In 2013, I was at the peak of my career as a surgeon and was also running a well-known European digital health startup I had founded.
This may sound glamorous, but of course, it took a lot of hard work – something I’m sure you can relate to.
Our generation of women are encouraged to dream big, reach for the stars and a whole host of other sayings that sound so empowering, but in reality often come with a big, soul-crushing caveat: it only counts if you’re a self-made person.
I had all the trappings that come with success, including a beautiful loft in a “cool” European city, a busy social life, and distinguished boyfriends who had different priorities than me.
So despite a wonderful existence on paper, I was actually miserable inside. People around me assumed I was only focused on my busy life and had no interest in things like having a family, but I actually really wanted to have kids and find true emotional fulfillment.
It didn’t take long for me to develop several stress-related illnesses. It began with a bad case of rosacea that made my skin flare up; every time I looked my face in the mirror, my heart sank, my stomach tightened up with anxiety, and thoughts started racing in my head about how I'd better not let anyone see how ugly I had become.
None of the doctors and colleagues I saw was able to help me solve the problem, and some even made it worse by telling me I would never heal and in fact I would probably only get worse with time. I was desperate.
Meanwhile, I also developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), with symptoms so severe it landed me in the hospital.
It took hitting bottom, crippled by physical manifestations of overwhelming anxiety for me to give my life a good, hard examination. Mother Nature was telling me to slow my roll, and I finally had to heed her warning.
This was the beginning of my journey to health… and motherhood.
Today, four children later (more on that in a minute), life feels completely different – something I could never have fathomed a few years ago.
So now it’s become my mission to help other women like me crack the code of truly building a joyful, fulfilling, unapologetic life for themselves.
By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll have my secrets to radically transforming your life so you can be happier, healthier and more resilient.
- Reshaping your attachment style and learning how to choose relationships that make you thrive.
- Reprioritizing your daily life in light of the tsunami of emotional disruption and challenges that is an inevitable part of every mother’s journey from conception through… well, the rest of your life.
- Finding amazing emotional and spiritual guidance from the right mentors for you, and from there, building a network of support that truly holds you up when you need it most.
- Redefining how to take loving care of your body-mind connection, including proper nutrition, sleep, exercise, mindfulness and self-soothing techniques that really work.
- Defining clearly with your partner the kind of life you want for your family, and following through with your vision by holding a non-judgemental space to transform and evolve it.
- Taking the necessary steps to build a work life – and practical everyday arrangements – to make your vision possible.
Don’t worry that this will be too costly, time-consuming or difficult to achieve. Not only do I believe in you, but I’ve also started MamaDoctors.com as a free resource to support you on your journey as a woman and a mother.
And it’s my hope by sharing my real story, you’ll find the inspiration, compassion, and motivation necessary to start making your own health and well being a priority.
Today’s Motherhood is Not Your Mama’s Motherhood
Our moms came of age two, three or more decades before us when motherhood was a much different deal.
Mine was a part of the whole “Women’s Lib” movement of the 1970s, where women were just starting to take control of their bodies, careers, and personal development.
My mom was extremely passionate about being a teacher, and later an acclaimed writer of historical novels.
She had my sister and me a comfortable eight years apart and enjoyed the daily support of her mother, whose priority was to make her granddaughters the happiest, most loved kids in the world.
We literally made our grandma’s home our own, and my mom was able to navigate the waters as a working mom with the full support of a relatively traditional family structure.
My initiation into motherhood was much different.
As I mentioned, I hit my thirties knowing I wanted a family, but my partner didn’t share the same vision of the future.
To be honest, he was one of a string of older guys I dated that had different priorities than raising a family. In fact, nothing in my life seemed to support the idea of me “settling down” – we see that all the time with the way “working moms” and “at-home moms” are often drawn as two different beings.
Enter, stress-related illnesses, as I began to realize something had to give. Although I am a confident business person, I think deep down that financial stability – presumably what an older, more established partner might provide – was an unconscious force that was definitely driving something: my unhappiness. My old-school vision of what it takes to provide what’s TRULY needed for a family needed an overhaul.
And so my choice of the partner to have children with ended up being somewhat unconventional, and our relationship honestly took me by surprise.
While I had always gravitated to older, presumably more “stable” and “mature” guys, it was a younger man who proved to be the right partner for me: things like authenticity, a commitment to work as a team player, and an empathetic attitude to children were what made me confident to “settle down” with him.
We ended up having a baby girl, then twins (a boy and a girl), then another baby boy within 4.5 years.
As I was recovering from a difficult twin pregnancy and a second C-section in under two years, I found myself exclusively breastfeeding two newborns and taking care of a full-blown sleep regression in my 18-month-old toddler- and I literally thought, “there’s no way I’m going to make it.”
And why should I think I could make it through an assault on my body, mind, and spirit of that magnitude?
