One morning I woke up well before I thought my kids would rise. I kissed my husband goodbye as he left for an early day for his job at the hospital. Then, I worked out, got ready for the day, and started breakfast. I cracked eggs — some for me and some for the kids. I toasted bread. I cut fruit. I saved portions for each child. I kept the fruit chilled and the eggs warmed as I chopped fresh pita bread. I worked quickly, knowing I could be interrupted at any moment.
A few minutes later, finding myself still alone, I poured myself a cup of coffee. I placed a fork on my full plate, and just as I was ready to take my first bite, I heard it: the telltale cries of my toddler who was awake and needed my help. I did some quick mental calculations. On the one hand, I could hastily wolf down my meal before going up to get him. On the other, I could quickly scoop him up, bring him down and get him settled with his breakfast so I could eat before his siblings woke up.
His calls grew louder, so I quickly decided on the latter. I’d get him settled and then eat. But moments after I plucked my son from his crib, I heard another familiar call coming from his twin sister’s room. A few seconds later, my oldest son appeared. “Mom, why didn’t you wake me up?”
As I tackled the morning routine, helping my kids get washed and fed, I felt my stomach rumble. I thought of my breakfast on the counter — cold eggs and now soggy pita. Lukewarm coffee. To hold me over, I quickly grabbed a protein bar and a can of Diet Coke, which I guzzled one-handed while navigating the needs of my 4-year-old and twin 1-year-olds.
It’s a familiar dance I’ve come to know as a mom of three, but I didn’t always get it.
Before I became a mother, I never understood when parents complained about being unable to eat well. As someone who had spent her entire adult life staying active and trying to eat healthy, I just didn’t get it. I’d hear about moms eating the leftover chicken nuggets and grilled cheese crusts off their kids’ dinner plates and I’d roll my eyes. “No willpower,” I’d think.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand the phenomenon too well as a mom of one either. Sure, in the early months of being a first-time mom, I struggled to find time to eat a decent meal unless my husband was home to cook. Like many new moms, my early days as a mother were spent glued to the couch with a new baby who ate around the clock, and without recollection of when I last fed myself. However, I eventually got into a groove with meal planning and fitness.
That all changed when I had twins.
Almost 18 months ago, my husband and I officially became outnumbered. Having twins threw most of our previous routine out the window.
And now? I get it.
I understand that nourishing yourself can often take a backseat to nourishing the little ones in your care. I now know that it sometimes doesn’t matter how early you woke up, how far in advance you planned your meal, or how quickly you tried to consume it — sometimes your needs just have to wait.
Sometimes motherhood means watching your food get cold as you help your children with their meal.
Sometimes it means your kids literally snatching the healthy snack right of your hand as you eat it.
Sometimes it means shoveling fudge-covered Oreos into your face at seven in the morning because your stomach is about to eat itself and you won’t get a hot meal for another two hours.
Because that’s the other side of this story. Parents might struggle to get a decent meal, but the kids still eat like royalty. We prioritize our children’s nutritional needs, even as our own stomachs go empty.
We all want the best for our children and sometimes that means giving them the last banana in the house because it’s their favorite food. It means chopping up grapes and strawberries, boiling pasta, pureeing vegetables, cooking their favorite chicken nuggets just right and placing them ever so perfectly on their favorite plate despite the fact that your burrito still sits frozen in the microwave.
Yet a lot of people still don’t get it.
As a writer with a platform in the online parenting sphere, I’ve discovered that a lot of people still don’t understand this phenomenon. They’ll read that you didn’t have time for a solid breakfast or that you ordered takeout for lunch (again) and they’ll suggest meal planning and various other hacks intended to help solve your problem. Oftentimes, though, these “solutions” are easier in theory than in practice.
The problem isn’t having healthy food conveniently available. It’s having the convenience to focus exclusively on yourself long enough to eat it.
It’s experiencing the chronic exhaustion that comes with parenting littles and finding something , anything, that helps keep you afloat even if it doesn’t fit some expert’s definition of health.
Some days it’s easier.
As my kids get a little older and a little more independent, I find myself having the full five minutes it takes to eat breakfast or lunch before it gets cold. As we’ve all started to sleep a little better and feel a little more rested, I’ve become less reliant on the need for a quick sugar rush and caffeine boost to get through my mornings. I’ve started to feel more like myself and better able to manage my children’s conflicting needs and my competing responsibilities.
Still, I feel zero guilt for the days I’ve struggled to fit myself in. I understand now that it’s not a lack of willpower that makes it difficult for parents to prioritize themselves.
To the contrary, parents are working harder than they’ve ever worked — especially in those extremely early, extremely needy, extremely demanding years. Sometimes you survive on Diet Coke and Oreos. If that’s what gets you through those long, selfless years, then that is your business.
There are many times I put my own needs after my kids. However, there are some ways I put myself first, so that I can be a healthy, happy role model for my kids. For me, self-care means getting fresh air with my kids and taking time to laugh each day despite the challenges. It means exercising daily because it helps keep me centered. It means getting dressed every morning, establishing a skincare routine, and putting on makeup since that too helps me feel together and organized — even if my freshly washed hair ends up in a wet bun for most of the day.
But like most people (and especially most parents), I can’t always get everything that I want — and sometimes that includes enjoying a hot, uninterrupted meal. Sometimes motherhood means surviving on scraps of sanity and scraps of sandwiches — and that’s okay.