Stay-at-Home Moms: Taking Care of Yourself

Busy mother cooking and talking on the phone with her two daughters

Any professional whose primary responsibilities include caring for the needs of others is usually accompanied by wonderful relational benefits. These same occupations can be very emotionally and physically draining and require a plan for refueling. As we all know, motherhood has twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week responsibilities.

While there are no designated days off, vacation time doesn't seem to be addressed in the job contract either. If we don't take some time for ourselves, don't arrange for a day off here or there or don't take an evening off, we will find ourselves in a hole that is difficult to climb out of. We may lose our perspective or even consider reentering the paid workforce just to keep our sanity. As a woman in the profession of motherhood, you must learn how to take care of yourself. No one has built that into your job description and no one is going to set boundaries for you. You have to do it yourself.

As moms, too often we work sacrificially and selflessly to the detriment of our family life. It is then that we become short-tempered, judgmental and even jealous of those who have more freedom in their lifestyles. We become discouraged by the daily duties of a job that never feels finished. We begin to question the value of what we're doing and our self-worth. To combat such reactive emotions, we need to be proactive in caring for ourselves.

Have you ever been on an airplane and listened to the instructions about using the oxygen masks in an emergency? The flight attendants always give an extra instruction to those traveling with children: Put your own oxygen mask in place before you place the mask on your child. Those directions seem to go against our very nature. Our first inclination is to take care of that child even if it means sacrificing ourselves. But when we stop to consider the reasoning behind the instruction, it makes sense. If we don't first take care of ourselves, we might not be able to help either of us, and we might both perish in those few precious moments. If we put our mask in place first, we are then in a position to care for others.

The same principle applies at home. We must first take care of ourselves in order to properly take care of others. This will give us the stamina, patience and perspective needed to care for the needs of others over the long haul.

Pull into the filling station

Do you have someone in your family who insists on driving the car on gas fumes when the gauge is registering empty? It seems every family has one member who pushes it to the limit. Well, each one of us has an emotional fuel tank. If we don't take time to fill our tank, if we push ourselves to the limit, sooner or later we will find ourselves "out of gas." Stranded. Stuck. Ineffective.

When we're broken down along the road, someone else has to come take care of us. By that time, it takes more to fill us up. If we're proactive, we do something to fill up while we can still pull up to the gas pump.

Moms are always taking care of others, but we have to make sure that in the whirlwind of life we're taking care of ourselves as well. There are three personal areas we need to care for: body, mind and spirit. Do you know how each of these is drained and filled? To keep our lives balanced, we need to evaluate these areas regularly and place emphasis on keeping our tanks filled as we do the job God has called us to do.

Take care of your body

When Anne, our oldest, was born, I was twenty years old. Mark was twenty-four. We were both young and full of energy. I could study into the night, be up with the baby and still go strong the next day. When Austin, our youngest, was born, I was thirty-two. My body didn't have quite the same stamina it had three babies earlier. I needed to pay attention to its limits or my body would require me to take notice.

How much sleep do you need? Are you getting it? The body regenerates itself through the process of sleep. When we short-circuit that rest time, it breaks down the body's natural self-care cycle. Do you need to go to bed earlier? Do you need to lie down in the afternoon for a few minutes? Take a few minutes for some much needed shut-eye if you need to. You'll feel better and will be better equipped to meet the needs of your family.

What about your eating habits? Are you trying to survive on whatever your kids don't finish? Are you eating healthy food or are you in a snack habit? Our bodies need specific minerals and vitamins. A diet of peanut butter sandwich crusts does not provide the nutrients our bodies need. I'm a person who has always struggled with the three-meals-a-day thing. I'm not particularly fond of breakfast food. So if I'm going to skip a meal, it's usually breakfast. When I realized I didn't have to eat breakfast food, though, I found myself able to get a good start in the morning by eating something else. Instead of a bowl of cereal, I might have a bowl of chicken and rice soup. And no, brownies and cookies for breakfast don't make the grade. I know, I've tried to make them work too, but they just don't have the same effect. We must feed our bodies the nutrients God designed them to run on.

How much water are you drinking every day? Several years ago, I increased my water intake. I was amazed at the increase in energy and the decrease in appetite I experienced!

I've never been particularly fond of water myself, so I had to be creative about making it attractive. I did this by keeping lemons and limes sliced in my refrigerator and dropping a wedge or two in my glass of water. This little splurge on myself has resulted in a physical benefit.

