Self-Care: Never Lose Your Spark!

When my children were young, my commute home each day took me through a gorgeous wooded ridgetop with panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay. There are portions of this road with lavishly sweeping curves, extremely steep descents, and no barriers.

During one hurried drive home, I got a call from my son’s school telling me he tried to leave campus and walk home, and was now refusing to get up from the floor of the office. I was told with no uncertainty that they weren’t sure they wanted “this type of responsibility” anymore. My anxiety consumed me as I drove, each thought more frightening than the last. My stream of thought took me from:

What if he’s no longer allowed to attend our full-inclusion elementary school? How can I prevent them from forcing him into a special day class? How will this affect his brother and sister? Will Teddy ever get married? Will I be able to afford college, for any of my children? Will I ever get a full night’s sleep? What will happen to Teddy when I die?

How can I continue to endure this life when I’m not brave enough to handle it?

So many fears. So many questions. But what I did know for sure was for that split second, I no longer wanted to live.

In my mind’s eye I could see it all. Forcefully edging the car against the road until I couldn’t feel the earth below it. The car flipping and toppling over the mountain, once and twice and three times. My lifeless head hitting the steering wheel with a violent and abrupt thump. All slow motion but in motion nonetheless. My eyes open, blood escaping my mouth. And the chaos that would follow. Bikers stopping, frantically searching for their cell phones. Picnickers grabbing their children in horror, covering their eyes. Pandamonium.

That split second in time was “hitting rock bottom” for me. Something needed to change. My kids needed their mom – not the way I was at that moment, but my best and most healthy version. I needed to start taking better care of myself.

It was starting to become evident that self-care was essential to my survival.

Giving myself permission was the hardest part. Like many moms, I felt guilty and selfish taking time away from my children’s needs to put any into my own. It’s a difficult task to do with typically-developing kids, but knowing there was a special needs child in the mix made it a strain of a different magnitude. But it was too risky not to.

Over the years, I have found that implementing the following 5 self-care practices has not only been beneficial to my overall health, but has also made me a better wife and mother*:

1. Reclaim Your Passion, Rekindle Your Spark

If my fantasy of driving over a cliff wasn’t rock bottom, looking in the mirror afterward was. My God, what the hell was I wearing? Gap khakis and a turtleneck? Flats? Whoever that was, it most definitely wasn’t me. Sometimes it takes good old vanity to point you in the right direction!

An Appreciation of Aesthetics:  At a very young age, my dad instilled in me a great admiration for beautiful clothes. He himself is the best-dressed man I’ve ever known, and our Sunday trips to Saks Fifth Avenue was a case study in what was trendsetting, unique, and beautiful. I loved the colors and textures, the accents and craftsmanship. Those shopping trips fueled what is now an obsession.

Personal Expression: Rachel Zoe said, “style is a way to say who you are without having to speak”. Like any beautiful art form, fashion has been a way for me to exert my creativity. Each outfit is a form of self-expression, which is a celebration of my individuality. And with individuality comes independence and freedom. It’s amazing how something so fleetingly abstract has the power to shape identities.

An Escape:  I have always thought of fashion as my own little secret world, and have been drawn to it as a means to escape my often tedious reality. Thinking about the latest featherly accents or citrus hue transports me into a fantasy world that doesn’t know or understand politics, natural disasters, or autism.

A Little White Lie:  We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it until you make it”. There is actually science behind this concept. It turns out that simply by imitating confidence and a positive mindset, we can often adopt those qualities into our lives. And it makes sense, too. How could anyone ever guess I was in the throes of depression and felt like I was losing my mind when I’m wearing Stuart Weitzman heels and carrying my new Gucci purse? I can portray whatever I want to the world by the outfit I’m wearing, including confidence and self-esteem, even in the darkest moments. It’s both who I am and who I wish to be.

The Fashion Snowball Effect: When you look your best, you feel your best ➳ When you feel your best, you have a more positive outlook on life ➳ When you have a more positive outlook on life, you perform better in your daily life… See where I’m going with this? But you don’t have to take my word for it. Researchers at Northwestern University have found that the clothing we wear affects both our psychological states and our performance levels. There’s even a word for this phenomenon – enclothed cognition.

It was starting to become evident that self-care was essential to my survival.

2. “Me Time”

Time spent relaxing alone is an opportunity to recharge and reset, and is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. For me personally, it has been essential in making me a more productive and self-aware person, as well as a present mother. It has also brought me back to my passion (see #1).  

