Self-Care Was Hard as a Single Mom—Then the Pandemic Hit

Mother and daughter with gua sha

Jill Di Donato

Note

This is about one author's personal, anecdotal experience and should not substitute medical advice. If you're having health concerns of any kind, we urge you to speak to a healthcare professional.


Some days I scream into the ocean. Others I don’t stop moving—laundry; food prep; emails; bath time; teaching my two-year-old phonics, yoga, manners; more emails; nursing; assignments; pitching; wiping down surfaces; fighting back tears; clean-up; nursing; laundry; dishes. Repeat. When I chose the solo path to motherhood, I knew I was up for unrelenting challenges and that my self-care routine would take a hit. A year into the pandemic, mothering in isolation has forced a seismic shift in my wellness journey that’s been both unexpected and ultimately, sacred.  But it's been a rocky journey.

Bad days as a single mom in the pandemic can feel so intolerable, I want to crawl out of my skin. These are the days I feel like I’m failing her and I’m all she’s got. As the sole decision maker of my family, I’ve had to make some tough calls. Because multiple caretakers posed too much of a health risk, I dismantled the patchwork childcare system I built during the first year of motherhood. Not working isn’t an option for me, so I pivoted to consulting and deadline-based work, where I can put in chunks of time throughout the day and work for longer periods at night while my daughter sleeps. Productivity isn’t suffering; the days are just getting longer. But I’m a mom, and the second shift is part of my cultural DNA. I recently looked at a preschool, and while having those extra hours back during the day will benefit my career goals, I’m anticipating separation anxiety as we move into this next phase of our lives. 

Mother and daughter

Jill Di Donato

Acknowledging Quarantine Envy as a Single Mom 

Rosy advisor and psychologist, Anna Thomas, MA, PhD, who specializes in maternal mental health, says shouldering this kind of sole responsibility has proven incredibly agonizing for single parents during the pandemic. “Stress has increased for everyone as boundaries between work and home have dissolved, but for single parents,” she explains, “the lack of practical support adds to their plate. The main message behind parenting support," she says, "is to find time to get a break and recharge.” Ideally, you take a break before you hit your breaking point. But, that's not always possible in single-parent homes.  Shanet Dennis, LMFT, a family therapist and founder of Gwen's House, says she aims to “point mothers towards overlooked warning signs to take care of themselves.” She adds that it’s vital to “recognize the cue to rest and turn inward, or towards a loving other to ask for help.” 

However, getting that support can prove challenging, especially in a pandemic, when people are socially distant. But, I’ve found, the isolation over the past year isn’t just due to quarantine; in many cases, it’s been self-imposed. There are the days I speak to friends, parents with partners and childcare and grandparents around to help, and the experience fills me with envy and resentment. So, I withdraw. “That’s a very common feeling,” explains Thomas. “And one we’re not always comfortable voicing. When it comes to who has more care, who has access to a vaccine, who is close to family—things we’re yearning for—envy and anger can come up.”

I reproach myself for these feelings, because everyone is suffering. And there’s no hierarchy to pain. But still—why should my daughter suffer for my life choices? Then my mind goes to dark places, thinking of mothers living with deep-rooted pain, mothers living with loss and grief and war and injustice. “It’s understandable why you’re having these feelings,” says Molly Nourmand, LMFT, a psychotherapist and founder of Life After Birth. "But it's important to have self-compassion for your unique situation and to trust that you’re doing your best.”

It’s important to note that moms of color in 2021 will actively process, according to Dennis, “the impact of Racial Battle Fatigue (a form of trauma) in different ways based on their own journey with racial identity." As such, self-care for single moms of color might take a different path than mine. "For example," Dennis explains, "the impact of Racial Battle Fatigue can show up in the workplace when the dominant culture of an organization doesn’t notice the impact the news cycle of racial violence and trauma is having.” Dennis encourages single moms of color to “limit intake of [media] images, assert boundaries for private time, and not tend to the needs of others while finding places to restore energy.”

Compare and Despair  

Restorative energy can be deeply fortifying. It can also help silence the urge to compare your situation to someone else’s. Nourmand brings up the 12-step program adage, “compare and despair,” explaining that focusing instead on gratitude can “boost happiness and begin to shift feelings.” Thomas adds, “Comparing doesn’t do much to help us.” Self-talk, she says, during these moments, is key.

Think about what you’re going to tell your daughter about how you persisted to get through this tough time.

Reflecting on those days early on, when people were hoarding food and medicine, I was so afraid. Too afraid to cry, I went through a litany of what ifs, but held it together for my daughter, feeling grateful that I was still nursing. Knowing that I could feed her, no matter what, filled me with pride—maybe I knew what I was doing after all. I realize now that my saving grace during those early weeks of the pandemic was entering a state of true mindfulness. I remember thinking, “I’m safe now. She’s fed now. That’s a comfort.”