What about your health? I am amazed at how many women I talk to who have not had a pap smear and breast examination in years. Take these preventive measures to care for your body. It is truly a gift to your family. A good friend of mine just finished three months of chemotherapy after a mastectomy. She's thirty-eight and married with two young children. Thank goodness she was taking care of herself and her body. The cancer was caught early and her chances for a long life are very good.

On the days I don't take care of my appearance, I don't feel good about myself and I struggle with low motivation. I tend to fall into that pattern, especially when I'm not going anywhere outside the home. I would actually ask myself, "Am I going anywhere today?" When the answer was no, my thought process was, "Why bother?" I learned over time, though, that it's important for me, my husband and my family that I make the effort to look and feel my best every day.

Personal care priority list

  • Sleep — enough to keep you in a positive mood
  • Nutrition — healthy food that gives you energy and plenty of water
  • Health — annual pap smear, breast exam and physical
  • Hygiene — neat hair and some makeup
  • Clothing — comfortable but presentable (Remember, you're not going out to an office, but you are doing a respectable and very important job, so dress accordingly.)

Take care of your mind

Dr. Brenda Hunter, author of Home by Choice and many other wonderful books, received her doctorate at age 49. She says that it is proof that your mind does not rot during your years at home with your children!

At times, though, it's easy to feel that our minds are in low gear when all we're dealing with is diapers, dishes, laundry and Dr. Seuss books. Just as it is important to take care of our bodies, it is equally as important to take care of our minds.

I love to read the news, but I have little time to do it. Therefore, my goal is to read the news several days during the week. It keeps me informed about local and national events, and it helps me to stay in touch with the outside world. It fills my mental fuel tank.

What do you love to do that will keep your mind filled? Read? Make a craft? Do cross-stitch? Surf the net? Talk with friends? Writing in a journal is great therapy for the mind. Find out what works for you and then carve out some time to make it happen. You may have to ask for help in accomplishing it. Be prepared for that. There was a season that I literally could not find time to read the news without the assistance of my husband. From the time I got up in the early morning, it was all babies and toddlers until I went to bed too exhausted to read anything other than the inside of my eyelids. The kids couldn't seem to get on the same nap schedule, and I was completely depleted when Mark arrived home. We finally talked about it, and I asked Mark if he could give me 30 minutes after he came home for me to regroup. I'd take the newspaper to the bedroom, close the door and begin filling up my fuel tank. There were some days I would actually emerge a different person than the one who had entered the room 30 minutes earlier!

Maybe you don't have a husband who's willing to help. In that case you may need to swap baby-sitting with a friend. If you have family close by, ask Grandma or a sister or sister-in-law to help. You might want to hire a sitter to help you accomplish your goal. Remember, your mental health is important to your family's health.

There's one more area we have to consider as we care for our minds. We have to learn to limit our activities outside the home in order to keep our minds from being bogged down with things that aren't important. Because we are at home, people often assume that we have more free time for volunteer work than others have. We are often asked to serve more at church, school and so on. As we consider our commitments outside the home, it is important that we understand four concepts: good and best, learning to say no, the urgent and the important and asking for help. If we can grasp these concepts, we can maintain a healthy balance in the responsibilities we carry.

Good and best

You are a talented, capable and responsible person. Talented, capable, responsible people are asked to do more. You will be in high demand to do lots of good things. But the question to ask is, "What good things do I need to say no to, and what are the best things I can say yes to?" You are not choosing between good and bad; you're choosing between good and best. That's a hard choice.

One way we can determine what is good and what is best is by knowing what our mission is in this season of our lives. Most organizations and businesses have mission statements that help them stay focused on their goals. Mission statements also allow them to know what business ventures to pursue and what needs to be left for another organization or business to develop. They compare a new idea or venture opportunity to their mission statements. They ask, "Does this fit with the mission of our organization?" Then they move forward from there.

Have you ever considered writing a mission statement for yourself? What is your mission in life? A good way to begin to answer that question is to ask yourself, "When I leave this earth, what legacy do I want to leave? Where do I want to have made a difference?" Now go through and list your priorities. Then take your mission statement and your priorities and begin making some goals: lifetime goals, annual goals, monthly goals and daily goals will enable you to fulfill your mission. Your mission, priorities and goals should be related. Now you have a grid to help you make decisions about your "best" activities.

When asked to do something, make prayer the first step toward making a decision. If God hasn't given you a strong sense of direction in prayer, the next step is to compare it to your mission, priorities and goals. If it doesn't fit in with those, then the decision is practically made for you. If it fits in with your goals and mission, though, you will need to further evaluate your available time.