My experience trying to be Super Mama was the perfect example of the crazy-making aspects of modern motherhood, from grappling with fertility at an older age to the emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding and being patient with “ages and stages.” It’s time to get real with ourselves and each other.
Motherhood today is VERY different, and in many ways, even more, challenging from what even our mothers experienced not so long ago. The narrative of “balance”, so popular in our mainstream culture, needs to be totally redefined.
I’d say that elusive sweet spot isn’t so absolute – and it's more self-compassionate to see it simply as a continuum, a window of tolerance where you can still be functioning, and keep moving forward.
The emphasis should be on enjoying as much as you can of this life-changing, mind-blowing experience you’ve embarked on… to raise another human.
In this present moment.
Deciding on the next right step for you from that vantage point and not about what you wish you did then or hope to do in the future is the kind of self-compassion I’m talking about.
Because, hey – if there’s one thing I have learned from fellow moms who are further on along the journey – it’s that early childhood goes by so quickly.
And, it will be so important to be able to look back one day and know you’ve lived it to the fullest.
Just consider the realities we modern moms face:
- Too Much Information (TMI): The amount of knowledge we have today about how to grow healthy, decent human beings is enormous, and it grows every day. We literally have vast scientific evidence – something our parents didn’t have – those lifestyle choices we make about the nutrition, health, education, and emotional well being of our families will have a lifelong impact on our children. The landslide of information available online is enough to send anyone’s brain into serious overload. It’s just too much… even for a doctor like me!
- All the hats: We have therefore become the CMOs of our family, constantly making decisions about our “staff” – doctors and other health practitioners – to find the “perfect” advisors for our kids’ optimal health and well being. One misstep with a vaccine, medication, diagnosis, signs of emotional stress – and it can seem liked we’ve ruined our children’s life. Balance, schmalance; the crush of expectations and enormous responsibility causes its own kind of sickness.
- Relationships: As if this wasn’t enough, our expectations about our marriage or committed partnerships have taken on epic proportions, compared to previous generations’. Not only do we want all the things that our predecessors expected from a family – like security and respectability – but we also want to be erotically interested in our partner, be best friends and confidants… all the while equally sharing the burden of raising kids. On top of this, women today often are breadwinners or carry at least 50-percent of the financial load. Partners are expected to be supportive of each other’s careers, which is difficult to do when you have one or more small children in the house. Seriously, how can you achieve “balance” in your life with your partner with all the pressures of being “perfect” parents?
- New kinds of “families”: This has many different meanings, from who we choose as partners, to whom supports us and our kids. Our friends become family, just as babysitters and nannies do too because it really does take a village… and the village has been redefined to include people outside of the immediate family.
So as not to minimize our mothers’ journey as parents, I’ll say that one thing hasn’t changed: there has never been a one-size-fits-all solution.
The way forward has always been a personal journey of growth and learning, with steps forward and backward, and a lot of trial and error, falls and resurrections in between.
Redefining motherhood for modern families is something I am particularly interested in (hence, MamaDoctors.com!). It’s in large part what brought me to identify the following core transformative steps I have taken to improve my life to better support all members of my family – including me.
While it may not be your mama’s motherhood, it is yours – and you have the power to shape your experience as a mindful, modern mother who understands that having it all and doing it all are two separate things.
So, without further ado, these are the five hacks I have used to turn my life around and become a mindful mom:
Attachment Style: Stop Chasing Demons
If I had to pinpoint the single most transformative moment in my life, it would be one day, six years ago, which triggered the changes and events of the last five years.
As a diligent CEO, I was an avid reader of the best blogs in the tech startup scene, and this particular day I stumbled upon a post that ignited my radical self-examination.
It was a post by a business coach named Jerry Colonna – who later became a close friend and critical member of my network of support – which included the story of the Buddhist monk, Milarepa.
From that original post:
“One day,” begins a story re-told by Aura Glaser in the latest issue of Tricycle Magazine, “[the Buddhist saint] Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and upon his return, he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, ‘I have got to get rid of them!’ He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma.
‘If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go.’ So he takes his seat and begins… after a while, he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there. At this point, Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, ‘It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.’
“In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. ‘Eat me if you wish.’ He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.”
The post was written for business and leadership purposes, but these words resonated deep within me; after all, I was hurt, unhappy and did not understand why I was unable to build a relationship – and a life – that could be a source of peace rather than pain.
Like Milarepa, there were many demons in my cave, and I did not know how to get rid of them.
After reading this story, I started thinking about the way I had always addressed “issues” in my life.
They were always, “problems to be fixed, ” rather than clues that I needed to take a close look to see what lessons – and teachers – there were for me. The more fixing I tried to do, the more stubborn those issues became, just like Milarepa’s demons.
From that day on, I gradually changed my attitude to act more like an inquisitive child than a warrior who blindly rushes in and learns nothing from her victories and defeats.
This allowed me to be less judgemental of my achievements, and more compassionate and accepting of my failures.
