mental health,  motherhood,  Parenting,  self care

Self care for moms in survival mode

A couple weeks ago a dear friend from college came through town on a massive cross country road trip, and I was able to steal her away for a morning of coffee and a massage. Her sister in law, a mutual friend, commented to her as she was heading out of the house to meet up that “Jenny seems really good at self care,” which made me smile when I heard it.

Because I haven’t always been.

In my younger years of mothering, I routinely confused self care with productivity, and was forever transposing peace for performance. If a baby was napping, I was painting a piece of furniture, writing a blog post, loading the dishwasher or reading an academic article. If I had 2 hours till school pickup, we were at the gym where I was simultaneously answering work emails from my phone and speed walking on the treadmill while listening to a talk radio show.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of those things, but I had less self insight then, and couldn’t figure out why even when my house was super clean and my inbox was super well-attended too, I felt super burnt out all the time. I may have killed it in the housekeeping department on a given day, but I’d be snapping at my kids by 4 pm, having nearly killed myself getting there.

Because I was spending all the pockets of “free time” in my day being a good little soldier and attending to the to-do list, I was often coming to the end of a 12 hour shift of parenting feeling frazzled, joyless, and utterly spent.

I’ve come to realize in the past 7+ years of motherhood that as an introvert with a strong personality and intense feelings, I need a lot of silence in my day. Which seems incompatible with a growing brood of 4 under 7. But, as I’ve been learning, not impossible.

Instead of rushing around the kitchen kamikaze cleaning every square inch the moment the toddler drops down for his afternoon nap, I’ve had to teach myself to slowly make lunch, to (even more) slowly eat my lunch, and to spend some time reading, writing, praying, and mentally steeling myself for the afternoon.

I may sit down to a still-dirty lunch table for 30 minutes of catch up time online, ignoring the mess that once drove me to perfectionistic distraction, reminding myself that am the master of these dishes, and that it’s more important that I be peaceful and present to my kids when we come back together than that the house looks perfect.

Maybe clutter isn’t your trigger, but we all have something that pulls at our attention, tugging at our sleeve to remain forever in Q1, sacrificing the greater good for the demanding present.

The physical clutter and chaos that comes with mothering many needn’t dictate my mood to me, however grumpy it makes me to see the sink piled high with dishes. I can delay that apparent immediate need and instead sit down for 20 minutes with a novel or my rosary, because waiting to do those dishes might mean very well presenting a calmer, saner mother to my kids for the entire afternoon.

Ironically, cleaning the house is actually a major way I practice self care, because I love cleaning. I like doing laundry, vacuuming, organizing and decorating. (And if anyone out there is a fan of cooking, grocery shopping, bathroom scrubbing or dish washing, come apply to be my sister wife.) But it has to be in moderation. I can’t clean all day and keep the house looking as if 6 people don’t inhabit it and expect to feel human by 6 pm. Not that I haven’t tried.

When hard pressed, I think most moms can name what it is that makes them tick, even if it’s not something they’re in the habit of regularly “indulging” in. And that concept is one I want to challenge you on: because self care is not indulgent, but essential. 

Most priests (and I would imagine ministers of other denominations) take Mondays off in order to recover and regroup from the intense activity of Sundays. Nobody begrudges them this; it’s a natural enough action to designate some downtime to rest, recreate, and just plain take care of the mundane business of life.

Mothers don’t get a day off in any official sense, and so it falls to us to carve out the time with intention and resolve. Repeat after me: it is not selfish to take care of yourself. It is not self-indulgent to spend time away from your children in order to recharge and recalibrate. It is not frivolous to do things just because they make you happy.

I’m not sure where this attitude of shame surrounding self love comes from, but I know for one thing: it ain’t biblical. God doesn’t command us to love our neighbor to the inverse and opposite proportion that we despise/disregard/denigrate ourselves.

Nope. He commands us to love them. As we love ourselves.

