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When it comes to mental illness, doctors, midwives and therapists have all told me the same thing: exercise. It will help you feel better.

I had just told them my I'm overwhelmed by life. I had a baby and suddenly the simplest of tasks were just too much for me. My to-do list only had five things on it, but those five things send me into a panic because of the alarming sense of overwhelmingness I'm feeling. And now they want me to add to it? Puh-leeze. I always blew off the idea with a smile and a nod, thinking exercise wasn’t an answer to feeling happy again.

In those first months of motherhood, with both boys, exercise was the last thing I wanted to do. I was struggling to meet their basic needs and didn't have much interest in mine unless it was sleeping. When my husband came home from work I wanted to crawl into bed and stay there forever, not go for a walk.

Exercise took a back seat after I had G; I always had my share of excuses as to why I wasn't able to take 30 minutes for myself. But when L was born, I started learning that consistent exercise really does improve how I feel. I think it helped a lot when I weaned off Zoloft for my postpartum anxiety and it’s keeping my emotions more in check now that I’m not on an antidepressant.

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But making time for consistent exercise is hard, especially when no one is pushing me to do so. No one insists I take a class or go for a walk. No one makes time for me to go for a run. So I’m slowly learning to insist it for myself and I’m slowly learning how to add exercise into my week.

Here is what I've learned over the last few years:

Start Slow

Go for a short walk. 10 minutes every day can be a good start, especially if you’re a couple weeks postpartum. If 10 minutes sounds too daunting, that’s okay! It seems silly to me now, but for a few weeks after L was born, I’d walk a few laps around my house a few times a day. It probably didn’t add up to 10 minutes, but it got me moving and I didn’t have to go outside.

Set a goal

The thought of leaving the house alone with both boys after L was born was overwhelming for me (it still can be!), but I knew I had to manage if I was going to get that exercise the professionals kept telling me about. I decided to set a goal of walking three times a week and mark their completion with a sticker on my calendar.

Too anxious to take a long walk, I decided I would walk to the stop sign at the end of our street and back, which is the equivalent of two houses down from ours. It probably took me longer to get the boys into the stroller than it did to take that walk, but it was a walk just the same and I'd slap a sticker on the calendar. After a few outings, I walked to the house past the stop sign. Soon that got boring and G was asking to go farther and farther with each outing, so each week I’d add another house. Every time we got back from our walk I added a sticker to the calendar. I felt a sense of accomplishment which motivated me to keep going.

Sign up for a class

Mommy-and-Me type classes are great because you don’t have to leave your baby. This can be a very nice thing if you’re still too anxious to leave your baby with anyone or don’t have someone available to babysit.

There usually isn’t a good time

Acknowledge that some things can wait for another time (dishes or cleaning the floor - I'm still working on letting these go). Letting the dishes sit until morning or putting off folding the laundry isn't going to hurt anyone. Using that time to walk, run or whatever it is you do is more important. Remind yourself that it is aiding your recovery.

Give yourself permission and realize YOU are worth it

It's taken me until this past summer to be able to do this and I'd bet I'm not the only mom who struggles with it. Mental illness clouds your self worth. Being a mom can mean putting your needs last. It's okay to put yourself first. It's okay to tell yourself you’re worth the effort (because you are!). Every time I decide to work out, I remind myself that I owe it to myself to be happy and healthy. When I'm happy and healthy then my children and husband are happier too. Then I give myself permission to leave the house and go do my thing!

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About Emma

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Emma is married to her high school sweetheart and is a stay at home mom of two boys: G and L. A wanna-be professional writer and photographer, she can often be found following her boys around with a camera. When she isn’t chasing after her kids, Emma writes about her motherhood journey on her personal blog, Muddy Boots and Diamonds.

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