Many demons disappeared with time, thanks to this new attitude.
But the biggest, fiercest beast at the core of my pain stubbornly remained there: my relationships failures, which repeated in the same pattern over and over.
The key realization – my “putting my head in the mouth of the demon,” aha moment – came with the realization that it was replicating the same pattern over and over, this meant that there was something within me that needed to change.
It was not a matter of “meeting the right one.” It was a matter of “becoming the right one.”
If I wanted to change the outcome of my intimate relationships, I had to address my attachment style and transform it.
Ever since this revelation, I’ve focused on reinventing my attachment style – it’s still an ongoing process! – with the help of advice from wise mentors and validated by clinical psychology research:
- Making sense of the past through the process of rewriting a coherent narrative can help you understand how childhood experiences are still affecting you today. This will, in turn, rewire your brain to cultivate more security within yourself and your relationships. My spiritual mentor helped me get started on this process, and the help of a therapist was also beneficial.
- Entering a therapeutic relationship not only offers you a secure relationship (by making you feel understood and seen), but it also can help you listen to your inner voice and recognize it, rather than totally identify yourself with it. I personally have tested different ways to create a therapeutic bond; some of them have worked more than others. Above all, the one with my spiritual mentor, a Buddhist teacher – who is also an expert in neuroscience and clinical psychology – has had an enormous impact on my growth as a human and more specifically, as a mother.
- Build a long-term, secure relationship with someone with a healthier style of attachment than your own. Studies prove that developing a long-term, secure relationship has the strongest impact of all methods in changing your attachment style. This is a case of chicken-egg problem: you don’t know if the secure relationship comes before or after you have changed your attachment style. What I can say in my case is that once I started making small changes in my life and developed more awareness of what needed to change, the relationship happened quite naturally on its own. This has helped me reinforce the new attachment style over and over.
In order to change your attachment style, you have to feel the full pain of your childhood. This may feel like an impossible task, and I understand how hard that can be – particularly if your own childhood was marked by abuse or other traumas, or even milder neglect.
But it’s been my experience as a doctor and also as a patient that many of us cling to the idea that we had the best childhood and parents in the world (or a milder variation of this).
We believe this is what makes us strong, and it’s at the very core of our identity. Yes, we might accept the idea that everyone has childhood issues – yourself included – but digging into that dark hole? That’s a different story.
Challenging this security and putting things into perspective means adjusting the lens through which you see the world. When you do so, you realize you have been unconsciously replicating your childhood over and over, creating similar attachments like the ones you experienced as a child.
But now that you have this awareness, you can build your relationships to be what you want them to be – healthier and thriving.
You can actually start living the life you imagined, not the one defined by your past!
Network of Support: Women Who Run With Wolves Really Need Their Pack
One of the many beneficial effects of working on my attachment style and starting on the path to transforming it was that I realized being strong didn’t mean being 100-percent self-reliant.
That’s not to say a healthy dose of resilience and independence is a problem, but if that’s all you have in your pocket, then you’re sure to come up short when things are particularly challenging.
We are pack creatures that truly thrive only when we leverage the power of connecting with others.
Actually, accepting my vulnerabilities and need for others has become a source of strength, whereas the old me would’ve seen it more as a liability! And on a practical level, it has saved my sanity on many occasions, including when I had to deal with two newborns and a toddler.
This openness to vulnerability hasn’t happened overnight, and it certainly would not have happened had I not developed a strong network of support.
Here’s what I learned about building a network of support that was truly helpful for me.
Your partner: Auntie Knows Best
The first and most important stop for your motherhood support network is your spouse or life partner. Sounds pretty obvious, no? Well, based on what I hear from fellow moms, apparently it isn’t.
Of all the things we demand in a relationship today – and all the things I myself had a hard time prioritizing in the past – the single most important one is this: does this person boost my power, or does he/she drain them? Is he/she a team player I can count on, or not?
If the answer is yes, then you are halfway to building an extraordinary support system.
If the answer is no, it’s time to reevaluate and possibly reinvent your primary relationship.
I know it because I have been that girl who invested countless hours and drained loads of emotional energy into trying to “cure” or otherwise survive a partner with major personal issues.
Keep in mind this was a pattern for me, so it wasn’t just one power-draining person in my past… there were a few =)
Hell, I didn’t even have children, and being in a committed relationship still drained the life out of me. Add three babies under the age of two, and… no, I can’t imagine – can you?
Back then, when my BFF Anita told me, “The most important thing you need to look for is for a team player,” I thought she had lost her edge. After becoming a mama of four boys – I mean, who wouldn’t, after all?
It sounded like my old auntie talking to me.
Well, guess what? I’m now that old auntie talking to you!
If you find yourself with a less-than-supportive partner, please listen to me: YOU DESERVE to be in a relationship with an emotionally sound, supportive person who sustains you.
NOT brings you down.