I think it’s a lingering spirit of puritanical Manichaeism that tends toward the disregard – and even tiptoes up to the edge of disgust for – the physical body, and the female body in particular. Women often come into their mothering years with a misguided concept of gift of self that is conflated with self-anihilation. And not in a sanctifying, “I unite myself totally to You Jesus,” way, but in a sadistic “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” and “real mothers sacrifice everything (and I mean everything) for the sake of their children” kind of way.

Including their own well being, their mental health, and perhaps even their marriages.

Most guys I know are pretty adept at reading themselves and recognizing when they need to sit down with a cold drink and a few moments of silence. They have little difficulty deciding to take a couple hours to watch a game, spend time in nature, or grab a hot shower after a long morning of physical labor. They are refreshingly unapologetic in continuing to “indulge” in things that make their heart beat faster even once marriage and fatherhood have entered into the mix: craft small batch beer brewing, guitar playing, freelance writing, playing rugby, running half marathons, and coaching soccer. And that’s just me naming a handful of things my husband and his friends do for personal fulfillment, off the top of my head.

I want to invite my fellow members of the fairer sex take a page from these guys’ books and be on the lookout for things that make your heart sing. If you’ve always wanted to learn hand-lettering, put it in the budget and sign up for an online course. If you’ve been dying to take on a Holy Hour at your parish’s perpetual adoration chapel, strategize with your better half and come up with an evening once a week where you can slip away at 8 pm for some quality time with Jesus. If you were an amazing swimmer in high school, call up the gym or YMCA down the street and inquire about their rates and open swim hours. Hoping to start a blog of your own? Find a mother’s helper from your local homeschool co-op and spend 4 hours a week alone at a coffee shop with your laptop and a hot beverage.

When I show my kids that I have other interests outside of our life together as a tight little family unit, I am not robbing them of time spent with their mother, I am teaching them that their mother is a valuable, unique, and interesting person in her own right, and that each of us have something unique to offer the world, and something particular to us that brings joy and satisfaction.

God didn’t create us to toil away in unceasing drudgery to become holy through self neglect. He isn’t frowning down on us for applying mascara or booking a massage or painting our nails or applying to an MA program. He gave us gifts to share with the world, but also to bring us joy.

It is not selfish to be happy.

It is not selfish to take a shower while someone sits in front of a show for 30 minutes. It’s not criminal to leave your toddlers for an hour a week to go for a long, satisfying run. It’s not wrong to slip out of the house with a couple girlfriends for a glass of wine or a pint of kombucha a couple evenings a month.

Let’s teach ourselves to practice good stewardship of, well, ourselves. And let’s show our sons and our daughters, in so doing, that it is healthy, natural, and joyful to be a woman who knows what brings her happiness, and who takes pleasure in pursuing it.

Some ideas for self care for moms:

  • Book a 60 minute massage (look for local recommendations for an Asian or Chinese massage place, their prices can be killer compared to a spa or salon. Think $40 instead of $90+)
  • Go for a run
  • Hire a babysitter for 2 hours during the day to run errands/write/read/stare vacantly into space at a coffee shop. Feel zero guilt while doing so. Arrange a kid swap with a friend if the budget doesn’t permit a sitter, and buy a $1 coffee at McDonalds instead of a $4 latte at Starbucks
  • Get up 20 minutes early and take a good, hot shower and blow dry your hair
  • Go grocery shopping at night and tell your husband to plan for 30 or 40 extra minutes. Take a book or your Kindle, grab a kombucha or a fancy sparkling water, and sit in the parking lot and read before or after you hit the store.
  • Try a barre, zumba, or Pilates class at your gym
  • Join a gym. Especially one with reasonable childcare. Some are surprisingly affordable! Go some days just to walk on the treadmill, have a shower in peace, or make a long distance phone call without little peeps peeping in every 5 minutes.
  • Make a Holy Hour
  • Commit to a weekly/monthly Holy Hour
  • Shut yourself in your room and pray a Rosary while your kids play outside/watch Netflix
  • Buy a book you’ve been dying to read instead of waiting the 4 weeks on the library hold list
  • sign up for a night class at your local community college
  • Get to daily Mass once a week, even if you have to stand in the back with a raucous toddler
  • Put on real clothes and makeup for no other reason than it’s Tuesday, and you feel like giving your neglected non-activewear wardrobe some airtime