The Work of Mindfulness 

Thomas explains what I was doing as fundamental to mindfulness work and training. “Mindfulness can improve the mood and reduce anxiety,” she says, adding “it’s a practice that can happen in an everyday way. It’s anything that can take us out of our head.” A momentary escape from the barrage of negative thinking is often all it takes to get me back on track, especially since I am especially cognizant of my daughter sponging up my anxiety. Ours may not look like other households, but in the end, who cares? Why compare when there’s only one me; there’s only one her. 

Over the past year, I've forgiven myself for withdrawing from BC (before Covid) friendships. Those will work themselves out in time. And don’t get me started on my social media presence—what a disaster. I can’t handle the pressure of having to articulate the minutiae of my challenges or flaunting the moments of triumph, #sorrynotsorry. Nourmand assures me that this, too, is a very common phenomenon. “I tell people to be mindful of social media intake. People say they’re showing the raw and real, but many times Instagram can still be a highlight reel.” She recommends muting people who give you a “special charge or trigger.”

Self-Care Grounded In Sensory Experience

During my life pre-motherhood when I’d spa-hop and sip on green juice after a night of living it up, my self-care felt very compartmentalized. A yoga class here, a facial there. And while I had the time for practices that left me feeling pampered and nourished, I was still experiencing anxiety on a daily basis. Self-care indulgences felt like a bandaid, a temporary panacea. What was missing was an overall sense of integration. 

Early on in the pandemic, I began tuning into restorative integration sessions on Instagram led by Sibyl Buck, a former high fashion runway model and certified yoga instructor and healer.  "I stay within the realm of reliable practices like noticing sensory experience and the physical experience of breath," says Buck, from her New Paradome in Topanga, California. Curbing anxiety by inviting it in, restorative integration has been key in my quarantine experience as a single mom, building a sense of calm assertion and self-sufficiency. Drawing upon the somatic healing modality of Paul Levine, PhD and trauma healing work of Richard Miller, PhD, this practice is a drop-in method to soften and nourish the nervous system with breath work and sensory engagement. It's not typical meditation or flow, but rather a practice rooted in somatic experiences. You can do it for five minutes when you need a break to, as Buck says, “go out of your mind and come to your senses.” In this way, the practice can be a grounding part of daily life. “We might not have access to the perfect moment of meditation in the daily grind of motherhood,” says Nourmand. “But, there’s a lot of opportunities for mindfulness—whether it’s changing a diaper or washing a dish, we can use all the mess and the chaos to help.

In lieu of spa rituals, I’ve been incorporating somatic experiences into my daily life with my daughter. The word self-care gets thrown around a lot, and for time-zapped single moms like me, it can end up being triggering. Nourmand agrees. “Make it bite-sized. While you’re putting on your skincare, slow down. Feel the texture of the cream and feel your feet on the ground.” Indeed, after a bath, my daughter and I gua sha, taking turns on each other. Then I rub her feet with a coconut based salve called Divine Balm. Now, she calls every cream, serum, and lotion “divine balm.” I try to imagine her perspective, feeling the silky finish, a sensation that brims with love, and I allow myself to turn that inwards. 

A year into the pandemic, one of the most important skills I’ve learned is how to let self-care spill into my daily routine. Respectively, I can also sit with anxiety. In this way, I’m integrating all the parts of me, even the uncomfortable ones that are tolerable, albeit not desirable. This can be a cerebral process, so it’s incredibly helpful to have something sensory to help guide it along. Enter my newly minted skincare as self-care routine. As I become more integrated, I learn more about myself along the way. Like the reason I write about beauty and wellness—to find the light, especially when things get heavy.

My Somatic Experience Routine

Mother-daughter Gua sha set
BEB Organic Soothing & Nurturing Gua Sha Set $128
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Using touch to connect is such a powerful way to signal the end of the day.

Jar of balm
Cocunat Divine Balm $30
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I love that this balm is clean enough for me to use on my toddler's eczema.

Essential Oil
LOUM Unwind Essential Oil $30
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This blend of essential oils contains lavender, blue chamomile, and sandalwood to support relaxation. It's small enough to keep in my pocket and use throughout the day.

Nail stickers
ManiMe Forest Leaves $25
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Whether typing or playing with my daughter, I find myself looking down at my nails all day. These custom fit stick-on gels featuring salon-quality nail art are so visually appealing, and take just minutes to apply.

Bottle of body wash
Athena Club La Creme de la Creme Grapefruit $15
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A citrus scent in the shower is an instant mood booster, and takes me out of my head.

Bottle of conditioner
Sangre De Fruta Botanical Hair Elixir $124
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I'll leave this hair mask on while I bathe my daughter, then wash it out to celebrate the end of the day. It makes my hair feel so soft, and the botanical blend is aromatic.

Bottle of tincture
707 Flora CBD + Turmeric Tincture - Berry Bliss $99
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There's no reason to suffer. When anxiety becomes physically uncomfortable and somatic experience exercises aren't bringing relief, a drop of CBD tincture can be helpful (and works in minutes).

UP NEXT: Like Mother, Like Daughter: Here's What Our Moms Taught Us About Self-Care.

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