Let that sink in for a moment.
So now you have two options: either work things out with your current partner or if that’s not possible, find someone who can be your person.
This may sound easier said than done, but consider this: What seems harder to fathom, a lifetime with an unsupportive (or worse) partner or one with someone who truly is there for you?
Now, go from there.
Close friends and family: Go to Where the Love Is
Another vital part of my network of support is the crucial few people that I have an effortless closeness with, who can come to the rescue when I need to vent, aren’t afraid to speak up and help me stifle my inner critic, an always show up to lend a helping hand without my having to ask.
If you’re like me, this doesn’t have to be people you’ve known from childhood, although old friends and close family are precious. This can also include recently made friends colleagues or business partners, or even other peers.
My biggest advice is to listen to your universe; it won’t lie to you.
Toxic, unsafe people give you clues quickly enough, so don’t mistake them for a truly supportive shoulder to cry -or lean – on.
Always go to where the love is, especially when you’re sharing extremely personal information.
I have found the key traits to look for in these relationships includes acceptance and ability to listen. If you find yourself feeling judged or worse, surrounded in a swirl of drama, then you know this is not your person.
In the past, I wasn’t very aware of how to establish boundaries with family and friends, and therefore often struggled with genuine connections.
Moreover, in my experience, my network has changed over time, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes the phase of life you’re in no longer aligns with a friend’s and things fluctuate.
I’ve noticed that some friends have stuck for decades, while others have come and gone – but somehow we always remained close. And still, others have shared a part of the path and then disappeared forever.
Understanding and accepting this natural evolution without feeling like a failure for not always living up to my (or their) expectations have had a big impact on accepting myself and others’ limits.
Professional help and mentoring is worth the investment
A big step for me while building my network of support was accepting the fact that professionals needed to be part of it.
While it’s not uncommon to see people struggle with this, in my case, I suspect it was easier for me because of my medical profession. Going to the doctor or dentist for a regular check-up is part of the routine maintenance that I always tell my patients is key to a healthy life.
I don’t see why it should be any different for mental health.
That said, it’s been my experience that when I recommend professional therapeutic help, I often get pushback from patients, as well as friends, family and fellow moms in particular. I believe this has to do in part with a feeling of self-worthiness.
For example, some may struggle with the idea that professional care and attention is something they deserve.
On the other hand, the social stigma related to any form of mental illness or discomfort is still so high that people may get offended by the suggestion they might benefit from professional help.
It’s like, “Hey, I have so many friends and family members that I can talk to, why would I need to pay someone? I am not that person!”
The truth is we are all that person. We would all benefit from that “right-brain to right-brain support”, and it doesn’t need to be something that costs a fortune. For example, you might find that therapeutic ear from a religious or community leader.
And it doesn’t need to be a medical professional, either.
In my case, I found the support I needed from a Buddhist teacher named Josh Korda.
Keep in mind that I have tried different approaches during my life, including psychotherapy and family therapy, and have gotten some positive results, although nothing as radically transformative as getting a network of like-minded people and mentors.
Josh, however, proved to be the most profound source of life-changing support I could hope for. That I found the right fit with a Buddhist teacher was somewhat miraculous, actually.
I believe it had to do mainly with timing; I connected with Josh eight years ago when I was hitting rock bottom. I was aware of my issues and willing to challenge myself to face my deepest, darkest fears.
In other words, I was ready to put my head in the biggest dragon’s mouth. It’s not enough to find a great source of help. You need to be really open to self-examination.
I stumbled upon some of Josh’s work while reading the same Buddhist magazine that published the Milarepa story – call it karma if you wish. I then connected with him on Facebook, and Josh was gracious enough to open a spot for 1-1 sessions with me.
Today, I seriously don’t know where I’d be without him.
We don’t do anything spiritual in those sessions, nor do we meditate; I share what is going on in my life, and he offers his (very enlightened) perspective.
The profound impact Josh has had on me stems from several factors; notably, he is not only supportive of my goals, but he also sees me through compassionate eyes.
This has given me a profound awareness of my inner critic, so when I go through challenging events, he keeps me from spiraling into feeling like a failure.
When I was pregnant with my first girl, I started wondering what kind of mother I was going to be.
Actually, waiting for your first baby is a time where you might go through a lot of self-examination and questioning. And, if you have support, it can be a good time to face your demons.
For me, my it had to do with my struggle over creating strong bonds with women and in general with showing affection. Although I had a handful of long-time friends, making and keeping new female friends had proved challenging.
Once I realized I was expecting a girl, a lot of emotional turmoil and questions started to surface. Again, this had everything to do with my own attachment style.
With my mentors help, I was able to recognize that being pregnant with my first girl was such a new and profound experience that I needed additional, therapeutic help to rewrite and understand my childhood experiences and how they were still impacting me.
I beefed up my professional network and spent some time working with a therapist for a few months, who helped me piece together episodes and stories from my childhood.