It needn’t be complicated, wildly indulgent, or expensive, but it ought to be on our radars as women, as friends, and as sisters. Let’s encourage each other to take care of ourselves, and let’s help the men who love us understand that we need to practice good self care in order to provide the best possible care for others.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:26-30)

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:11)


  • Lexie Robinson

    I’m not a mom but this post is relevant event to us young single people. Just today at work one of the guys said his anxiety was really bad, on Saturday one of the girls was trying to decide if she should go home and take a nap or just go straight to her friend’s house. I said the same thing to both of them: Your body is smart, LISTEN TO IT! I think just generally in life we feel the need to be “all things to all people to save a few” and it can really do damage to us physically, mentally, and socially. I love self care and I think it is something we should all strive to cultivate. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Lexie |

    • Rebecca W

      Right there with you, Lexie! Having only yourself to rely on means there’s constantly something you have to do, and no one else to help with it or even talk through things with. Here’s to singles learning self care!

    • Kristen

      Yes! I’m also a single gal and I am struggling with finding that balance between doing the things I need to, but also having time to rest and relax. I find that I get to the end of the week and am exhausted. Then I usually end up getting sick if I do that for too long. It’s always the battle of finding that balance. God Bless Jenny and all the other moms out there. I don’t know how they do it!

  • Leia Dingott

    My husband is really good at trying to make me take time to myself but I usually resist. It’s the working mom guilt I think. I’ll have to take him up on it more often.

    • Kati

      This is exactly my problem. I am already away from my children for hours a day while I work, so I feel extra guilty taking an evening away too. I’m not sure how to fix that.

  • KD

    Yes to all of this! I’m a better Mom when I make time for self-care, and like you I wish I would have realized it a few years ago and made a list of the things I could do that truly fill me up. Instead I would get together with a friend or try to cram in too many errands and not quite feel rejuvenated.
    One other thing – i think self-care needs to be a fairly consistent habit in order for it to really make a difference in your well being. Just making time for it here or there rarely has the same effect.

  • Hannah

    This is such a good list of ideas. I *know* I need self-care, but I have a hard time coming up with things to do that will actually refresh me when I’m desperate for it. Bookmarking fo sho.

  • JR's mom

    Hi Jenny. Really thankful for this post, but can I just make one point please. I don’t feel too comfortable with the small point towards the bottom – “look for local recommendations for an Asian or Chinese massage place, their prices can be killer compared to a spa or salon. Think $40 instead of $90+.” Why the emphasis on cheap (half price??) and why do you think they are that cheap? I don’t think it is fair that Asian women, be it Chinese or from elsewhere, paid less for what their non-Asian counterparts are doing for the same time, sometimes with even more expertise and effort.
    If your emphasis had been more on their unparalleled skill at the art of massage (as you’ve raised such through your birth stories!) instead of price, I would have found this easier to bear. Same goes for nail parlors and salons run by Asian women who charge less – sometimes it’s a heartbreaking story behind such low wages and working conditions. They are mothers too, and I do not feel comfortable that one mom’s pleasure + respite comes at the cost of another mother’s unfair labor and wage. If anything, as Catholic women we should be patronizing businesses that treat their women masseuse, nail artists and the like with equal humanity and respect in terms of earning and working environment, that we expect of ourselves. Sometimes when I read the articles here, I wonder to what extent we are aware of the fact that there is a huge (and growing) Catholic and Christian population in many of the countries these women come from. We are all sisters, and we all deserve a break.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      JR’s mom: very thoughtful point. If you’d been a reader for a while you’d know that I have a dear friend named Ying who escaped from Communist China and came to the US and started her own massage and hair salon. I go to her during all my pregnancies and she’s helped induced 3 of my labors! She employs other recently immigrated Chinese women (a few men, but 80% women) and pays them a competitive wage and helps them learn English and train in a new skill. She’s actually a registered nurse in China, but since she doesn’t have her US degree can’t practice nursing here, so instead she does acupressure and reflexology. She’s an amazing woman and I’m proud to patronize her business rather than one of the big chains like Massage Envy, because I know it’s money directly into her family’s pocket and because of the way she treats her staff and mentors newly arrived immigrants. Sorry that wasn’t conveyed in a single bullet point, but it’s important we don’t rush to conclusions that just because a business is typically owned by an immigrant (like so many nail salons and massage parlors) that the conditions are unjust or the people being exploited. I’m sure some are! But I’m also sure some Walmart employees and other big box workers are. Every time I’ve delved into a relationship with the people who work in and own these local establishments, I’m fascinated by their stories and inspired by what they’ve escaped. I’ve heard stories from these friends about everything from forced abortions to fleeing in a raft and saving other refugees from drowning. So all that at to say, thank you for raising that very valid concern, but it’s important we don’t presume to know the entire backstory, and always ask directly for ourselves. I’ll have to do a whole piece on Ying one of these days: she’s an amazing woman who has overcome so much and built an incredible life for herself in a new country.

