I was standing in the kitchen, making my dinner plate while everyone else had already started eating, and I asked myself, “Why am I always the last to eat in this family?” It wasn’t just this dinner moment that set me off into a whirlwind of questions about how I continuously come last in the set of priorities. No, it was countless other times I had brushed under the rug and made myself believe I was just doing what mothers do. But this moment in the kitchen was the last straw in terms of not putting myself first.
Why do we believe our wants, needs, and desires must come after everyone else’s for us to be a good mother and wife? Who decided a happy and healthy child and spouse were the only ways to be seen as stable, happy, and fulfilled? Why are we seen as “good” when we make sacrifices that often leave us stressed and burned out?
If I’m being honest, I’ve always been a people pleaser for as long as I can remember. I’m a Pisces, an empath, and an Enneagram Type 4. This means I care deeply about others, I take on the emotions and energies of those around me, and I have a hard time asking for help. I’ve seen this come true with my siblings, in relationships, and even at work. I am constantly asking about the needs of others and rarely think about my own. To some, this may seem selfless, caring, and sweet, but I am no longer interested in taking care of everyone else at the cost of losing myself.
Over the last six months, I have admitted to myself that I completely burned out. My mind is rarely calm and clear, sometimes my writing has to be forced rather than flowing so I can meet my deadlines at work, and I always feel like I’m rushing from one thing to the next. In the midst of all the rushing and the stress, I realized what I was missing the most were my own needs.
When was the last time I took a shower and didn’t rush it?
When did I last ask my husband to take over morning duty so that I could sleep in?
When was the last time I initiated sex on my terms and put my pleasure at the forefront?
When did I last let myself off the hook from my to-do list and join in on playtime with my son?
I am worthy of tending to and taking care of myself. It’s like what India Arie once said: “I’m worthy, I’m significant, and I matter but I exist. Period.”
And with that worthiness in mind, I decided to make small, actionable changes to consistently putting myself first. Here’s how:
1. Set my bare minimum non-negotiables
When I say that I was trying to put myself first more often, I’m not talking about going to a spa, getting my nails done, or going on a vacation. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, and I do enjoy them myself from time to time, but I needed to start with my simpler, more foundational needs before I could get there. To do that I needed to ask myself, “What are my bare minimum non-negotiables that need to happen every day to start on the right foot?”
For me, my non-negotiables were:
- Taking a non-rushed shower every single day
- Making my bed before I started work
- Doing the morning OR bedtime routine—not both
- Spending uninterrupted time with my son, phone-free, when he gets home from daycare
These were some of the most important parts of my day that I often didn’t get to because I was taking care of something or someone else. Each item on this list really did bring me joy and not having the opportunity to do them wore on me over time. But now that I know a few bare minimum things that would feel good, I had a place to start.
2. Communicated my struggles and needs to my husband
If there is one thing I can say for sure about my husband, it’s that once I communicate something to him, he will try his best to give it to me. Sometimes, it’s not always possible for him to do or I’m asking something of him that doesn’t come naturally. But when I told him about how often I come last in the family and how that was wearing on me physically, mentally, and emotionally, he was open to making it better.
For me to take a non-rushed shower every single day means my husband may need to get up a little earlier to help with my son’s breakfast. Or for me to not do both mornings and bedtime, means we had to decide who was tackling what. Like I said before, asking for help is not something I’m comfortable with, but doing so is definitely the lesser of two evils here.
3. Recognized and sat with the guilt
Yes, I absolutely needed to take care of myself more (and still do!), but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel any guilt when I did some of these things. When I put my needs first, sometimes that means I put some of my work or tasks on other people’s plates to get that done. I often feel guilty when I add to someone else’s day or have to say no to someone else’s needs.
To this day, the guilt hasn’t gone away, but I am learning to recognize when I feel guilty and ask myself if it’s worth it. I know that I can’t always come first, and that’s not my goal anyway. There will be times when the needs of others will have to come before my own—that’s just being a human being. On the other hand, if putting my needs first comes with a little bit of guilt, there are times where that price is worth the investment.
As of today, I don’t have it all figured out when it comes to prioritizing myself. There are weeks and months when I feel particularly more burned out and I can usually trace it back to this very issue. What I do know is that my needs matter and that how good of a mother I am will no longer be judged (by me or anyone else) by how many selfless sacrifices I make.