This solid system helped me understand my past, then let go of the old stories so that I could find my way today as a present, mindful, connected mother.
Mommy & me: getting support from your fellow moms
Enter moms groups. I have had an amazing experience in getting support from fellow moms, in particular through several online communities.
In some ways, I must say, it’s been one of the most transforming experiences of motherhood. I didn’t have lots of opportunities to share my journey with close friends, as many of them became mothers earlier than I did.
But I found lots of helpful emotional and practical support in moms’ groups. I have joined countless Facebook and other groups, depending on what I was going through at the time.
Some of the most precious networks for me were for mothers of multiples and also for those of us who suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (severe vomiting during pregnancy – what Kate Middleton had). These two situations are quite uncommon, and it was a relief to find so many in the same boat.
The value here was all about connecting with people who were having similar experiences, thoughts, and emotions, and feeling understood in a protected environment.
In the second half of my twin pregnancy, for example, I went through a lot of anxiety because of concerns around one of the babies’ growth, and the possibility of early delivery. It was very reassuring to have other moms understand my fears, know exactly what I was talking about, and even show me pictures of their healthy babies delivered several weeks before term.
It had a soothing effect on my brain.
It’s important, however, to establish clear boundaries around the kind of engagement and support you should be looking for in online communities.
One clear boundary to draw, however, is to never take any form of health care advice from a non-medical professional. As a doctor, I always raise an eyebrow when people go to a community for not only empathy and compassion but also a “diagnosis” or explanation.
The only advice you should be taking is that of your doctor, OB-GYN or pediatrician, who can weigh risks and benefits in your situation.
If the reason you decided to turn to a community is that you’re not happy with your doctor or have a hard time trusting or reaching them, get a second medical opinion.
It’s also important to realize that online communities, especially Facebook groups, can easily lead you down a negative rabbit hole.
Social norms and boundaries are much less real online than in person, so people can act very differently than they would if you had a chat with them at the kids’ school. Keep this in mind when you decide what to post in a group about your personal life.
Body-Mind Self Care is in Your Hands… And Your Head
I must admit I still struggle with this one.
After all when you have four children under seven – and having previously been through the “4 under 5,” and “3 under 2” phases – taking care of your mind and body isn’t a joke.
And while my situation is pretty extreme, taking care of even one child can keep a mom running from dawn until the wee hours, trying to fit it all in.
Regardless of the amount of support you have, the demands small children have – combined with the expectations we put on ourselves of being emotionally and physically available to them as much as possible – are a heavy burden.
We end up saying to ourselves, “Who has time for this when I need to pick 10,000 Cheerios out of the car seat?” (Fill in your own mundane, time-consuming, child-related task =)
So, what have I prioritized at different stages of my motherhood journey?
I’m not going to bore you with the stuff we always hear, like how important it is that you eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and so on. But as your “auntie,” doctor and friend, I will say that’s certainly solid advice.
I am going to emphasize that you need to have realistic expectations of yourself, and while superhumans do exist (at least according to what’s portrayed on so many Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest profiles), the rest of us need to live within our limits.
So, these are the steps I took to gradually restore a self-care routine on my journey to – and since – motherhood:
- SELF-COMPASSION: I learned early on that the key in this journey was having lots of self-compassion and patience with myself, and as much self-soothing as possible. (YES, chocolate qualifies as self-soothing!)
- TAKE IT EASY: While to some moms-to-be pregnancy is a blissful time, for others like me, it is a time of sheer hell, due to some debilitating health conditions. In my case, I suffer from Hyperemesis Gravidarum, or the same non-stop vomiting during pregnancy that Kate Middleton experienced with both her children. This awful affliction is especially intense in the first few months and is a nightmare that takes time to recover from. On top of this, my second pregnancy was with twins and, as my OB stated on my very first ultrasound upon discovering there were two there, “your body is NOT made to carry more than one baby at a time!” Fellow twin mamas do we know how true that statement is! So, if you are among the lucky ones who have a great time during pregnancy – by all means – enjoy it as much as possible. Try to do all those amazing self-caring acts that will be a dream in the very near future. One caveat: be careful about your weight. For everyone else who can’t wait for it to be over, like me: hang in there, it’s actually worth it! And it won’t last 84 years. (The pregnancy part, anyway.)
- SURVIVAL: The first three months after my babies were born were all about mere survival; less so with my first, more so the second and third time around, because this time I had two newborns and a toddler to breastfeed, and then three under 5.
Most of the difficult memories from those early days will be wiped out of your memory, or at least they were for me. The key to self-care in those first few months? GET. ALL. THE. HELP. Get your partner to take time off, have your mama or sister/friend move in with you, ask your friends to cook for you and/or tap into your savings and hire a nanny or doula and a cleaning lady. It doesn’t matter what you need to do, you will never regret any of the things you did to survive the first few months. Just trust me on this one, and get – and take – all the help you can.
