My daughters were two and four and a half. Every moment we were together, they wanted to play Candyland or build forts or make cookies out of playdough. When I wasn't with them, I was at the clinic, working a busy job as the director of a health center for uninsured patients. I struggled to help my patients cope with depression or chronic pain, control their diabetes or heart failure, find creative ways to fill their prescriptions. I barely had time to breathe.
Then I developed dizziness, cloudy vision, and taste changes. Learning I had MS, I felt like someone caught in a mob who has fallen down and is being trampled on.
The diagnosis was serious; the timing was terrible. Already, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I had no time for hobbies, walks with friends, reading books, or other stress-reducing activities. My own self-care was suddenly urgent and important, and it had to be incorporated into my too-busy life. But how?
I made self-care a top priority. If I wasn't healthy, I couldn't be an effective parent or doctor. I had to be innovative and even a bit rigid with some of my self-care strategies. I couldn't play Chutes and Ladders or put together the alphabet puzzle every time the kids requested my participation. But I made it work, and I am thankful to have good health AND two well-adjusted, amazing kids now.
Here are some ways I maintained self-care:
1) I exercised (and continue to exercise) every day. I do it first thing in the morning, before anyone else gets up. I bought a used Stairmaster to work out when my kids were too young for me to leave them alone at home. I took them with me in a jogging stroller when they were very young, and I wanted to run. Exercise is my antidepressant and key to my self-care strategy.
2) I asked for help. I reached out to friends and family and told them I was overwhelmed. My husband is a hospital-based pediatrician with long hours, often working weekends and evenings. I lined up friends to come over to help me with dinner and bedtimes when my kids were young. Often, they would bring a meal or help me cook. I think a lot of moms think they are supposed to "do it all." But when I admitted defeat, I found the support I needed to get through some tough years.
3) I maintained a healthy diet. I'm a vegetarian, and I have raised my kids to be vegetarian. We still eat french fries and mac and cheese sometimes, but we all aim for at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies every day, and I know we are all healthier as a result.
4) I never missed a visit or other appointment related to my MS. I have always taken my medications consistently, and I make sure to follow my doctor's instructions. As a mom, I know I can't afford for my condition to worsen; I have to be as healthy as possible for my kids.
5) I learned to say "No". I try to ask myself before committing to a new activity if I really have time to take it on, if it will bring me joy, and if it will benefit my family. If not, I usually let it go.
6) I learned to meditate. A few years ago, at the urging of some physician friends, I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction class. Learning mindfulness meditation helped me with anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It also helped me accept my MS symptoms and "live in the moment" in a more authentic way.
Being a working mom with a chronic condition will never be easy. Some days I am impatient and irritable, and I yell or criticize when I shouldn't. Sometimes I can't even blame it on MS. But after almost 10 years living with MS, I feel grateful that we have more good days than bad, and I'm proud that my kids are growing up to be thoughtful and caring young women.
Below, please add any comments, questions, or tips for parenting through difficult times. And check out this video of me interviewing my daughter, Ella, about what it's like to have a mom with MS.