          • JR's mom

            Thanks Jenny for your clarification, and your patience with my misunderstanding. I apologize if I sounded like accusing you. That is very wrong of me. You are totally right that a price becomes competitive not just because owner cuts corners, but because owners can be smart, like saving on ads/promos, DIY interior, and family-running. Rest assured that I am myself a longtime patron of a hair salon in my town, run by a Chinese gentleman who is the hairdresser, and his wife who manages everything else from line-dried towels to floor-cleaning tactics that would put Grandma to shame. So here is a simple suggestion, then, as we are really on the same page here. Isn’t it all the more fair that businesses like theirs and Ying’s receive credit and deserve our promotion for their creativity, work-ethic, cleanliness and above all, talent? Yes, to make things even better they are cheap, but really, aren’t we going there because they are superb at what they do? Wouldn’t you still go to Ying even if she charged you $90 instead of $40, given all the qualities you just listed?
            From what I read in your posts, I would 🙂
            And in return, I would dignify my hairdresser by referring them to others as “an excellent hairdresser” instead of “a half-price hairdresser” so that at least strangers can come to appreciate a person, and not in search of some hell-of-a-deal, bang-for-your-buck experience.
            and as always, thanks so much for a much-needed reminder on self-care! I am also expecting, and your blog sustains me day to day 😉

  • Lorna

    Things that just fall in to your inbox exactly when you need them – thank you!
    Although, massage – ugh no thanks! Each to their own I suppose!!
    New book? – I’m there!!

  • Ashley

    You and I are kindred spirits – I could have written much of this post myself! Right now, my self-care looks like running on the treadmill. For 30+ minutes, I’m in my own head and nobody is allowed to talk to me, haha! So I get all of those amazing post-run endorphins PLUS silence…I’m convinced it makes me a better wife and mother.

  • Colleen Martin

    I wrote a similar post last night (before reading yours!) but yours is better 🙂 We are on the same page though, and it stinks it has to take most moms awhile to grasp this concept, I wish it would come as a realization at the delivery of their first baby!

  • Becky

    YESS!!! God *WANTS* us to be happy!! It’s so hard for us to believe this truth, as it’s the oldest trick of the enemy. Such a well written post as always. Are you working on your book for us yet??

  • Sarah

    Ooh yes. I learned this the hard way and am still learning. I also have to think about how I want to see my daughter when she is doing her (possible!) mothering- happy in it, and finding happy things to do in the midst of it. So I have to model that for her.

  • jeanette

    I guess I have a differing point of view on this subject. I first want to mention that you quoted 3 points from scripture, none of which really support what you are trying to say. Try to read the whole context again. For the one from 1 Cor 6:19-29, it is referring to purity, read all of ch 6. You might also wish to refer to JPII’s discussion on the topic in Theology of the Body, in the section “Life According to the Spirit” under the subtopic “The Virtue of Purity is the Expression and Fruit of Life according to the Spirit.”