- BODY/MIND HEALTH: While you’re at it, keep in check your body-mind wellbeing. I struggled with serious anxiety after my twins were born, and bouts of depression are more common than you think. That network of support needs to be in place, and if you feel you don’t have it, or if you feel disconnected, make sure you have your partner or someone close to you check on you regularly. As soon as you feel better, make an effort to get out and interact with other humans. Your second priority for self-care, after getting practical help, is re-kindling human connections.
- SLEEP HEALTH: Sleep is undoubtedly another huge priority for any mom’s wellbeing in the early stages of motherhood. I’d say it’s number one if the other two weren’t a condition prior to sleep. In fact, keeping anxiety in check and overall mental wellbeing – the kind that can spark from feeling supported and connected – will have a HUGE impact on your sleep. When I suffered from anxiety after my twins were born, something unimaginable to me happened. When I wasn’t awake because of my two newborns were crying… or because my toddler was in full sleep regression… or because it was so quiet I was afraid they’d all stopped breathing (hullo, anxiety – and yes, even a doctor has these crazy fears!)… I spent hours awake because I was unable to sleep. Even when I had an expensive (and amazing) night nanny, three times a week. In fact, knowing she was there and still not being able to sleep kicked my anxiety into high gear. All I could think was, “I am paying someone to be able to sleep, and I’m wide awake: what a failure!”So for me, the “sleep when they sleep” mantra didn’t work, clearly. Also, the issue was that my partner and I were literally outnumbered, so the odds that all three would be asleep at the same time was slim to none. Even if you have one baby, the idea of sleeping when he or she is down is good in theory, often near impossible in practice. Rest isn’t the same as sleep, but it definitely helps. So, with my first child, I pumped milk and let either the night nanny or my partner take over so I could lay quietly with my eyes shut, if not exactly sleep. Once the twin babies were old enough, I sleep trained them. I actually didn’t do that with my first baby, because I was too inexperienced and naive – and boy, do I STILL regret it!
- MEAL STRATEGY: “Get nourishing, healthy food.” Right, as if we had the time to put together a menu! (Said the doctor who has had extensive training in nutrition.) Yes, I know that and have been there. Over the first few months, during survival time, you can’t really fuss over the nutritional properties of the food you eat, unless you have help from friends and family. (And again, I highly recommended at least for the first two or three weeks at least.) It’s literally whatever is on the table. But gradually, you will feel the urge to make your food part of your self-caring routine. My experience has been that – after my children turned a year and could eat pretty much everything, I made a conscious choice and developed a simple yet healthy Mediterranean diet that was easy to make, too. This was the best way for me to address all of our nutritional needs with meals that everyone in the family could enjoy. (Notice I counted myself in that equation!)
- EXERCISE & WEIGHT LOSS: This is a biggie for any woman who has gone through pregnancy and delivery. We know our bodies will be forever changed – it is in the essence of nature itself – yet we have a really hard time accepting the new reality. And sometimes the shift is so extreme that we are scared to take the necessary steps to heal our bodies as much as possible. We fear failure. The first key takeaway here is to accept that it takes a long time to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight. We all look at celebs and expect our bodies to look like theirs, with the baby weight dropped within a couple of months. We could all do if we had a battery of personal trainers, an in-house chef, and a manager breathing down our necks to get back our bodies back to pre-baby shape. (That last bit doesn’t sound so sexy, now does it?) Well, the reality is a bit different. I had to accept that losing those 40+ pounds took much longer than I hoped for. For me, breastfeeding helped, but not super quick. It took a good six to twelve months. And breastfeeding alone doesn’t necessarily take off all the weight gained during pregnancy… and moreover, it’s not just about numbers on a scale. It’s about your physical and mental wellbeing, too. So start slowly, with the goal of simply getting back into motion and then gradually increase your time spent exercising. I started going for walks as soon as it was physically possible, and then, when I felt ready – which was not earlier than around four months after delivering my first, and much longer after having twins – I started working out again. The second key takeaway is a bit counterintuitive: you might actually get to love some of those scars and post-pregnancy stretch marks. I am not saying you will get excited about your post-breastfeeding breasts; we all have our limits. (Although some friends I know are more voluptuous after having children, and with the right bra it can be a fun new addition to your physique!) But I have developed a soft spot for my C-section scar, and I show it with pride to my children. I also am particularly proud of my body as a whole for having created four humans. So, you might discover this post-pregnancy body is not as bad as you thought after all.
- MINDFULNESS AND BODY-MIND CONNECTION: Neuroscience has demonstrated that emotions and motor behavior are inextricably linked. That famous mind-body connection? Yes, it exists, and it’s called the nervous system. This means that not only are our emotions physically felt in our bodies but also that sensory drive from muscles and organs triggers emotions. This leads to an important fact: you can actually trigger positive emotions in your brain, simply through the sensations, your muscles and internal organs send to it. This is why practices like yoga, meditation, tai-chi, or even simple activities like listening to good music, taking a walk outside, and many other pleasurable activities can radically transform your emotional health.
