the obvious needs to be said. I know I will need to review and assess on a regular basis.

1.  Rest.  This seems the most obvious but at the same time can feel the most impossible.  There is a difference between getting much needed sleep and soul satisfying rest and rejuvenation.  Sometimes we  just desperately need alone time like lungs need oxygen, particularly if you're an introvert surrounded by hyperactive extroverts like I am. It's hard for my husband to understand this need since he is energized by being around other people.  I need silence and peace.  I need to wander and slide around in my own thoughts.  I need to sit in silence and pray. I need to not be needed or beckoned by anybody every once in a while. I occasionally need to drink a cup of tea or coffee right to the bottom without having to warm it up in the microwave.  To me that is restful. Maybe that's why I enjoy late evening when the house has gone quiet.  Sadly this need for quiet aloneness competes with my even greater physical need for sleep.

2.  Sleep.   I generally feel guilty if I take a nap and consider it a waste of time but sometimes making a nap a priority is a necessity not a luxury.  I'm horrible for putting myself to bed on time.  Mainly because of #1.  I so cherish that hour or two between when the kids are tucked away and when I drift off to sleep.  Self discipline is helpful in this area, and too often self discipline is something I lack.  As mothers we cannot control what our nights will be like because we are on call 24 hrs a day.  That may mean waking with a baby every two hours for months on end.  That may mean unexpected sickness, nightmares, wet beds, or children crawling into my bed and sticking their little feet in my face.  Sleep is a precious commodity.  It must be carefully guarded and sought after.  Every once in a while us night owls need to force ourselves to go to bed early.  Without sleep everything else starts to fall apart.

2. Take care of the machine.  Basically, don't neglect basic maintenance. Go to the dentist.  Get a physical and some blood work done if you chronically feel horrible and exhausted.  Make (and keep) that chiropractor appointment if you are living with chronic back and neck pain.  These are all things I added to my calendar this winter. I have had some health issues lingering for years that I have just never bothered to get to the bottom of. This advice can seem so obvious but I think it had been years since I had gone and got a check-up for only myself. It can be such an logistical inconvenience, if not next to impossible, to make appointments like these that they just get put off indefinitely.  Too often it just doesn't seem worth it unless it's an emergency situation, but I can't take care of others very well if I don't take care of my own health. So much of our health is completely out of our control, but we should do what we can to maintain the gift of health we have been given. That leads into my next point.

3. Nutrition.  It's a fact that a person who is chronically sleep deprived and exhausted will crave sugar and empty calories.  The body is desperately trying to find fuel to keep moving.  I can attest to this.  When I'm feeling my most depleted my natural tendency is to reach for simple carb filled calories and caffeine in an attempt to soothe emotionally and find energy.  This is part of the downward spiral that I have to resist.  I now try to begin the day with a smoothie packed with nutrition rather than a quick piece of toast, bowl of cereal, or just a cup of coffee. It's a quick and easy way to sneak in stuff my body needs. Good nutrition doesn't need to be fancy, gimmicky, or expensive,  Get some protein, even if it's a simple boiled egg at breakfast.  Eat fresh fruits and vegetables.  Make sure you get some healthy oils in your diet. Take some extra supplements if you feel you're lacking in certain nutrients (for example Calcium).  Vitamin B supplements make a difference for me as far as energy goes.  Make sure you're getting some iron rich foods.  All of these little things can take a few extra minutes or some planning but you will feel better if your diet doesn't consist entirely of scraps off your preschoolers plate and chocolate stashes in your closet.

4.  Fresh air and movement.  For some reason this one is hard to do.  Maybe it's because for several months out of the year I live cooped up in a house inside a giant dark freezer.  Going out for "fresh air" is not that fun, and I hate the cold.  Maybe it's because the thought of bundling a gaggle of little people up to go with me is overwhelming. Now that the weather has turned toward Spring I am trying to get out and go for a walk (usually pushing a stroller and corralling a five year old on a bike).  It's not exactly a work out routine but it's a baby step toward feeling more alive.  Now that the daylight is starting to stick around longer my goal is to go out after the Little's are in bed and start jogging again. Since my Junior High years I have been an on again off again runner.  The "off" has mostly lasted for the past several years.  I've always had good intentions to start up again but it wasn't until I broke my leg a year and a half ago that I really realized I had been taking my legs for granted and hadn't been using them to their best potential.  Recovering from that injury forced me to become even more sedentary and then I kind of got used to not seeking out physical activity like I used to.  It's a cycle I hope to break this Spring and I'm really hoping my formerly injured leg can keep up!  If I can't run I at least want to do some brisk walking.  Oh good Heavens, I sound old! Maybe I should take up shuffle board or horse shoes.

5.  Take time for something that you enjoy.  Something that recharges your batteries, something that makes you feel like more than just a "mom, something that relaxes, inspires or challenges you.  The concept of an actual hobby actually illicits chortles of laughter inside me.  It's right up there with sleeping in.  It seems like a ridiculously wild and unrealistic dream but it doesn't have to be extravagant.  What floats your boat?  Take an art class, join a sports team, or go to a movie alone. Try doing crafts (that is SO not my idea of fun...but to each his own), writing, hiking, gardening, blogging, scrap booking (ACK! even writing that stresses me out), taking photos, visiting with friends, reading....it could be anything really.  Find something that will make you feel like you, and make some guilt free time for it.  Totally easier said than done though. With this one I really have to resist developing an attitude of entitlement or demand "me-time" when I need to be giving others my time. That attitude of entitlement to "me-time" can create life sucking resentment, impatience, and general grouchiness. That attitude doesn't foster peace, gratitude and generosity.  So, we do need to carve out some time for simple pleasure and fun, but not at the expense of letting the truth of the gospel fill and refresh us as we continue to give of ourselves. That is a much stronger and less fleeting foundation. I find that the more I focus on "me-time" the more I resent anything that gets in the way of my little kingdom of self.

