The flight attendant pauses by my seat during the oxygen mask demonstration. “First put on your mask and then help anyone who may need assistance,” she says. As always, this makes me feel guilty. Someone once used the oxygen mask metaphor to explain how important it is for a mother to prioritize her needs. And I know, I know–I’m supposed to take some “me time.” So why do I hate doing it?

My first experiment with “me time” came when my daughter was only a few weeks old. My mom urged me to walk to the grocery store and back, just to “have a little me time.” I reluctantly agreed and found myself flustered and distracted the whole time. It is not rejuvenating to pick out dishwashing soap. When I got back, my baby was fussy, but fine. Me, not so much. Thus began my long and complicated relationship with “me time.”

A common excuse we give for not prioritizing ourselves is guilt. We feel guilty for putting our needs ahead of our children’s. I think this over-simplifies things. Let me explain by referencing someone who has never been accused of being simple: Shakespeare.

Before I was a mom, I was a teacher, and one of my favorite plays was Hamlet. Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his dead father to avenge his death, and Hamlet wants to! But for three acts he finds reasons why he can’t: he doesn’t have the perfect plan; it’s the not the right time (sound familiar?), etc. He feels extremely guilty, but all the excuses boil down to one—he’s afraid. He’s afraid to fail.

Recently, in our Learning Circle, we came to the same conclusion. Sometimes we avoid prioritizing our “non-mom” selves because it’s scary. Why? What are we afraid of? What would happen if we prioritize ourselves?

First of all, we may find that the things we want to do are hard. I wanted to write for a long time. But I was afraid that if I took some time to write, I would find that I am terrible at it. So instead of finding out, I never found time to write. “I really want to learn how to cook,” you might say. But inside you’re thinking, “I’ll never be able to do that!” Or “I really want to run a half-marathon.” The voice inside your head hisses, “Yeah, right!” And so we put off the things we really want to do because if we never do them, we will never fail at doing them.

Secondly, everything changes when you become a mother. Everything. That means that even the things you used to enjoy — the things that rejuvenated you — might have changed, too. Let’s go back to when I left my daughter to go to take a walk to the store. Before I was a mother, I may have found that relaxing. Now, it makes me flighty. Why am I wasting my precious alone time on shopping!? A friend of mine said, “I just don’t feel like myself until I have exercised in the morning and taken a shower. And I just can’t do it before the baby wakes up!” Instead of throwing up her hands and saying, “Fine! I won’t exercise!” or “This baby is taking up all my time!” she drops the baby in a stroller and goes for a walk. It might not be the way she exercised before, but so what? She’s changed.

Without any good ideas about how to enjoy our “me time”, we start to think about it as a battle with our children. Either I take this time for me or I give it to my children. When I think like this, I inevitably feel angry at my kids for taking so much of “my time”. This leads to–where else?–guilt.

Once, at a church activity, there was a young woman who had recently had a baby. She left the baby home and everyone was saying, “Good for you! You need to take some time for yourself.” She, however, looked miserable. I asked her if she was having fun and she admitted she was not. But she knew this was “good for her.” I wished I could tell her that there is a big difference between “me time” and “me-ness,” and she doesn’t have to leave the baby at home to feel like herself.

How often do we hear that “me time” is the holy grail of mothering? But time alone is just one of the ways to achieve “me-ness”: the feeling that you are a person, too. This is a subtle distinction. I can think of myself, even amid the chaos. Fine, so I don’t get pedicures to “refill my cup”, but I do other things. I make food that I like. I try to use naptime for writing (even though it’s scary) instead of cleaning. When we play with other children, I talk to the adults. These are easy to ways to prioritize myself and my own needs in a way that doesn’t make my children the enemy.

You know what else restores me? Walking behind my daughter and watching the way her blonde hair bounces; laying down with the baby while he falls asleep; pausing, many times during the day to take a deep breath and say, “This is chaotic and this is nice.” I don’t have to be alone to recharge. I just have to consciously choose to do it.

Then, when I do get some alone time, I don’t have to waste my time unwinding from my battle to get away from my kids. Instead, I can get up the courage to do those “non-mom” things that I crave.

Let’s go back to Hamlet. This is where we find the maxim, “To thy ownself be true.” That’s the best way to prioritize yourself. Do it YOUR way. Do the little things each day that say, “I am a person, too.” Instead of running away from your kids, make it your priority to run towards the things that will make you thrive, and dare to do them.

Question: What are three little things you can do each day (with or without your children) that can help you recharge?

Challenge: Identify that project or goal that you’ve been avoiding because it’s scary. Take two baby steps this week toward that goal. You can do it!

Photo courtesy of Amanda Hamilton Roos

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