Now, I know what you are going to say: “Yes, I know that, BUT I don’t have the time to do those things!” I hear you, and I have the same problem. After all, who has time to run to a yoga class in the morning with kids that need to be washed, fed, dressed and sent to school? I personally tried many of these practices before my kids were born, but I was never able to stick to them for a long time – and now that I have such a busy family, all bets are off. However, there are a few tricks I have developed on the way, which have allowed me to create an inner balance that supports my health and wellbeing. Before, a stressful personal and business life had caused me to suffer from several afflictions like rosacea and IBS. Today, after receiving adequate treatment – while also radically transforming my life – I use tools every day to keep difficult emotions under control, and my body has a much better balance. The first important thing is to consistently listen to and be aware of what your inner voices say, and put it into perspective: you may identify with your inner voices, but you are NOT your inner voices. It is a radical transformation to be able to really stop identifying yourself with your inner voices. That’s also what meditation is all about! For example, you might feel discouraged because you think you’ll never have time or energy to do yoga or other healing practices. You hear your inner voice telling you that you’re a failure, that you’re not good enough to make it all work, or that your life is stuck with your kids and exhaustion is the new norm. The truth is, your family is constantly evolving and changing, and you will gradually be able to make more time and space for yourself. When you detach from your inner voice, you will be able to put things in perspective. Another powerful tool I have learned to use when my anxiety and fears grow is to actually feel these emotions in my body and identify where the sensations are most powerful. It might be a spot in the head, my shoulders or stomach. This simple act of attention brings a sense of relief to my body, and my brain follows. Sometimes, when something is really upsetting or disturbing me, I write down my feelings on a piece of paper just to get them out. No re-reading them or dwelling on negative feelings – it’s all about release. This easy act has been proved to reduce anxiety. Mindfulness and awareness are true game changers.
Clear and Honest Vision: Motherhood Gives Birth to a Whole New You
Before I had a family, I felt that I was living a life full of purpose and meaning.
Choosing a medical profession was something that resonated deep within since I was a kid, and I felt that by being a good doctor and a good surgeon, I could make a positive impact on other people.
I also had made choices in my profession that gave me financial stability, while allowing a great degree of flexibility and freedom.
This, in turn, allowed me to engage in other things that were important to me: travel the world, work in several hospitals in developing countries, engage in non-profit activities and fundraise for projects I believed in.
I was living a purposeful life, which in turn helped me face that deep fear we all experience, the “groundless absurdity of life.”
Later on, the purpose evolved into building a company to help people make better choices on their health, through digital technology and online information.
However, the startup life took a big toll of stress, while also forcing me to constantly check my feelings of purpose. It was a very challenging time, despite being fulfilling in many ways.
I certainly wasn’t expecting any major shifts in the overall vision of my place and purpose in the world.
It took me a long time to grasp the tectonic shift this vision faced over the course of a few years, as my three children came into the world. And I was not prepared for it.
I was completely unaware of how my set of priorities and my idea of “good use” of the time were about to change.
You don’t really know what will happen to you once you become a mother. What you will care about and, even more importantly, what you won’t care about. It’s completely, utterly unpredictable, and there’s not a right or wrong way.
The key, I believe, is to enter a process of radical self-exploration, because while you get to know your baby and her or his needs, you’ll also need to learn about what has changed in you – and how your priorities are different.
While you go through this process, the most important thing is, to be honest in gradually defining the vision of the mother you want to be and the family you want to build.
Because, at the end of the day, YOU will be the defining factor of what your family will look like.
For me, it wasn’t easy, and I had to go through a lot of painful experiences to re-define my priorities and the life I wanted to build.
For one thing, I was about to leave my first company and start a new one… but a few months into having my first, it became clear that my priorities had radically changed. I wasn’t any more interested in starting the path to start a new company, assemble a team, raise money, and potentially move to another city.
I started asking myself if this path was truly what made me happy, or if it was more about sustaining the image I thought others had of me.
It’s so hard, yet so important, to let go of all the influences that society, family, friends, and especially your inner critic has on your happiness.
You really need to work at getting to the bottom of what truly is essential for you.
Over the course of the next couple of years, I took several different steps, some that worked well, others not as much – and leaned on my significant other and support network to help me reshape my priorities.
This process helped me re-establish my definition of a life filled with meaning and purpose, which is quite different than it once was.
I believe it’s vital you do the same at some point in your life; it would actually be beneficial to do it often and to involve your spouse and people that are closer to you. I found it very helpful to start from this list of questions compiled by my Buddhist teacher, Josh Korda. They aren’t specifically for moms, and they can be used at any point in life.
From Josh Korda’s website, an excerpt from his book, Unsubscribe:
- If you had a diagnosis of only months to live, what would you change? What obligations and responsibilities would you put aside? How would you behave differently?