As moms, we often prioritize everyone else’ needs above our own, and often diminish the need for “me time” because we fear it will take time away from our children. When you have a special needs child, it can feel particularly selfish. But it’s not selfish. It’s selfless.

The point of “me time” is more about the time set aside for yourself than about the activity. What you choose to do is very personal, but here are the ways that I take time to care for myself:

Spend Time Each Morning Getting Ready:  Putting on makeup and doing my hair each morning is not solely about vanity. The true value I find in this is the way it makes me feel. It also goes back to my appreciation of aesthetics. My favorite Tom Ford Eye Color Quad and Hourglass Highlighting Palette excite me, not to mention how I feel about my favorite red lipsticks! And, there’s nothing better than Tarte’s Shape Tape Concealer to hide the fact that I didn’t sleep the night before. After taking the time for myself each morning, I am able to face the day with a renewed sense of self and the confidence I need to face the day for all it will surely hold.

Netflix and Chill:  When I want to turn off the noise in my head, I often turn on the TV. Love it or hate it, it is a way to temporarily forget all that’s currently overflowing on our plate. I incorporate my love for watching TV by turning it on when I take a bath. I fill up the bathtub with Epson or Himalayan salt, essential oils (lavender is great to aid in relaxation), and a few healing crystals, like amethyst or rose quartz. Then I turn off the lights in the bathroom, light my Anthropologie candles, and watch without guilt. Killing two birds with one stone!

Pamper Yourself Periodically: There’s no better way to recharge and rejuvenate than pampering yourself once in a while. This can be done in your very own bathroom, with an at-home spa day (there’s a whole board of ideas on my Pinterest!) To take relaxation to the next level, you can also visit a spa. Since spa etiquette mandates that your treatment be sans phone, it is the perfect opportunity to turn off all external stimuli and look inward. Most spas are wellness based and can revitalize you from the inside out. Case in point: Massages can improve blood circulation, which sends more oxygen and nutrients through the body. Facials can stimulate the lymphatic system, which rids the body of toxins. Body exfoliating treatments polish the skin, which promotes cell regeneration. So, if you needed a reason to book a spa date, there’s 3!

Read a (Non-Parenting) Book: I’ve spoken a lot about my need for an escape, and books provide that perfectly. Reading allows you to leave your current reality behind momentarily by pulling you into a new world much different than your own. Each story is an all-new journey you get to go on. Books are portable, too. Keep one in your car for when you are waiting in the school pick-up line, or do what I do, and download one on your iPhone. That way, even when you’re in a too-long bank line, you have access to your own personal getaway. Here are a few of my current favorites: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz, Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.

3. Healthy Living

Michelle Obama said, “When I get up and workout, I’m working out just as much for my girls as I am for me, because I want them to see a mother who loves them dearly, who invests in them, but who also invests in herself. It’s just as much about letting them know as young women that it is OK to put yourself a little higher on your priority list.”

Who better than the former first lady to remind us that, for the good of both ourselves and our children, we must invest in our overall health? In order to have a balanced life and the ability to face all of our daily challenges, it’s essential that we nurture our mind, body, and spirit.

Here are the simple ways that I incorporate health into my everyday lifestyle:

Mediterranean Diet: The first reason to love this eating philosophy is that it does not cut out entire food groups like most fad diets do. In general, the Mediterranean Diet emphasizes whole foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats. Other lean forms of protein are also allowed, along with red wine, dark chocolate, and a moderate consumption of alcohol. I love this approach to eating for what it also emphasizes – taking time to enjoy your food and eating with family and loved ones. Take it from me, I’ve been on a diet of some sort or another since I was 9 years old… skip the fads, ditch the restrictions, and start eating one of the healthiest diets in the world.

That Being Said… Indulge Once In a While!: Life is all about balance, and that’s true for our eating plans, as well. I, personally, sometimes want a gallon of margaritas, a bucket of fries, and a cupcake. When that urge hits, I (responsibly) indulge. Knowing that doing so occasionally is ok, it’s easier for me to stay focused on healthy eating most days of the week.

Yoga:  The benefits of yoga are far-reaching. The physical benefits include improving your flexibility, building muscle strength, protecting your posture, increasing blood flow, and boosting immunity. But yoga does more than that. It can have a profound effect on your mental health as well, by promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and reminding us to simply breathe.

I have reclaimed my life.

4. Be Kind

In a world that values Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” philosophy, being kind sometimes requires courage and strength. We are wired to look out for ourselves, but that can sometimes come at the expense of the way we treat others.

