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February 20, 2024

March 15, 2023

Real Self-Care for Moms: Why Mindset Matters More Than Massages

E:
164
with
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin
Psychiatrist

We have exciting news–Happy as a Mother has evolved into The Momwell Podcast! The podcast is staying the same–same great experts, same mission, same format. But we’re now operating under a new name–Momwell.

What You'll Learn

  • Why Self-Care Should Come from Within
  • How “Self-Care” Becomes a Form of Escapism
  • What Real Self-Care Looks Like
  • How Intensive Mothering Impacts Self-Care for Moms
  • How Moms Can Start to Practice Deeper Self-Care 
  • Why Real Self-Care for Moms Is So Important

Overwhelmed moms are often told to carve out time for “self-care,” from bubble baths to massages. But not only does that version of self-care for moms add more to our neverending to-do list—it also does not address the real problems that are contributing to burnout. 

Real self-care for moms isn’t about what we do or what we buy—it’s about mindset shifts that change the way we approach motherhood. Today, I’m joined by psychiatrist Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, author of Real Self-Care, to discuss self-care principles for moms and how we can prioritize our mental health. 

My Mental Health Struggle as a Mom

My mental health suffered when I became a mom. I struggled with undiagnosed postpartum depression for too long, until I finally experienced a breakdown (that ultimately became a mental health breakthrough) on my third maternity leave. 

But when I finally realized what was going on, and went to the doctor to discuss treatment, I didn’t feel heard or supported. The doctor condescendingly told me that I “just needed rest.” 

Moms often hear dismissive messages like that. 

You just need rest.

You just need a girl’s night out. 

You just need to get out of the house for a massage or a pedicure. 

But when we tell moms things like this, we aren’t actually solving the problem. We’re asking moms to add more to their invisible load and telling them that if they just buy something or do something they will feel better. 

The truth is that until we address what’s going on to cause our overwhelm, burnout, or mental health struggles, no amount of bubble baths or spa days will fix the problem. Real self-care for moms is so much more—and it’s focused internally, not externally. 

I was so excited to meet with Dr. Pooja and pick her brain about what self-care for moms should really look like on a deeper level. 

Why Self-Care Should Come from Within

When we think of “self-care,” we often fall back on stereotypical images of momentary relaxation or temporary breaks. But moms often find that they don’t have the mental capacity, time, or energy to create those moments—especially in the postpartum period. 

If “self-care” is unrealistic, moms can end up feeling more pressure and frustration when they can’t achieve it. 

Dr. Pooja’s approach to self-care is different. Before she even became a mom, she began to see that traditional “self-care” was more of a band-aid than a cure. She experienced burnout in medical school and became disillusioned with Western medicine and psychotherapy. 

She ended up moving into a commune (which she later discovered was actually a cult), chasing a different path. After two years there, she began to see the same contradictions and shortcomings in alternative healing that she had in traditional medicine. 

That’s when she realized that the burnout and disillusionment weren’t about her surroundings—she couldn’t run away from her struggles because they were within her. Nothing outside of herself was going to change that. 

She began focusing on transforming her own mindset to break out of burnout, overcome overwhelm, and work through the barriers to her mental health. 

Women are missing something, and we’re not being served by the solutions that are sold to us.

Dr. Pooja pointed out that many women and moms in particular turn to spiritual practices, oils, holistic wellness, and more as a form of self-care, only to be left unhealed. But it’s because something is missing for us, and we are not being served by the solutions that are sold to us. 

How “Self-Care” Becomes a Form of Escapism

Dr. Pooja was almost hesitant to write a self-help book because she didn’t want to play into the world that tells us if we just buy or do the right thing all our problems will go away. In fact, she says that if anybody tells you they have the one right answer, it’s time to run away. 

But ultimately she felt a sense of responsibility to point out that the system is failing women, people of color, and those with disabilities. We’re being told to look for answers in the wrong place. 

For many moms, the concept of “self-care” becomes a form of escapism. When the pressure mounts, we search for relief. But those typical self-care methods can only provide a temporary break. 

Dr. Pooja emphasized that there is nothing wrong with things like bubble baths, yoga, or gratitude journals. We need breaks, time for self-soothing, and relaxation methods. However, none of those change the fact that moms are being bombarded with overwhelming pressure and mental labor. 

In order to create real shifts, we need to view self-care through a different lens. When we can do that, we can actually change the way we feel in our day-to-day lives. 

What Real Self-Care Looks Like

Dr. Pooja says that real self-care is a principle. It’s self-directed. It isn’t something you do or buy—it’s a way of being. 

Real self-care isn’t something you do or buy—it’s a way of being.

She shared an example of a client of hers who found solace in swimming. So, she committed to carving out protected time to swim several times a week. 

On the surface, we might think that swimming itself is the self-care. But Dr. Pooja said that the real self-care is the boundaries she had to put up in her life to protect that time, the way she talked to herself about her time, the communication methods she used with her partner to explain the need, and the permission she gave herself to prioritize her own time. 

When we get focused on a self-care method, sometimes life changes and that doesn’t work for us anymore. After we become moms, it’s often unrealistic to carry out the same methods we used before. 