- Reflect on the times you experienced the greatest peace. What do these experiences have in common?
- What are the great ideas you respect from the canon of philosophy or literature or culture? How can you live from this perspective?
- What actions did you undertake five years ago that you feel proud of? What can you learn from these actions?
- What would be your final speech to the world? How would you summarize the important things you’ve learned in life? What have you discovered about a life worth expressing to others?
These questions give you a clear and thoughtful lens to look at your life as you consider adjusting your vision of today – and the future.
Business and Life Arrangements: Work It, Baby!
A vision of the life you want to build for yourself and your family needs a practical plan to come to life.
Truth is, this is the part most of us get stuck with.
You might have gotten to a vision of yourself, but then the practicalities get in the way, and you end up accepting a compromise with a lifestyle you aren’t truly thrilled with.
You might not even be aware of it – because we women are so good at hiding and suppressing difficult, conflicting emotions, that we don’t know how to make sense of.
But suppressed emotions have a very funny way of resurfacing and knocking on your door in ways that are difficult to recognize.
After having my first baby and leaving my company, I was about to start another one. However, I had a very hard time – both building this new idea and a new team – and so I found myself feeling very anxious and unhappy.
By now, I had done enough work to quickly know when something was “off.”
It took me a long time to understand that I was just not interested in committing again to that journey. My new situation had changed my lifestyle priorities, and by jumping so fast from one business project to the next, I hadn’t given space to allow my new needs to properly manifest.
The truth is motherhood really changed me. I wanted to enjoy every single moment of being with my baby, and I was simply not willing to give up even a small piece of that.
Diving into a new digital technology startup, running at a 10,000 miles an hour to make it a fast success to satisfy investors would have required me to accept a lifestyle that no longer served me.
I finally accepted it.
And moved on.
I settled into a new life of work and routine within my clinical practice, and for a while, I thought it was the best scenario for my family. However, something was still not right. I could feel dissatisfaction and unhappiness brewing under the surface.
I felt that the routine both my partner and I were slipping into was distancing us from the children. During the day, they spent most of their time shuttling between school, nannies, and family, and I had few chances to be with them.
When we were together, we were always overwhelmed by the intensity of caring for three toddlers and recovering from such a busy work week, found that it was hard to truly enjoy our time together.
“Quality time,” much like “balance” has a false ring to it when you’re not being honest with yourself.
I feared my children’s first few years would slip through my fingers with me missing a chunk of time we’d never get back.
One cold morning in January 2018, I called up my partner and told him: “This is it! I am done. What can we do about it?”
We had been chatting now and then about the possibility of having a family experience and moving to a different country. After all, life in a major western city has its advantages but can be claustrophobic for families with small children.
We decided to take the whole family on a trip to Bali, to explore the idea of moving there for a while. And the idea clicked.
Once back, we faced a dilemma. We could have let it go like it was just a nice experience and dream to think about. It could have been very easy to let the whole idea pass, and get back to our stable, predictable routines.
What I found helped us move forward with into a great unknown is a mix of lightness with a core of groundedness.
I knew if I started thinking too hard, for a long time, I’d never do it because there’s an endless list of reasons why we shouldn’t have made such a huge move.
So, some lightness is necessary.
On the other hand, we also needed a few sound evaluations.
We weren’t burning any bridges and knew we could come back anytime. The feeling that the decision could be reversed helped us a lot, and it also made it a lot easier to process emotionally.
Also, our explorative trip to Bali helped us build some important connections with local people and communities, which were invaluable in helping us with the transition.
The key deciding factor was knowing we were enrolling the children in a school we really liked. We also had made some friends who were happy to help us find a new home for our family.
Another major source of sanity came from good old-fashioned number crunching. It might sound pie in the sky to make a huge move, but when you ground it in numbers – many of which looked much stronger in a place that is more affordable to live – it just made sense.
So, what was the final moment of decision? It takes ONE action to start a big change. For us, it was sending a deposit for our home in Bali. Then we knew it was happening and started working to see this exciting dream come to fruition.
If you have gone through the thought process, and know what you want to do to fulfill your vision and build the life you want for your family, but haven’t still figured out how, start with a small step.
Look at your numbers, do your homework. And then, do it.
Make a single decision, however small, but set the wheel in motion, and then iron out the details.
Motherhood sets us on a journey that few can predict, but all predictably have their lives transformed forever – and for good.
For me, the word “mindful mom” sums up the five hacks I’ve used to turn my life around to better support not only my family but also the woman I am today.
Staying focused on meaning and purpose has led me in such interesting directions…. and it seems more critical than ever before that I’m flexible and open to continual evolution and education.
Together, we’re so much stronger. I invite you to read, share and comment on this post and all on MamaDoctors.
Please share the steps you’ve taken – and tell me, what’s shaping your journey?