Mom life is often synonymous with exhaustion. It starts with sleep deprivation and continues for years into the future. It feels like we always have more to do, and never enough time to do it (much less time to take care of ourselves).
But I’ve noticed, both with myself and mom clients, that even when we do make time to “rest,” we often end up still feeling depleted. This can make us feel even more frustrated, to the point where we wonder, “Why even bother trying to rest if I don’t feel any better?”
This is something that board-certified internal medicine physician Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith started noticing in her practice. Patients would come in searching for answers to their ongoing exhaustion and burnout. But their physical health tests often came back normal, leaving Dr. Saundra wondering what was really going on.
Then, when she had two babies within 21 months of each other, she experienced it for herself. Even when she prioritized her sleep and managed a full 8 hours every night, she didn’t feel rested.
This led Dr. Saundra down a path of research, interviewing, and studying what rest really meant. She ended up originating the concept of the seven types of rest, which laid the foundation for her book Sacred Rest.
I was immediately drawn to her work, which explained the same deficit in rest that I have seen in so many clients. I couldn’t wait to talk with Dr. Saundra about the seven types of rest and how moms can harness the concept to start actually feeling less exhausted and overwhelmed.
We often blame mom exhaustion on sleep deprivation—and that is absolutely a component. Maternal sleep is extremely important, and something that needs to be prioritized. But so many of us still feel exhausted and burnt out even when we are able to start sleeping.
That’s because real rest is so much more than sleep. Dr. Saundra pointed out that taking a comprehensive approach to rest is a bridge to better sleep.
If we aren’t truly resting all the aspects of ourselves, we often find quality sleep unattainable. We might experience insomnia or restless sleep, never entering into deep, restorative sleep.
Dr. Saundra said that sleep is a passive form of physical rest—one of the seven core types of rest we need (which we’ll break down below).
Sleep is important. It helps our brain function, improves mood, and keeps all of our systems firing on all cylinders.
If we put all our eggs in the sleep basket as the way we’re going to rest, we’ve omitted all the other types.
But Dr. Saundra pointed out that if we put all our eggs in the sleep basket as the way we’re going to stay refreshed, renewed, and energized, we have omitted all the other types of rest that are available.
We can also overlook the underlying reason why we can’t get good quality sleep. For example, Dr. Saundra pointed out that if our mind starts racing at night, just focusing on trying to force ourselves to sleep likely won’t work.
But if we kept post-it notes by the bed and took the time to jot down the thoughts that pop in as we’re trying to sleep, we can release those thoughts and free the mental space we need to fall asleep easier.
We also need to focus on all aspects of rest and how we can implement them throughout our day.
When we talk about rest outside of sleep, our minds might immediately jump to stereotypical “self-care” activities, like getting a massage or taking a bubble bath.
And for many moms, taking the time to create space for these activities feels like just another thing on the to-do list. It can feel exhausting to think about finding childcare, putting aside work, and spending time on “self-care.”
Self-care is nurturing our current need.
Dr. Saundra pointed out that we’ve confused self-care and pampering. There’s nothing wrong with pampering—but none of those methods are actually self-care. If we’re not fulfilling all of our rest needs, those experiences won’t even actually be restful.
She believes that real self-care is nurturing our current needs. We might need to rest mentally, or to reconnect with our friends, or to be vulnerable with our emotions. Our needs are often rooted in the types of rest and what we’re lacking.
So if rest isn’t sleep or traditional self-care methods, what is it? It’s helpful to first understand what it’s not. Dr. Saundra said that rest isn’t a vacation or a one-time thing.
She pointed out that we often think rest is mainly about cessation, or stopping. But when we equate rest to stopping, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. There are seasons of life where there is no space to stop—where there is always something going on.
A vacation might give us a temporary reprieve. But Dr. Saundra thinks of this as if she just stopped the bleeding of a patient in the ER and sent them home. Sure, she treated the bleeding—but she didn’t bother to figure out what was causing it.