That’s why self-care as performative or consumer-oriented doesn’t work. It often feels like a chore, and we might even beat ourselves up when we don’t have time for it. And even if we do manage to carve out that time, it might not do any good. If we take a bubble bath but we’re preoccupied with the mental load, we haven’t really practiced self-care. 

But if we focus on the principles, it doesn’t matter what methods we use, or what changes our season of life brings. The principles are something we carry with us for our whole lives. 

How Intensive Mothering Impacts Self-Care for Moms

One of the reasons that moms find self-care so difficult is the pressure of social norms and expectations. We are living in a time when moms are subjected to intensive mothering ideology, told that in order to be “perfect moms,” they must sacrifice every bit of their time, money, energy, and resources. 

When you’re conditioned to believe that doing everything at a cost of yourself defines your worth as a mom, it’s very difficult to prioritize your own time or mental health. 

But if we can shift that mentality and view real self-care as an essential part of both being a good person to ourselves and being a good mother, we can break away from those expectations. 

Dr. Pooja recommends focusing on self-compassion, giving yourself permission to do less, and discovering what’s truly important to you. She said that if we can think of parenting, of being a mom, in a different way, we can let go of the pressure and free ourselves. 

But doing that might come with some resistance. Dr. Pooja wrote an article in the New York Times about preparing herself for the risk of postpartum mental health struggles and received a lot of scathing comments. 

People get very angry when moms talk about their own needs or their own preferences.

People get very angry when moms talk about their own needs or their own preferences. That doesn’t align with our social view of motherhood. 

It takes a lot of work to become comfortable breaking away from societal norms. We have to become very confident in our own values and our own approach. 

Dr. Pooja said that you know you’re doing real self-care right when people get angry with you. If you’re pleasing everyone, you’re not setting boundaries or focusing on self-care. 

How Moms Can Start to Practice Deeper Self-Care 

In fact, Dr. Pooja said that boundary setting is one of the first steps toward practicing real self-care with moms. We are often raised to believe that boundaries are rude, entitled, or disrespectful. But in reality, boundaries are vital to taking care of ourselves. 

Learning how to set boundaries and stand up for our own needs can make a big impact on our lives and our relationship with motherhood. 

Sometimes this can come in big areas, but it can start with little things. If you aren’t sure where to begin, focus on a small boundary or shift you can make in your life. 

Dr. Pooja said that identifying and committing to your personal values gives you a real self-care compass and makes it easier to identify what boundaries should be set. 

Committing to your personal values gives you a real self-care compass

When you lead with values, you are able to live a more authentic life, letting go of labor, pressure, and expectations that don’t align with who you are. 

This can be a big struggle for moms who have spent years focusing on their kids. When she asks mom clients, “What do you want more of in your life?” The answer is often, “I have no idea.” 

It can take some time to bring ourselves back onto the priority list. It’s important to give ourselves patience and compassion along the way. Small steps can make a big difference in the long run. 

Why Real Self-Care for Moms Is So Important

Dr. Pooja said that shifting the way we think about self-care for moms matters. A break or a girl’s night out is great, but what’s better is bringing our values into our to-do list, breaking out of the idea that we must carry the invisible load alone, and giving permission to ourselves to question the norms we’ve been handed. 

As we start to do things differently, we create a ripple effect for those around us to prioritize themselves, question the expectations they’ve been given, and approach motherhood differently. 

It’s important to find support. Dr. Pooja recommends identifying the people who will hold space for you and lift you up on your journey. 

We don’t have to follow outdated gender norms, carry the mental load of motherhood by ourselves, or continue down a path to burnout. We can choose to live a life aligned with our values and opt out of many of the expectations of motherhood. 

Dr. Pooja said that the path forward to real self-care looks different for every mom. She can’t give us a cookie-cutter list of steps because so much of the process involves inner work, values, and understanding our own unique needs. 

But she did say that the best way to begin is by asking yourself questions. 

What is “enough”?

Where did I learn that I have to do and be more? 

Why do I feel like I have to be constantly in motion?

We might sometimes get scary answers from those questions. But in those scary answers, we can find small ways to make shifts, do things differently, and give ourselves space. 

There isn’t a quick fix to real self-care. But we can choose to value ourselves, explore our needs, believe in our own worth, and start to approach our role in a different way. 

Working with a mom therapist can help you answer these deep questions, identify your values, and break away from unrealistic pressure and expectations in motherhood. Book a FREE 15 minute virtual Therapy Support consultation with one of our maternal mental health specialists today!

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Tags:

Perfect mother myth, Burnout, Values

Stage:

Trying to Conceive, Pregnant, Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin
Psychiatrist

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin MD is a psychiatrist, New York Times contributor, and the founder and CEO of Gemma, the physician-led women's mental health platform and the author of Real Self-Care. Pooja maintains an active private practice where she treats women struggling with burnout, perfectionism, and disillusionment, as well as clinical conditions like depression and anxiety. Her first book, REAL SELF-CARE: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), is available on March 14 from Penguin Random House. She lives in Austin with her partner, their son, and their two cats.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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