Another way to approach decisions about activities outside the home is by asking, "What is God asking me to do in this season of my life and does this activity fit with that plan?" When I know I could do a job but I'm trying to determine if I should, I often pose this thought, I am capable, but am I called? Is God calling me to do it?

We don't want to overload our minds to the point of losing our focus. We also don't want to carry so many responsibilities that we shirk what God is calling us to do in caring for our families. Having a plan for making those good vs. best decisions is the first step in setting limits on activities outside the home and ultimately in taking care of ourselves.

Learn to say no

"So how do you do it?" she asked.

"Do what?" I replied.

"How do you say no?" she questioned.

"I just say no," I answered.

"No, I don't mean like that. Do you say no and offer an excuse, or do you just say no? I feel so guilty when I say no."

Thus began a recent conversation with a mom who called and asked how to keep a good balance between volunteer activities and family responsibilities. As mothers at home, it is not work and family we need to keep in balance. After all, our family is our work! For many of us the issue is balancing volunteer positions (church, community and school) with our family responsibilities. Some of us figure a home-based business or part-time job into our schedule, too. We easily can put ourselves back in the position of working full time, outside-the-home hours without bringing home the pay. We must learn to use the word no effectively.

To keep a balance between mothering and helping others outside your home, here are some guidelines for learning to say no.

1. Keep in mind that you alone know what is best for you and your family. With many mothers working outside the home, there are fewer school, church and community volunteers available during the day. Therefore, you are likely to be asked more often, simply because you are perceived to be more available. Remember, even with church activities, that our families are our first ministry.

2. Never say yes on the spot. Always tell the person you will call back after you've had time to pray and think about it. This keeps you from making an on-the-spot decision you may regret. You can say no immediately, however, if you know that the position or responsibility is wrong for you.

3. When considering a time commitment, make sure you take preparation time into account. Most of us underestimate the time it takes to really do a job. If you have been asked to bake five dozen cookies, look at the calendar and determine whether you truly have that much free time available before the cookies need to be delivered. If it looks too busy, say you're sorry, but you can't do it.

4. When considering long-term commitments, make sure you consider all your household responsibilities and the time constraints that accompany them. It may seem that becoming the president of an organization you really believe in will not take too much time. But after a few months, the phone calls, meetings and errands begin to take up the time you previously used for laundry, housecleaning or paying the bills. These are big jobs that need to be integrated into your weekly and daily responsibilities. Don't allow your family responsibilities to be sacrificed for your volunteer responsibilities.

5. Carefully consider the "brain space" this responsibility will require. Have you ever been listening to your children, but really thinking about a new project or the hundreds of things you need to do? When your mind is cluttered, you are not mentally available to your family.

6. Remember every minute of your day does not have to be scheduled! If you have a "doer" mentality, you will think of a spare hour or two as a way to fit in one more "yes." Yet we need some time to do nothing. If you need to, schedule in "downtime" each day. Write it on your calendar and say no to anything that would fill this time.

7. Set a limit to the number of long-term commitments you will carry. For instance, I encourage women to carry no more than one large and one small long-term volunteer commitment. If they were to take on another long-term commitment, I would encourage them to give up one of their previous commitments. Limiting your long-term commitments allows for more time to help out in short-term service projects. You will be more likely to have the time to bake brownies for your child's classroom or be a teacher's assistant during Vacation Bible School if you take a similar approach.

8. Ask for accountability. Ask your husband, a close friend or your Bible study group to hold you accountable for the number of commitments you will carry. Be open to their insight. If you have trouble saying no, ask them to help you during the first few months while you get things back in balance. When you tell someone you will call him back, check with your accountability partner first before answering. Sort through your schedule with them. Eventually you won't need the partner's help, but it can help you while you are learning to say no.

9. When you do say no, don't feel that you need to give a long list of excuses. You know what is best for your family and for yourself. If you feel you must give an excuse, simply say that it would not fit into your schedule at this time.

10. Keep in mind that you do not have to say yes simply because you are capable. You may have strong leadership skills and most likely will be asked to lead anything you get involved in. That doesn't mean you have to say yes to those responsibilities. You should say yes only after considering your time availability, other volunteer responsibilities, your family commitments and what you might need to give up to properly do this job. Of course, above all, you should say yes only after praying and seeking God's will.

