Parenting and Health: How This Busy Mom Got Fit
One of the biggest struggles when it comes to leading a healthier lifestyle is doing it while having kids. Kids, as much as we love them, can be pretty demanding when it comes to our time, energy and resources. Basically, Heifers, they can suck us dry: of our physical energy, of our emotional reserves, of our actual cash….the list goes on. Now, it’s not all bad news, of course. Kids obviously add a huge amount to our lives: of love, positive energy and a sense of belonging and purpose. But this article isn’t about the sweet side of parenting; it’s about how the heck to get in shape or stay in shape when so much of the pie (PIE?!!) is going in their direction.
I have four kids. Four. Yeah, so, there’s a lot of juggling that goes on with that. As any parent knows, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the work involved in keeping these kiddos happy and healthy. There's always something else to do - always another crisis, real or imagined. There is always another load of laundry, music lesson, parent/teacher meeting….The list goes on.
For many years, my entire life revolved around these activities and my duty to be the best parent I could possibly be. I wanted my kids to have the stability, love and nurturing I didn’t always get when I was a kid, so I pushed pretty hard to always be there for my kids, to always make them the priority and to always meet their needs.
Heifers, that’s a lot of always.
What happened isn’t surprising. The neglect I felt as a kid (never being the priority) just kind of extended into adult life for me. The only time I felt I was a priority was with my husband, but with four kids to manage, even that sometimes got lost. I looked at myself at the age of 40 and realized that by making everyone else a priority and by wanting everyone else to be taken care of, I’d totally neglected myself.
I’m sure this isn’t a surprise for any parent out there. I think it’s probably hard-wired in all of us to protect and care for our kids before ourselves, like mama-bear DNA or something. I like to think of myself as a badass mama tiger, even if I’m rolling through the African desert in a minivan, making Costco runs instead of taking down a small herd of antelope.
But you get the drift. I put myself second, third, fourth and dead-last so many times I was a shell of person by the time mid-life hit.
Here’s the thing, though. Nobody was going to change that but me. Nobody was going to magically make me a priority and fix all of my problems and love me the way I should have been loved as a kid. Nobody could make up for the crappy years I spent flip-flopping between parents and living with my mother’s dead-beat boyfriends. Nobody could erase the pain of being the fat kid in school or the fact that I suffered abuse as a teenager. Even my adult choices weren’t going to get better because nobody else was going to wave a magic wand and deem me worthy.
Shockingly, I had to do that for myself. I don’t know that I had a big ah-ha moment or anything. I didn’t really look in the mirror one day and say to myself: Melissa, you deserve better, heifer. But I did think, one day, that I was sick of being fat. I did think I was sick of being lethargic. I did think that maybe Mountain Dew and Dominos weren’t actually turning out to be the best friends I’d always hoped for. So, I did something….as you all know….and I lost weight and started running and joined a gym and then went to the gym and I changed it all up.
And I did all of that with four kids and the husband and a couple of crazy dogs and work and travel and life.
I know we all struggle to balance personal health with family life. I know a lot of people with weight issues struggle with feelings of worthiness, and that’s often played out by ignoring our own needs. But that’s what gets you to age 40 and 110 pounds of extra weight and panting after running half-a-block.
Today, I still love my kids. I still make them a priority. But I also make myself a priority. I realized, finally, that I can have more than one priority, and I realized that by making myself a priority, I was actually showing my kids how much I love not just myself but them as well.
So, how did I go from never exercising and eating like a teenager with a tapeworm to running regularly, eating healthfully and mindfully, and maintaining it all for five years?
I started with my attitude. I stopped viewing self-care as a luxury. I stopped seeing everyone else’s needs as more important than my own. I stopped thinking of my health as something I could focus on when everything else got done, because there was no end to everything else that needed to get done.
So, I decided to adjust my attitude and realized that my own health wasn’t optional and couldn’t wait. This is key: Without the proper attitude, no amount of willpower or desire will work. If I hadn’t changed my attitude and really let those ideas sink in, I would have given up after a few weeks, like I’d done so many times before.