    For the quote from Mt 11:26-30, Jesus is inviting us to find our rest in Him through the yoke of obedience to His word instead of the yoke of the law. It is not a bodily rest or a mental break, but life in Him. It is a spiritual task, not a recreational pursuit that He refers to.

    Isaiah 58:11 is another one that you have to read what comes before it (begin at verse 6). Isaiah is talking about authentic fasting and how it leads to giving to others and helping them with their burdens:
    “If you lavish your food on the hungry
    and satisfy the afflicted;
    Then your light shall rise in the darkness,
    and your gloom shall become like midday” (Isaiah 58:10)

    Self care is important, but it takes many forms for body, mind and spirit, not one to the exclusion of all else, however the body should be subject to the spirit, and following the will of God should lead one to both moderation in life as well as wholeness as a person.

    My husband and I have made the observation that our society has gone away from many of the forms of ordinary exercise from our ordinary responsibilities: cleaning house and yard work, for instance, that people often hire others to do and then go out and get a membership at a gym to stay in shape. Kind of humorous.

    We have so many opportunities to serve others, i.e. maybe we have the opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen, or teach faith formation classes once a week, or bring communion to the sick. I would have added these kinds of things to your list. They may not sound like self-care, but they are a form of it. They bring you outside of the home in a way that connects you to the community at large in a capacity to serve others. Lack of social interaction is a common complaint of mothers who are at home with small children. Doing these things is really a hidden grace. It can do more than one might imagine. I say this from the experience of being a very busy mother homeschooling my kids and doing these kinds of things outside of the home. Truly graces in my life which led to meeting a great many people who touched my life in so many different ways.

    For downtime and alone time, nothing compares to prayer. Prayer fills you in a way that other pursuits cannot. It is the pinnacle of self-care, not one of many options. That is because it brings you into direct contact with the motive for all that you are, all that you do: God. So even though this is on your list, you really have to separate it out as necessary, not just one of many choices or on par with other self-care pursuits. It really isn’t.

    Catholics first and foremost are to strive for holiness, which comes from, among other things, fulfilling the duties of our state in life. So that means if you are in charge of laundry, you need to do it. If you neglect things because you don’t like doing them or aren’t skilled at them, you probably need to work on those things. It will allow you to fulfill God’s will and you really will feel better about yourself because you will know that you have done what God wants from you. We are always motivated to please God. It will lead to holiness.

    Recreation is meant to renew us in some way. Even religious orders with an horarium will include it in the daily routine. But not excessively and not in ways that are not in concert with the purpose of growing in holiness. So balance and due attention to what will lead us towards God are the measure of what is a good choice of how to spend our time.

    Some of the most basic ways of caring for ourself are more likely to get neglected than recreational or leisure time pursuits: adequate sleep, adequate nutrition, and maintaining our relationships with others outside of the home. Those 3 areas are probably going to do more good than anything else in the realm of physical and mental well-being in carrying out the duties of your state in life…and in being a happy person.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Jeanette, you know I love you, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree on this one. You know I write about the importance of prayer and spiritual development constantly. but we’re not just souls, we have bodies and minds that also need to be cultivated and restored. And I think many of the mamas who follow me here are probably struggling a bit in the “I’m worth taking care of” department and need encouragement in this department.

      Just because I take a day off from discussing the more theology-driven stuff doesn’t mean it’s not essential and necessary to a balanced life, but we must do a better job as women taking care of ourselves, nurturing our interests and mental health, and embracing our good Father’s desire for our wholeness and happiness, yes, even in the little things like silent cups of coffee and long runs sans kiddos.

      Also, I think you might definitely be an extrovert, judging from what recharges you. So bear in mind there are quite a few of us on the other side of that spectrum who grow in silence and rest and not in constantly interacting with other people 😉

      • jeanette

        My reply was lengthy, so I’ll condense it: On prayer, I was only saying it is a separate area, not in the “self care” list of things to do category, in that it is an ordinary part of daily life. Maybe that wasn’t clear.