Being kind is a choice in a society that seems to want to tear you down and eat you up.

Can you remember the last time you showed kindness to someone? Now try to remember how good that made you feel. With that in mind, you can remain steadfast in your resolve to be kind in an unkind world. And remember, you get what you give.

Simple ways that I try to practice kindness include:

  • Smiling at strangers as I walk by
  • Listening to a friend’s woes
  • Offering a hug to someone who needs it
  • Saying please and thank you
  • Holding the door open for others
  • Complimenting someone
  • Allowing someone to go ahead of me in line

Kindness does not require any hard work. And, helping others has the added benefit of being good for our own mental health and well-being.  

It costs so little, but you gain so much.

5. Connect With (Non-Toxic) Loved Ones

When you really think about it, no matter how much we love our family, it’s easy to sometimes take them for granted. It often takes mindfulness to stop and remember how blessed we really are.

It’s easy to become lost in our own thoughts, feelings, daily tasks, and worries, that we often forget that we are innately social creatures. Even more important than the need for personal success is our need to connect, to love, and to be loved.

Dr. Brene Brown, a well-respected specialist in the area of social connection, said “a deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” Her work reminds us how powerful it is to establish deeper connections with others, and that the end result can be a better understanding of ourselves.

These are the two main ways I try to honor the importance of connection:

Schedule Quality Time: Life moves fast, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with our to-do lists. Finding quality time to spend with loved ones often doesn’t take priority in the midst of the chaos. It is our challenge to find ways to make it happen.

My autistic son loves catching Pokémon. In fact, love is not strong enough of a word, and to say it’s a passion is a grave understatement. There’s nothing more joyful for him than playing Pokémon GO. This hobby often requires my participation, as there are many events in the game that need to be driven to. After a hectic day of working, driving kids around to their many activities, and thinking about how long the list of things I haven’t done keeps getting, the last thing I want to do is drive through commute traffic to find a darn Pokémon! But knowing how important it is to my son compels me to schedule the time for his favorite activity. I usually block off a few hours on a Saturday, and we have quality time together to connect, go out to lunch, and most importantly, catch Pokémon.

Scheduling a “date night” with your significant other is an important way to show them that you value the relationship enough to put the required time and effort into it. I know first hand that relationships are hard work and need nurturing to survive. And, the divorce rate percentage of parents with autistic children is terrifyingly high. The stressors in parenting autistic children (in fact, children in general, typically-developing or not) can put a strain on a relationship. To counteract this, it takes concerted time and effort to strengthen the marital bond. Date nights can deepen communication, rekindle the romantic spark, and simply add some fun to our often mundane daily lives. I especially love it because there’s no better opportunity to show off a new outfit or one of my favorite red lipsticks!

Be Present: Being present with our loved ones makes them feel important and loved. But being present, however, is easier said than done. I find that if I take a few moments to focus, I am more capable of being mindful. Then I practice being present by simply turning off my phone’s volume, and really listening (without scrolling!) to what my loved one has to say. I ask them questions and show curiosity about their answers, but I stop myself from the urge to prematurely form a response. By doing this, it gives them the signal that they are the priority for that period of time. I won’t deny that giving my full and undivided attention can be hard for all of us who are people-watchers, and feel like we are the fashion police! But, doing so goes leaps and bounds towards deepening our relationships. While sometimes an arduous practice, being present opens us up to the bigger reward of love and emotional connections.

As moms, we often tend to put ourselves last in the name of sacrifice and love. But once we come to understand that water can’t be drawn from an empty well, we will begin to take self-care seriously.

There are all different forms of self-care, and the ones described above are just my versions. Find the ones that feel right to you. By regularly making myself a priority, I have found a marked improvement in not only my own personal, emotional, and physical health, but in that of my loved ones, as well. And I’m sure you will too.

I still drive through that same steep ridgetop from time to time. The difference now is that I have a renewed resolve not just to survive, but to flourish. I now keep my hands sternly on the wheel, never to indulge my fears again.

I have reclaimed my life.

The life of an autism mom can be crazy and unpredictable. It’s like standing on an earthquake fault line – you can never predict when the earth will decide to open up and swallow you whole.

And, like all of us who have lived through a quake and remained standing, we can take pride in our survival.

My regular practice of self-care has made me a better mother and wife, boosted my self-esteem, and brought me back to my passion – my spark.  

TBH, we are only given one spark in this life. I’m holding on to mine so it’ll burst into flames.