She said that rest isn’t about stopping or escaping. It’s about finding a deficit and pouring back into it to get things on a healthy level.
Rest isn’t about stopping or escaping. It’s about finding a deficit and pouring back into it.
Becoming self-aware of what types of rest we’re lacking is one of the best ways we can understand our own needs and make a plan to meet them.
If we’re in one of those seasons of life where stopping isn’t doable, it can feel impossible to carve out extra time to create a plan for ourselves. But instead of thinking about what we can add to our schedule, Dr. Saundra recommends considering how you can build these elements into your existing schedule.
For example, you might consider stretching, a type of physical rest, while pushing your child on the swing. Dr. Saundra said that when we think of rest this way, it becomes easier to get the rest we need. It just takes being mindful and thinking about what we’re missing and how we can build it into our existing schedule.
Dr. Saundra has identified the seven types of rest as physical, mental, emotional, social, sensory, creative, and spiritual. Dr. Saundra said that if we find ourselves exhausted even after “resting,” we’re probably missing out on one of the components of rest.
Let’s take a closer look at each type of rest and what moms can do to achieve them:
One important element of physical rest is sleep—but Dr. Saundra said that it’s a passive form. For every passive component, there are also active ones.
Active physical rest might include using a foam roller, stretching, going for a massage, or taking a leisurely walk.
Moms don’t always have a healthy relationship with movement—especially in the postpartum period. We might find ourselves frustrated by our physical limits or our postpartum body. And movement or exercise can become punitive.
But Dr. Saundra said the focus on physical rest is circulation and body fluidity, which promote healing and restoration. This could look like a dance class, yoga, or something that feels good to you. She recommends online classes or finding ways to incorporate our children into our physical rest routines.
Dr. Saundra pointed out that with our children, we understand that movement and play is exercise. But we often think of our own physical movement in black-and-white terms, becoming upset with ourselves when we can’t meet strict goals.
One of the ways we can get body fluidity is just by playing with and enjoying our children.
But we don’t need to put those parameters on it. Dr. Saundra said that one of the ways we can get body fluidity is by playing with and enjoying our children.
Dr. Saundra believes that moms often have a mental rest deficit. We’re overwhelmed with the emotional and mental labor, the invisible things that keep us bogged down. This is one of the key reasons why moms often feel as if they are never truly rested.
If you’re experiencing brain fog, unable to slow down or relax, or find your mind running with all the to-dos, mental rest might be lacking.
It takes awareness and understanding of our own needs to give ourselves permission to mentally rest, whether that means releasing labor of tasks that we don’t need or want to do, or sharing the mental load with our partner or a support person.
Dr. Saundra recommended reducing unnecessary multi-tasking and timeblocking, carving out what we’re going to do for each chunk of the day, to help reduce the mental load and bring some mental rest back into our lives.
As moms, we often find ourselves pouring into everyone else around us. We become experts at noticing everyone else’s emotions and fulfilling their needs. Our own needs often go unmet. It’s common for my mom clients to express that they just wish somebody would take care of them the way they take care of everyone else.
This can lead to resentment of our partner if they don’t meet our emotional needs. But Dr. Saundra pointed out that our partners often don’t know what we need, even when we assume they do.
Emotional rest requires us to take a look at what we need emotionally and advocate for it. Maybe we need to be heard, validated, seen, or appreciated.
Dr. Saundra said that communication is one of the gifts of rest. When you sit down with your partner and discuss your emotional needs, and all of your rest needs, the other person gets a glimpse into how they can help you.
Emotional rest also involves us allowing ourselves to be authentic about what we’re feeling. It means breaking away from people-pleasing and sharing our emotions. This often involves opening up and being vulnerable with the people we trust, whether that’s a partner, or a friend, or a therapist.
Emotional rest means allowing ourselves to be authentic about what we’re feeling.
