Perusing the Internet, particularly in the wellness community, you will bump into oodles of declarations about the importance of getting enough sleep. You'll also find a wealth of articles shouting out the amazing benefits of getting up early, particularly for mothers: Set your alarm, they say, for well before your children wake. Enjoy the gentle music of the birds as you sip on your cup of tea. Center your thoughts and fortify your emotional response with 20 minutes of seated meditation. Then take time for your intellectual and creative pursuits – write, draw, sew, or get some much-needed work done. Once the children wake, you will be ready to greet them with the renewed energy and satisfaction of a mother whose own cup has been lovingly and luxuriously filled!
Then, suddenly, the chorus of soaring violins gives way to the scratching of the record, punctuated by a yearning call, “Mamaaaaa!” from down the hall. It's 5:30 AM, and the hot water you put on for your tea hasn't even started boiling yet. The resentment builds as your internal record player cues U2's “Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.” Self-care thwarted. Again.
I remember happening upon a month-long program to encourage mothers commit to getting up early, helping them design a nourishing morning routine. I'm soooo in, I thought. This is what I need! Surely there will be tips in this program to find that much-coveted mental renewal! As I got to the bottom of the page describing the benefits of the program, and just as I was ready to type in my email address to sign up, I saw a disclaimer. **This program is not for mothers who are still breastfeeding. ** Oh. Duh. But please do tell, how am I supposed to survive and thrive as a mother if I have to put off self-care for the next, say, eight years?
I have always had early-to-rise children; children who either start nursing in their sleep at 5:30 a.m., or who, after weaning, leap out of bed at 6 a.m. and sprint to wherever I may be (if I had managed to wiggle out of my nursing toddler's super-glued morning latch.) Despite my nearly eight-year reality of co-sleeping with nursing babies and early risers, I have managed to come up with a few ways to fulfill my morning requirement for mental space. And yes, this is a morning requirement. I just can't put off my self-care until after my kids go to bed. (Most nights I fall asleep when they do, if I'm being honest.) As a highly sensitive introvert, I am left with few emotional resources for the day if I don't fill my cup properly in the morning. If you're like me, and need some alone time to be your most refreshed, present mama-self, here are a few tips:
If you're nursing a little one or co-sleeping with a child who has a built-in body heat detector that sets off an alarm as soon as you (oh so gingerly) disentangle yourself from child limbs and creep out of bed, embrace your spot in that bed. Who says you have to get out of bed to have some quality time with yourself? I sleep within arm's reach of my charged phone, already attached to a pair of ear buds, and as soon as I begin to stir, I reach for it. Here's the catch – if end up checking my email or looking at social media, I don't feel refreshed. I feel like I've wasted my time. I might even end up feeling like my life is a dull gray facsimile of the vibrant, trouble-free images I see there.
So here's what I do – the night before, I make sure I've downloaded a guided meditation or inspirational podcast (I love Squam's Morning on the Dock. I also really enjoy The Homeschool Sisters or listening to anything from Julie, my homeschooling guru.
My morning go-to is a lovingkindness meditation that I recorded for mothers, which I've made available in my side bar. I think of it like breakfast in bed. Sure, breakfast at a table is swell, but it feels downright luxurious in bed. Same goes with meditation or alone time. Who says you have to sit with your spine perfectly aligned to experience the calming benefits of a meditation practice? Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good. I'm going to meditate while lying down as long as I can!
Make a small play space near where you would like to have your self-care time. I work out in my bedroom (which is minimally decorated and tends to stay cleaner than the rest of the house.) We have a small house, but our bedroom had an uncharacteristically large walk-in closet (um, I've owned the same two pairs of boots for the past 15 years …). I didn't need a walk-in closet. But I did need an area where my little ones could play while I worked out in my bedroom upstairs! So I took out the IKEA shelving, attached it to a free wall in my bedroom, and set up a small play area near the dormer window.
This is where we keep all of the kids' toys. Downstairs, where we spend most of our time during the day, they have access to books, musical instruments, and all the art/tinkering supplies their little hearts could desire. So this time spent upstairs keeps their toys “fresh.”
They don't have many toys, and our house doesn't have any storage space for toy rotation, but here's what keeps my 2, 5, and 7 year-olds happily engaged in play: Magnatiles (Best. Purchase. Ever.), a handy swoop bag filled with Lego, dolls and dollhouse, little figures, trains, cars, blocks and a marble run. **
Use the morning activity trick, if you don't have the space for a small play area. If I feel on top of my game the night before (never a guarantee!) I will set up a parent-free activity on the art table. This is what they call a “provocation” in the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Think loose parts, open-ended art invitations, and natural materials. I compiled a bunch of ideas on my Pinterest board. Some of these kinds of activities have kept my kids busy for a loooong time. Others fall short. But it's worth a try, knowing that you might be gifted a few un-needed morning moments in which to gather your thoughts. Alternatively, you could keep most of the toys in a closet and just bring out one or two at a time, again, to keep it interesting and fresh.
Lean on your partner. I'm pretty lucky in this respect. Patrick starts work at 9 AM and has a zero minute commute. I know. Decadent. I cringe when I hear about significant others who have to leave for work before the kids even get up. I just … gosh. Let me give you a hug. (( )) OK. For those of you who are lucky like me, PLEASE, don't assume you need to be available whenever the kids are awake. Even though things may be a smidge chaotic with Mama out of commission, don't let the quest for the perfect morning experience for your kids get in the way of a better morning routine for Mama. At least in my house, if I'm not on top of my game, things fall apart pretty much instantly. So let them falter. Your partner needs alone time with the kids, too. I tell myself that I can't meddle in their relationship. It's theirs to grow.
For a good long time now, I have been saying good morning to my little loves, chatting with them while doing the laundry for about ten minutes or until Daddy wakes, then changing into my workout clothes and doing a workout video (I love Barre3). It only takes me 30-40 minutes, and sometimes I end up breastfeeding a toddler while doing core work or having three short-lived workout buddies, but most of the time they either play quietly in their upstairs play space or forget I'm upstairs and go about their morning with Daddy. When I fit in a workout first thing, I'm doing three things:
• I'm modeling healthy living and self-love to my children.
• I'm getting some healthy momentum going first thing – not surprisingly, when I work out, I'm much more likely to drink a big glass of water and fix myself a nutritious smoothie for breakfast than eat something heavy like pancakes or french toast. I feel better about my choices and choices I make give me more energy. Win-win.
• I'm releasing stress and increasing oxygenation which will leave my body energized and my mind clear. I'm much more emotionally and physically equipped to handles the everyday rigors of parenting.
Do you have any other tips for carving out mental space for yourself in the morning? Please leave a comment so others can find strategies that work best for their families!
**This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for supporting my writing and our family! Also, the photos are from a lovely family photo session with my friend Jessi!