11. If you have too much on your plate now, reevaluate your priorities. Determine what responsibilities you need to let go. Give a one-month notice to those organizations that you will no longer be able to serve. Although it may be difficult to give up a responsibility, you are not doing the organization or your family any good when you cannot fully commit to the job. As soon as you let go of some of the responsibilities you are carrying, instill new boundaries for your time. Don't let yourself become overcommitted again.

12. Remember that saying no allows others the opportunity to say yes. Don't take service opportunities away from others. Don't forget to make time to have a friend over, take your kids to the park, write a letter or go on a date with your husband. We don't usually schedule these kinds of activities, but they are the first to go when we are overcommitted.

Remember that saying yes to some activities outside the home will be important to your sanity. Moms of young children need to get out of the house to socialize and think about something other than diapers, bottles and coupons. Contrary to popular belief, your brain will not turn to mush. It will just feel like it at times. We need to carefully choose those activities we will be involved in so that our time will be used wisely. You will be amazed at the patience you will have with your family when you find balance in your activity schedule.

Priioritizing what's urgent, what's important

Another important concept we need to understand is the difference between the urgent and the important. The important things sit and wait while the urgent things scream to us. The phone is a perfect example of this. A conversation on the couch with your husband is important. The phone call in the middle of it seems urgent. Our nature is to choose what seems urgent because we react immediately rather than thinking about the choice we have and determining the best thing to do.

Our priorities and goals can help us to determine what is important. But throughout life the urgent will scream louder than the important. In her book, A Mother's Time, Elise Arndt says,

The urgent matters of life are those that demand our immediate response, the things that constantly bid for our attention. They give no consideration to what is presently being done. They include annoying interruptions at the wrong time for the wrong reason and the pressing needs of people around us. These are the urgent matters of life.

While the urgent continually begs for our attention, the important keeps silent. It patiently waits for us to take notice. While the urgent seeks us, the important waits to be sought by us. The important aspects of life take discipline to perform, while the urgent are accomplished on impulse. We live in constant tension between the two, don't we? Filling the needs of the moment causes us to become weary. We blame hard work for our anxiety. In reality, it is not hard work that produces stress, but doubts and misgivings about what we are doing. We have become slaves to the urgent.Elise Arndt, A Mother's Time (Wheaton, IL:Victor Books, 1987), 43-44.

Can you see how the urgent takes us away from the important? So what do we do about it? Discipline is the key. We started with the phone at our house. My husband and I discovered it was robbing us of the important. It rang while we were reading to a child, it rang during dinner, it rang when we had company, and we always answered it. We decided that the phone was the urgent and the things it distracted us from were the important. So, if you call my house, you often get my voice mail. If you are visiting, you will hear the phone ring a lot, but I won't answer it. Believe me, you'll stop hearing it after a while, and it begins to blend in with the background. With one husband and four children, there is a lot of "important" to take care of. The "urgent" can be called back at a time when I am needed less by those who are important.

When you start thinking about what you need to do and categorizing it as urgent or important, it can help in decision making too. We need to discern rather than react.

Asking for help

I can't do it all. You can't do it all, either. We must learn to ask for help. Our families are not mind readers. They will not know what needs to be done around the house. But you know. So, we must ask for help and delegate some of the work.

In our home, our children have family responsibilities they take care of each day. Some people might call them chores, but I don't believe that truly describes them. It takes a lot of work to keep a home running. We have a responsibility to teach our children life skills they can take with them when they leave home. So, each day they have responsibilities that help keep our home running smoothly. Those responsibilities include cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work and so on.

There is a lot to do, but when many hands work together, it lightens my load. A good manager delegates tasks; and as a professional, a mother must do the same. I also have to train my "workers," which takes time. But it is time well spent because our family benefits from the results for years to come. We need to become comfortable asking for help.

Several years ago, Mark and I decided we needed to get serious about having date nights for ourselves, but we didn't have the money to pay a sitter on a weekly basis. We decided to ask some friends to commit to trading nights out. It worked wonderfully, and we enjoyed the exchange for several years.

It took me a few years to figure this out, but I'll share it with you just in case you haven't yet discovered it: Your husband can't read your mind. For years, I thought sure my husband could. In fact, I'd often help him along with some body language and a few nonverbal hints, but he just wouldn't get it. I learned I had to state clearly what I needed and ask for help when necessary.

Elisa Morgan, author of What Every Mom Needs, puts it this way: "We have to learn to help ourselves. We have to learn to ask directly, by using words. No one can read your mind. No one is going to waltz in, recognize your predicament and save you."