6. Feed your mind and soul.  Keep learning, keep growing, and keep pushing forward into the grace fuelled sanctification process.  Stretch your mind, learn to listen and discover new perspectives on various topics of interest.  I'll be honest with you.  Parenting turns my brain to mush.  Maybe even literally.  Some days I can't even remember my own phone number. We need to put something into our minds that will push out the Frozen song lyrics, and mind numbing chatter, and remind us that we are in fact adults.  Read, study, and pray.  When you don't have any moments to be still and quit, play music that will feed your soul or put on your headphones and listen to podcasts that will stretch your mind and nurture your affections for Christ.  What we put into our hearts and minds is as important as what we put into our bodies.  Guard it and feed it well.

7. Accomplish something.  I know that adding something else to the forever looming unfinished "to-do" list doesn't sound like self care but after the previous things are taken care of, venturing into this goal can actually make a difference.  Something small and doable.  Something that has been hanging over your head, or something that you have never made time to do but would either enjoy doing or feel satisfied having done it.  I'm not talking about the giant looming mountain of laundry that you never see the bottom of, or the endless rounds of dishes, or any other routinely mind numbing chore.  Something outside of the usual.  Something that actually has a start and a finish (unlike most other things we spend their time doing).  Being a full time at home mom (which I realize is a rare thing these days) can leave me feeling like I accomplish nothing while at the same time always being busy.  It can be psychologically draining and defeating after a while.  So, whether it's refinishing a piece of antique furniture, planting some flowers, or cleaning out a closet, the feeling of accomplishment and a job well done might just put a spring in your step.  This shouldn't be something to add to the weight of your oppressive list of things you failed to get done...if possible it should be something that you can escape into for a while and feel good about doing.  An example of this is I recently took the time to put a few of our trips to Baja Mexico into My Publisher photo books. Precious family memories and digital photos were tucked away in an external hard drive and had never been put into any hard copy format that could be enjoyed.  It was a bit tedious and time consuming but this was something I have been wanting to do for years.  I thoroughly enjoyed sifting through old photos and creating something that would help preserve some great family memories.

8. Change the scenery.  This will admittedly take some physical energy to pull off.  Whether it's trading the sweat pants and T-shirt streaked with kid snot for some "I get to leave my house today" clothes and just going out for a cup of coffee, or going on a little family vacation, sometimes a change is as good as a break.  Even if you have all your kids in tow. So often we just need to get away from the looming mess that is our house, the distraction of internet and phone calls, and the stress that our "to-do" list holds.  We need to see new things, experience new places, and be reminded of so much beauty around us.  We need to be reminded that we actually enjoy our children. Sometimes a change of location and scenery helps to clear our cloudy vision and mirky attitude.

9.  Make some changes.  Living in a constant state of stressed out exhaustion is not sustainable.  It's not healthy or helpful.  You may think you're pulling it off but the ulcer, high blood pressure, or weight fluctuation will expose our self deception.  I believe we can live lives that are graciously poured out, used to their fullest, and filled with beautiful life giving sacrifices without being overwhelmed to the point of burn out. I'm not sure I have that equation figured out.  Sometimes we just need to say "no" to more non essentials.  We need to let go of some "good" things for something that is much better.  Our kids don't need to be in every activity, sport, or lesson under the sun.  Limiting  extra curricular activities and commitments is an easy way to reclaim family time and some sanity.  Be careful what you choose to volunteer for.  We need to be willing to serve and minister to others but we need to be intentional and focused in how we use our time.  I cannot be on every committee, attend every meeting, or join every club.  This year we made some changes to our daily family dynamic and for the first time in 5 years we have all our school aged kids attending public school.  It may be only for a year or two and we may have more home based educating in our future but this was a change we all needed. This isn't a post about homeschooling so I won't get into the details of that but after weighing some pros and cons the scales tipped into the favour getting some of the kids out of the house and into a respite school. So far it has been a positive year for everybody, and has made me thankful for the years we were able to spend investing into our kids at home.  When it comes right down to it, you may just need to adjust your expections and standards.  I love a clean and organized home, however I am outnumbered by 7 people who do not have that standard as their goal and, in fact, try their very hardest to create the opposite.  Someday my house will be tidy and quiet.  Until then, I won't waste my time and energy fretting over it all the time.

10.  Ask for help and accept offers of it.  I just plain suck at this one.  Not gonna lie.  That's why I put it the very last.  What I know to be true, and what my pride allows are often two different things. We were created to live in genuine, grace saturated, vulnerable, community with others. We can't do this thing alone.  As Christians we were not saved to live solitary lives but rather into a body of other sisters and brothers who will help to shoulder our load and speak truth into our dull and weary hearts.  When you are faced with more unique parenting challenges like parenting a child with a disability, learning disorder, or some other special need seek out others who can relate and who can help equip you for the daily grind.  Encouragement, experience, humour, understanding...these are all life lines when you are in the trenches of parenting a child with special needs or navigating the crazy world of adoption and fostering.  All parents need encouragement and support regardless of the specifics of each family dynamic.   It doesn't matter if you're a brand new mom learning how to parent your first child, or an older seasoned mom with a house full of teenagers.  Parenting is tough stuff.

Carry on soldiers.

Now I must go finish the supper dishes and go to bed.

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