How we behave is a direct result of what we believe, so I started believing I was worth the time and effort necessary to run a few miles and make better choices at dinner and forgo the evening cookie binge. And interestingly, the more I believed it, the easier it was the act on it. And the more I acted on it, the easier it was to believe it. Part of adjusting my attitude was realizing the direct impact taking care of myself would have on my kids. I would have more energy, both physical and mental. I’d set a better example for my kids, realizing that if I wanted them to be healthy adults when they grew up, I had to set that example for them now. I adjusted what it meant to be a ‘good’ mother, which didn’t mean throwing myself under the bus. And yes, my therapist gets paid quite well.
I tackled the issue of food before anything else. I didn’t go on a diet and hit the gym all in one day, and I think this is an important point to remember when our resources are depleted (from managing a family or a chronic illness or any other life-changing event). I didn’t try to do it all at once. I started eating food that was best for me, not for anyone else, including a house full of tiny bodies with crazy metabolisms. I stopped using food to manage the stress of motherhood, which was huge.
Having kids can be super stressful. I would often feel frazzled, exhausted and on-edge after dealing with kids all day long and then soothe myself with snacks after they’d gone to bed. I learned other coping mechanisms and recognized when I was eating for the wrong reasons. Just being aware of what I was doing was a huge help. I’d never really put together the fact that I used food to deal with the struggles of parenting, and that was a glowing LED light bulb moment for me.
Finally, I added consistent exercise to my daily schedule. This, Heifers, was probably the hardest part of getting healthy while being a parent. There just isn’t enough TIME to get everything done. I had to make some hard choices. I couldn’t shirk my duties as a mom, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to not be there for my kids when they got out of school or to tell them they couldn’t participate in activities because I was off at the gym. So, I had to figure out where that time was going to come from, and I had to find a way to do that consistently.
It wasn’t going to work if I could only work out on a weekend morning. That wasn’t going to get me the results I was looking for. And I had too much going on during the week to just book a few hours mid-day to fit in a workout or a gym session. So, I looked hard at my schedule and saw that I had a bunch of hours in the evening that could be better spent. The next problem? I didn’t want to work out in the evenings, getting myself all riled up before bed and then not able to sleep well.
So, I decided to use those evening hours for quality sleep and to schedule my workouts for the mornings. It worked. I am still able to fit in runs, gym workouts, strength training and stretching all before my kids wake up and we have to hit the ground running. This means I sacrifice late dinners, trash TV and all the other good stuff that happens between the hours of 8PM and 3AM. This works for me and has really helped me to develop and maintain a really consistent, long-term fitness program.
I’ve done all of this while raising kids. I’m not saying I’m SuperMom, by any stretch. And I guess the jury is still out on whether I’m raising these kids up right or if I’ll be visiting them in a striped jumpsuit ten years from now (DISCLAIMER: I'M KIDDING, I'M KIDDING!)….but I get to enjoy parenting and motherhood more now than I did before because I just enjoy myself more. I feel better about myself inside and out.
I have more energy. I feel more confident. I feel pretty damn good about setting an example for my kids that I can be proud of. I feel good that I work hard at keeping myself fit, and I enjoy the time I do have with my kids because I’m not carrying around so much extra weight, both literally and figuratively.
So, Heifers, if anyone is struggling with balancing parenting and healthy living, here are a few questions to ask yourself as you begin working toward a stable weight, a consistent workout program or just not feeling so dog-tired all day long:
For me, the best answers come from the best questions. When I sit down and really ask myself what's going on and how I can fix it, I find myself taking action and making better choices. This is especially important as a parent. It’s easy to get lost in the world of motherhood. It’s easy to think everyone else’s needs come first. But what I’ve tried to remember is that without a healthy mother, my kids get second best in their time and relationship with me.
And nobody wins in that scenario.