Know yourself

I learned several years ago that I respond to specific external factors when it comes to stress management. For instance, I love muted lighting. It causes me to feel warm and relaxed. Even more than that, I love candles — especially sugar cookie–scented candles. Their glow and aroma seem to reduce my stress. I also love quiet. I don't want the radio playing or the TV running for no reason.

What do you like? What calms you? What kind of atmosphere is beneficial to you? Know those things about yourself and make them happen as often as possible. These are small but effective ways to take care of yourself.

I once did a call-in radio show called Midday Connection with Andrea Fabrey. As we talked about the profession of motherhood, a young mother called in. She shared that she was very tired and felt both emotionally and physically depleted. She said the baby slept several times during the day, but she felt she needed to work hard during those nap times. She stated this would "earn her keep" for staying home. She felt guilty taking a nap. I asked her if she needed permission to take a nap. Did she need someone to tell her that taking a nap was a perfectly acceptable way of taking care of herself so she could take care of her family? She said she had never thought about that. I told her, "I give you permission to take a nap. Do it for yourself, do it for your husband, do it for your baby." We need to know ourselves, our needs and our limitations. Then we need to adjust our lives to take care of ourselves.

Maybe you're doing a great job of taking care of yourself. If so, wonderful! But my interaction with women tells me that we don't routinely do a good job of taking care of ourselves. In fact, most of the time we wait until we've crashed, either emotionally or physically. Or we wait until we blow our tops. Or we just plain old wait until our tanks are empty and we have nothing left to give to our husbands and children.

As you begin taking care of yourself, you'll be amazed at the change in energy, attitude and effectiveness you'll experience. Most important, your job satisfaction will soar to new levels.

The career of motherhood is very demanding. The work is worth it, but it necessitates knowing ourselves, setting boundaries and taking care of our minds and our bodies. As we grow in our career of motherhood, we must respect the unique needs of this particular profession.

We must excel at caring for ourselves. To do this effectively, we need to learn about the person who wants to take care of us.

Our Source of Strength

All the things we've talked about are very important, but if we neglect the one who truly can meet our needs, we will always be looking for more. We must understand our value in Christ. Taking care of a family involves mundane chores. It is repetitive work. And it is exhausting. But God's Word is designed to fill us up. God wants to give us rest. He wants us to pull up to his pump and fill our tanks by being in relationship with him. He wants to encourage us with his Word.

When it comes to taking care of yourself, God says, "I want to take care of you. Will you let me? Will you grow to know me more? Will you let me share life with you? Will you let me into your world?" Understanding our worth in Christ is the most important part of taking care of ourselves. He is the Ultimate Filling Station. He will help us keep balance in our lives. He loves us unconditionally.

Personal Reflection

Take this quiz to help you evaluate how well you are taking care of yourself. Use this scale to determine your answers:

5 (all of the time), 4 (often), 3 (some of the time), 2 (not very often), 1 (never)

____ I get a physical, including a breast exam and pap smear, every year.

____ I eat a well-balanced diet and drink plenty of water.

____ I know what activities fuel me and I participate in them regularly.

____ I know how to say no, and I'm careful about my commitments outside the home.

____ I ask my husband and children for help.

If your score is

20–25 — Good job! You really know how to take care of yourself!

15–19 — You have some good habits in place, but keep working to better care for your needs.

10–14 — It's time to take your physical and emotional needs seriously. Make some changes today, before it's too late.

5–9 — You are on the way to burnout. Go back and reread this article series, and make new goals to reflect care for your physical and emotional needs. It's possible that you're not enjoying the profession of motherhood very much. As you make positive changes to care for yourself, you will find that your job satisfaction will increase over time.

Write a mission statement for yourself. Use these questions to help you determine your statement:

  • When I leave this earth, what legacy do I want to leave?
  • Where do I want to have made a difference?

List the people and activities in your life in order of most important to least important.

  • Does your current time and energy expenditure reflect your priority list?

Identify three ways you can make adjustments in how you spend your time to better reflect your priorities.

Are there any volunteer activities you need to let someone else do to bring more balance to your life? List those here and begin the resignation process this week.

Identify two of the twelve points in the "Learning to Say No" article that you want to remember in the future. Share them with a friend and ask her to hold you accountable.


Taken from Professionalizing Motherhood by Jill Savage. Copyright © 2001 by Jill Savage. Used by permission of Zondervan.