        I don’t know if there is an introvert/extrovert divide. I’m not really in either camp, but I would describe myself as a contemplative person and spend great amounts of time in the silence of solitude. I totally understand the need for alone time. But not alone with myself for the purpose of being apart from others, alone to be with God. It’s one and the same for me because I’ve learned how to be recollected. It’s why one can be alone in places like grocery stores, busy airports, or crowded auditoriums: you can be surrounded by many people and things, but have the capacity to zero in on God. However, silence and solitude afford something else.

        Being with our kids it is different than being around others. They are needy and demand our attention, and our ear is always tuned in (one way or another!) to them. So we need to be apart from them periodically, which I believe is the heart of self-care that you are speaking to. I was speaking to that need to get outside of the home and interacting with others, especially adults, which I know mothers experience with an equal need to being alone. Introvert or extrovert. I was also suggesting that this can be done simultaneously within the scope of answering the layperson’s call to apostolate. (Are you familiar with the Vatican II document “Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People”? It has a section on family.)

        I think you are more of an extrovert than you realize. As you move through life, your experiences change how much people contact you desire. I don’t think you would write a blog if you weren’t seeking broader people contact. In fact, I think if you could see your readers face to face rather than through the veil of the blog, you’d likely choose conversation (at least some of the time!) over the blog. And if you were engaged in a lively discussion and enjoying it, you wouldn’t be looking for a way to slink out of the room. You’d be in the thick of it most likely.

  • Meg

    Well I wasn’t expecting for this to make me cry! Thank you for writing this. I think God is using your words here to nudge me toward a few things I’ve been hashing out with Him in prayer lately! Oh how I wish I lived in CO! I think we’re real kindred spirits

  • Anne

    Well written, as always! But it really struck a nerve because why do you think men can do all the things you mentioned (watching an entire NFL game, hunting, painting, taking a hot shower after splitting wood out in the cold, etc.)? Because the mamas are there to tend to the kids. I’m always the “default parent” and I’m tired of it. He can head outside to paint a novelty barn board and not have to worry that it will soon be lunch and naptime. But when I want to sit down for 15 minutes to play the piano or I need to catch up with one child on their homework, even if I communicate that I need some uninterrupted time, I am constantly interrupted. Watch an entire NFL game? I prefer MLB but who cares because it will never happen. He can have his space when he’s at home and when he’s at work but I can’t have any space at home and it turns into a big production if I want to leave the house. GRRRR!!! This may make it sound like I have a terrible husband or lousy life but that’s not true. I just can’t find a way to make self-care work – and I’ve tried! I have said to myself, “I can rest when I’m dead.” Honestly, I’ve said that to myself! Thanks for the laugh!

  • Caitlin

    Thank you SO much for writing this! I have a just turned two year old and five month old and am recovering from PPD. I believe I got it from a combination of crazy hormones but running myself totally ragged while caring for my two kids, and did I mention the five month old had bad colic she is just starting to grow out of and my husband works 14 hour days 5-6 days a week and we have no family around ? I try to get both girls napping at the same time for at least 30 min a day and lay down and read a good book and light a candle instead of running myself totally ragged doing chores. It makes an enormous difference! I always would feel guilty doing that bc most people work outside the home and don’t get to take that time but I realized I need to do what I need to do to be the best mom possible. I also try to run with the girls in the stroller most days and love doing so! I decided I’m over feeling good about myself based on how much I “do” and that I need to focus on being the best mom and wife I can!

  • Dee

    Hi Jenny, reading this post a week or so late (mom life) but wanted to let you know I am definitely book marking it! And thanks to the other readers who have commented and gave their advice as well. Trenches is an understatement. Every mom has her own story (My own mom passed away when I was younger ) and each day I say to myself – I had no idea it would be this hard! My 3 are close in age (all under age 4 for my baby’s first year… gah!). There is 100% nothing wrong with admitting how hard it is and needing a break. Thank you for your words of encouragement. I enjoy your blog immensely!

  • Meghan Godby

    I am very late to this post so I’m not sure if you will even read this. But I just wanted to thank you because everything you said resonates with me so much. I am not Catholic and not a religious person, but I still found great value and comfort in these words. Thanks.

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