Musings + Essays

On Self-Care as a Mother.

By: Jen Shoop

I will never forget the day I told my mother that “first and foremost, my job is to be a good mom.” I was running on fumes as I adjusted to life as a mother to two, and had the dark circles under my eyes and jittery exhaustion to prove it. I was putting everything else aside and, in that moment, was attempting to make some logical sense of the chaos around me, as if asserting that my only job was to care for my children might absolve me of the areas in my life slouching in disarray. She interrupted with: “No, first and foremost your job is to take good care of yourself.” The assertion shook me. I looked upon myself differently from that day onward. I can’t say I always made the right decisions in support of that newborn awareness — I still forewent naps in order to tidy the house, hosted too many guests, signed up for too many activities, and routinely stayed up too late. But it was as though a parenthetical had been made an independent clause. I drew myself out from the brackets and reminded myself that I was a core and substantive clause in our family grammar, not to be sublimated.

But it can be hard, on a logistical level, to take good care of yourself when you have others clinging to your skirts, and it can be hard, on an emotional level, to accommodate self-care as anything but a luxury. In spite of my mother’s insistence two years ago, I still grapple with guilt on this point. Most Thursdays, I go out for a manicure after work ends. It feels painfully selfish. My husband is exhausted from a full day of work, and I jingle my keys and dash out the door, leaving him with two tired and hungry children clamoring for our attention. Sometimes, micro is hot on my heels, and I can see his little round face pressed against the window watching me back out of the driveway, his mouth a tiny inverted “u” shape. I routinely think to myself: “I really shouldn’t do this.” I feel badly missing out on the hour with my children since I am away from them most of the day, and I also know how tough that hour can be as a parent, and so I feel badly abandoning Mr. Magpie at that particular time. And what kind of actual peace or self-care does a manicure bring anyhow? It is not as though I’m leaving to meditate or practice yoga. I feel less guilty leaving to run, since exercise feels more clearly medicinal, or prophylactic, or related to mental wellness. A manicure just feels…frivolous.

And yet.

It is an hour of aloneness. Of doing something that brings me joy, and makes me feel more pulled-together, and affords me the “background processing time” to unpack my day and steady myself. I can’t be tempted to do anything or multi-task while driving to the salon and having my nails painted. Sometimes, I do try to read, but I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it as I always feel I’m frustrating the technician by withdrawing my hand to flip the page. So most of the time, I am sitting there in a kind of blank and neutral state and I come to all kinds of interesting thoughts and conclusions. Even though I always (literally, always) sprint back to my car and hurry home when my nails have dried, I feel as though that hour of solitude, doing something girly for myself, re-centers me. I swear I walk back in that house a changed woman.

There is an interesting, rather provocative essay by Elizabeth Gilbert tangentially related to this subject in which she answers the question: “Is it selfish to go on a spiritual journey?” Of course, I am not equating manicures with spiritual journeys, but there is a common thread there in that Gilbert (who wrote Eat Pray Love) combatted her fair share of criticism about the self-centeredness of her book’s narrative and the seeming implication that self-knowledge can or should be attained by lavishly traveling the world (to hell with jobs and responsibilities!). At the end of her essay, she writes: “I was once told that in Mandarin there are two words that both translate into “SELFISH” in English. One means “Doing something that benefits you.” The other means, “Doing something that benefits you at the expense of others.” In English, we don’t have this distinction. But there is a recognition in Chinese that these are two different notions — that it is not necessarily true that anything you do for yourself harms others. Sometimes you can do wonderful and important things for yourself without taking a thing away from another human being. This is the difference between self-care and greed.”

I found the distinction intriguing and possibly helpful to this conversation.

What about you? Have you grappled with the same emotions? How have you come to peace with self-care as a mother?


+Pressure is a choice.

+On the notion of self-improvement as chiseling away what isn’t.

+On doing small things with great love.

+On creating a buffer between “work Jen” and “Mom Jen.”

+Is people pleasing a way of controlling other people?

Shopping Break.

+Need these hair clips. Also like these similar and far less expensive hair slides!

+Love the smocked cuffs on this versatile black blouse.

+These tapered wool trousers (under $100) would be perfect with a pop of burgundy…or with this sage green ribbed sweater!

+A perfect white ruffled button-down.

+These earrings are fab for fall — come in such great fall colors, but I especially love the navy or gold.

+Emerson Fry vibes for under $50.

+These paper mache pumpkins and wooden ghosts would be fun for little hands to paint/decorate.

+This $50 sweater comes in such fab colors. Love the mockneck!

+These trousers are loud but incredible. Pair with a white button-down or cashmere crewneck and BOOM.

+Fabulous striped cardigan on sale!

+$60 for four beautiful ruffle-edged plates. Love.

+Into this puffer vest in the neutral hue.

+Another gorgeous fall dress from The Great. Would work with a bump!

+This reasonably priced fall/winter wreath is fab! Don’t have to worry about it drying out and looking ugly!

+This is the kind of top I never feel like buying but always reach for in my closet. Perfect beneath a statement cardigan, paired with a skirt, etc.

+Another Halloween costume idea: your little could go as a Formula 1 racer in this. Omg.

+Word has it this $25 hair dryer is excellent in case you’re in the market.

+This $100 maxi reminds me of something by Andion or Horror Vacui.

+These oversized floral earrings are SO fun.

+Adore this wool coat in the ivory.

+This bag in the blue plaid is SO fun. I’d probably swap in one of these ribbon stripe straps for the faux-leather.