Dr. Saundra also pointed out that journaling can be a valuable way to achieve emotional rest, especially if we don’t have someone to talk to. Emotional rest can even come out in creative expressions such as music and art.
Validating our own emotional experience is also important, along with having self-compassion and warmth for ourselves.
It’s very common for moms to struggle with social rest as well. We often tell ourselves we don’t have time for our friends. But Dr. Saundra said that when we pour socially into our children all day, we leave a deficit that needs to be filled.
You can achieve social rest by spending time with friends, such as connecting with other moms on a Zoom call, even while juggling kids and parenting responsibilities. Sometimes just a little connection is enough to help restore some social rest.
But social rest can look other ways as well. Dr. Saundra shared that she and her two best friends have a code word that they text each other to express that they really need support. The more we’re upfront with the people in our lives about what we need, the more they can pour back into us.
She also pointed out that we can receive social rest from our kids, even though they are often the source of depletion as well. For example, have the family take turns at dinner pointing out something they love and appreciate about each other.
Mom life can also be very overstimulating. Sensory rest involves downgrading sensory input as much as possible.
This can be tough—kids inevitably come with plenty of sensory input. But there are things we can control and adjustments we can make to reduce the inputs, like turning off background noise or not running the dishwasher when the house is loud.
We can also reduce or set limits around loud toys, which can be big triggers for overstimulation. Perhaps those toys get played with only outside, only in one room, or only at specific times of the day.
We can also think about sensory inputs in other ways, such as exposure to screens or how bright a room is. It can also be helpful to build in quiet times of the day to give your body an opportunity to recover after loud playtimes.
Dr. Saundra said that creative rest comes when we allow ourselves to appreciate beauty, in whatever form it is that inspires us.
This could be natural beauty, such as being outside, or manmade beauty, like art, theatre or dance.
As busy moms, it might be hard to find the energy to create. We don’t have to identify as creative in order to achieve creative rest—we can simply appreciate other people’s creativity. Dr. Saundra said that appreciating what has already been created has a way of bringing out the creativity in us.
We don’t have to identify as creative in order to achieve creative rest.
We can listen to music or an audiobook while washing the dishes, or stop while at the park to acknowledge and appreciate the trees or the sky.
Dr. Saundra also pointed out that creative energy doesn’t always look the way we think it does. For example, if we’re following a recipe and we have to improvise a missing ingredient, that’s creative energy. Or if we have to problem-solve a logistic pick-up, that’s also creative energy.
We might get depleted because we don’t feel like we’re being creative, but acknowledging our expressions can help us experience more creative rest.
Dr. Saundra defined spiritual rest as feeling as if we belong, and that our life has meaning and purpose.
This doesn’t have to look like a religion or a faith-based expression, although religious communities often provide a form of spiritual rest.
Dr. Saundra said that every single one of us has the need to feel like we are giving back to the greater good or that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. This can come from an organization, a volunteer opportunity, or any form of community.
We can give back or cultivate purpose both in our motherhood role and beyond. For some of us, raising the next generation of children to share the domestic labor and be more open and connected can help fulfill spiritual rest.
But we can also find other opportunities for purpose and meaning outside of motherhood. We often feel as if we lose ourselves in motherhood—but it’s important to spend time rediscovering our passions and reclaiming pieces of who we want to be.
When we understand the types of rest, we can become better aware of our own needs and make small changes in our lives that leave us feeling more whole, more energized, and more refreshed.
Dr. Saundra said that it’s important for moms to recognize that they have the ability to help put an end to the grind culture. Too often, we have a misguided conception that work is so far greater than rest, that we should only work and never rest.
As moms, we have the ability to help put an end to the grind culture.
But that has led to a culture with 80% of people experiencing burnout or exhaustion. We might not want that for our children.
We have the ability to set a precedent of rest in our home, to help our children look at and understand rest differently, and to encourage them to feel restful in all areas of life.
If you feel like you can never rest and don’t know where to start, working with a mom therapist can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today!