+Bellabliss has some seriously cute new arrivals. Love this dress and this jumper.

+These tumblers are so chic! I love drinking wine out of short glasses like these.

+CHIC accent pillow.

+$10 fleece for a little one in great colors.

+This blouse and matching skirt!

+This windbreaker is a major head-turner.

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14 thoughts on “On Self-Care as a Mother.

  1. “First and foremost your job is to take good care of yourself.” — such wise words from your mother!

    I am learning and unlearning so much about self-care and sacrifice (perhaps martyrdom? Ugh). Yes there have been many, many times when sacrifice IS the way forward (thinking about the repeat viruses we’ve gone through these past several months, when my daughter wants to fall asleep sitting on my lap because upright is the only way she can breathe comfortably). It took me a while to get to this point, but one of the most powerful forms of self-care for me is establishing healthy boundaries. That may look like: “I will play with you after I drink my hot tea/have breakfast”. Or “I need to be at my computer and focus, so no you may not sit on my lap while I work but you can draw/color/read beside me.” Or locking the door while I am taking a shower (am I late to this? Have all other mothers of young children been locking the door while they are in the bathroom this whole time?? Haha). Or having a difficult conversation with a loved one to express that something they said was upsetting to me. I am learning, more and more, to advocate for myself — it does mean flexing that muscle more than I’m comfortable with sometimes, but I’m realizing that it’s worth doing not just as a mother but as a worthy human being.

    1. I love this, Mia. I’m right there with you in being late to set boundaries like this!

      I had to laugh at the bathroom sidebar because I swear that the minute the bathroom door closes, the children drop what they’re doing and NEED ME RIGHT NOW, AND MUST BANG ON THE DOOR TO LET ME KNOW. It’s actually ridiculous how accurate this is. Yes to locking the door!


  2. This post is such a good reminder to implement more self-care. I am such a better person when I make my weekly acupuncture appointment. As a working mother, thank you for introducing me to the buffer time. Even if I can’t always make it happen, it is SO needed. I also love your daily happy hour snack and beverage moment – it is so needed to get through dinner, bath, bedtime, etc!

    1. I’m so glad “the buffer” resonates! I notice a huge difference in myself when I really afford myself the time to unwind for a few minutes before diving into my mom role! xx

  3. Oh this makes me want to give my own mother a hug an say “you can do something just for you, just because you want to.”

    Even though she’s no longer in the throes of motherhood (2 mid-twenties “kids” and one teenager who just started college), she deserves years and years of self-care.

  4. There are important questions of self care as a mother and yet sometimes I feel that they miss the whole point. Glennon Doyle had a very compelling line in her podcast recently where she said something to the effect of self care is building the kind of life that you don’t need to escape from. That is what I always think when my mom cautions me to take care of myself. How can I better structure my work day such that I don’t need to yearn for a vacation while toiling late into the night. How can I spend the single precious hour with my children between daycare pickup and bedtime to serve their interest in love and connection, and less of my interest in order and productivity. How do the hours of my day reflect the daily truth that I love this life, that this is all i dreamed of – to be a mother, for my children to know how much i adore being their mother, for my husband to sit across from me and share a knowing smile as he wrangles one toddler at dinner while I cajole the other into eating, to have a job that is interesting and challenging. I think we get lost in the self care of external things, ignoring that the highest form of self care is to live a life that feels good.

    Unrelated to anything above, but something I have been meaning to pass along to you – to the extent you have not explored it yet, I think you would be moved by several of the essays on the Coffee and Crumbs blog. It is the source of my two favorite quotes on motherhood – Motherhood is holy work; and What does Love require of me today. If i may be so bold as to suggest a starting point, start with this thought-provoking essay:

    1. Hi Elizabeth! Thank you for the provocations and also the introduction to Coffee & Crumbs. A lot to aspire to. I like the notion of working towards “living a life that feels good.” Beautiful!

      Interestingly, I just had dinner with an old friend who endured a serious health crisis last year and he said that he emerged from those travails with a desire to “ask the hard questions” and “not shy away from the hard stuff.” There seems to be a similar line of thinking in your perspective — i.e., don’t run away from / escape / seek release from, but actually move towards and through the meat of life. A lot to think about there.


  5. YES to always rushing back from the alone time…I know for a fact that my husband does not always do this. It is a mother thing? Or would it be different if he were the primary/stay-at-home parent?

    Early this summer, I started “joking” that my dream vacation was actually to go to a hotel by myself. No food to make (and cut into tiny pieces), no cleaning, no answering a million “why?” questions, no repeating myself, few interruptions, showering as long as I want. I said it so much that my husband said you should book it, so I went in July. It was awesome, but not nearly long enough! I went for one night, and ended up running an errand on my way, so was really gone less than 24 hours. But I highly recommend this form of self care for moms! I lived alone for most of my adult life and although I didn’t always enjoy it at the time, sometimes I just need to be ALONE like in ye olden days 😉

    1. I do an annual Naples Florida trip alone for 4-5 days to just unwind and reset. I love it! I wasn’t able to start this until my children were older, but it makes a huge difference in me and my whole attitude toward life. My husband encouraged me to do this as well. PS- Similar to your mother telling you to take care of yourself, my pediatrician actually wrote me a script saying that! He’s gone now, but I still cherish his loving message and carry the memory!

  6. I’m interested in what your mother said because she is YOUR mother first and was probably worried about you….being a mom like you are to your two.

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