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Turning off the Mommy Guilt Machine

by Jessica Apel, D.O.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Mothers’ Space blog.

It is 4:00 pm on a sunny and warm Tuesday in October 2016. I have tears streaming down my face while I’m standing in my driveway. My two-year-old son is sitting nearby, pulling out fists full of grass with his hands. My sweet three-year-old daughter has a gentle hand on my leg, trying to reassure me. It has been an ugly afternoon.

I call my husband and tell him, “I think the kids need to go to school on Tuesdays.”

This phone call is branded on my memory, my lowest point as a mother so far. Even now, I inwardly cringe when I think of this moment, knowing that I had more than a hand in creating it; in fact, this ugly afternoon was a problem entirely of my own making.

It’s important to know a few things about me. I am an OB/GYN. I had my first baby two weeks after graduating from residency, and five days after my written board exam. Eight weeks after my daughter’s birth, a period of time which now seems like an abundant gift, I started my first “real” job in a local practice. Fourteen months after my daughter was born, my son arrived, landing me with a one-year-old, a newborn, and a job I had been in for less than a year; you could say that I had to manage my time very carefully. My husband, not one to do things by halves himself, was working full time as an engineer and had started an online Master’s program. I remember thinking to myself more than once during this period of insanity, We are crazy, right? And the answer, with the clarity of hindsight, is a resounding, YES, we were.

Fast forward to that fateful, sunny Tuesday afternoon in my driveway two years later, wiping away tears as I spoke to my husband on the phone. I rushed home from the hospital that particular morning to relieve my husband so he could go to work. I had delivered seven babies on my twenty-four hour shift, answered numerous phone calls and pages, filled out charts and paperwork, attended patients and administered all the typical aspects of my job. I did not eat dinner, and it is likely that I had one meal mid-afternoon at some point, on the fly from one patient to the next. Towards the end of my shift, I “rested my eyes” for 45 minutes.

Tuesdays were my Mommy days, an entire day off (after my shift ended that morning) to spend with the kids. The previous May, we moved to a new house with lots of land for the kids to explore and a lovely pool. I spent these Tuesdays in a regular routine; breakfast, playing all morning, swimming for an hour, followed by lunch. In the afternoons, we would all curl up in bed take a long nap. Although the kids needed the sleep, I was only able to survive the day because of that nap. It was absolutely essential.

On this particular Tuesday, though, there would be no nap. Again, with the clarity of hindsight, I should have seen that this day was coming; although I was used to running on fumes, I didn’t fully realize how exhausted I was. So when my son and daughter boycotted nap time that day, I felt broken, and I buckled under the weight of the sleep deprivation. I tried for hours, every single tactic; pleading, bribing, books, stories, music, yelling, all to no avail. I even put myself in time out in the bathroom for five minutes, to try and get a grip. But eventually, I realized that it was futile, so I gave up and went back outside. I had been awake for 34 hours.

It was a terrible afternoon. I remember screaming into a pillow in desperation. When my sweet three-year-old offered to watch her brother so I could sleep, I remember thinking that I hated myself. This is not me. Who the hell am I right now? I was angry, impatient, and probably frightening to my children, being just awful to these tiny humans I loved so much.

I knew intuitively that this was my fault. Don’t get me wrong; we all have moments of which we are not proud, moments we instantly regret, moments that shame us that we cannot take back. It is not rainbows, sunshine, kisses, hugs, unicorns, and Instagram photos hashtagged #soblessed all the time. But after this episode, I also knew that I needed to find a way to help reduce the likelihood of these moments.

I calmly buckled those tiny people into their car seats, and naturally they were asleep before I pulled out of the driveway. Starbucks drive-thru is seriously a gift to all mothers everywhere. I drank my coffee in silence, with the windows rolled down, as I planned how to do things better—for the kids’ sake, but also for mine.

The Mommy Guilt Machine works overtime and is amazingly cruel. I had always thought that because I worked so much, the kids deserved a Mommy Day. And post-call mommy can be awesome. We destroy the house with play, hit the park, wear crazy clothes, eat things we shouldn’t because I am just too tired to fight or care. But as I sat in the car that sunny Tuesday, drinking my coffee with them fast asleep in the backseat, I realized I was wrong. I knew my babies deserved a rested and sane mother. Not dragon mommy crying in the driveway praying for their dad to come home.

I needed to make better decisions. Better choices for them, and for myself.

My first call was to daycare. The kids would have to go on Tuesdays, period. Despite how clearly I needed some time to myself, I still felt I had to justify it by rationalizing that I needed to take my oral OB/GYN boards soon and I had to study. I wasn’t doing this because I needed to sleep, or take a shower, make a proper meal, exercise, run errands, or because I deserved a quiet cup of hot coffee—I still wasn’t ready to say that self-care was enough of a reason on its own. But I clearly remember amongst all the other justifications I was making that I whispered out loud, You deserve to take care of yourself, Jess.

And so I started, very gradually, to turn off the Mommy Guilt Machine. My husband took the kids to daycare the next Tuesday. I hit the grocery store on the way home from the hospital. I put food away, did some cleaning, made breakfast, and took a hot shower. I slept for three hours and when I woke up, I put my running shoes on and got lost on the trails for five miles. I prepped an easy dinner that just needed to be put in the oven. I took another quick shower. I hit the Starbucks drive-thru and walked in to get my kids at 3:15 pm.

We had a glorious afternoon and evening. I was present. I was engaged. I had more patience. I had energy. No dragon, zombie mommy. The guilt I felt for taking the time I needed receded a bit that day, and continued to retreat a little bit more as each Tuesday passed. We were all happier.

Whether you stay at home full time or work a million hours, the challenge to take care of yourself is the same for every mother. Self-care is important. It is okay to put yourself on the to-do list; you must, as they say, “fill your cup.” You cannot take care of anyone if you do not take care of yourself. This is not a selfish act—it is an act of self-compassion and it is a necessity.

Maybe you need to say it out loud or in front of the mirror. Go find one after you read this. Say it: “I deserve a hot shower. I deserve 15 minutes of quiet and hot coffee. I deserve to exercise. I deserve whatever I need to make me a better person and a better parent.” It’s okay to say it.

I deserve.

About the Author:

Dr. Jessica Apel is a Board Certified OB/GYN who works at Greenville OB/GYN and Christiana Hospital. Dr. Apel is dearly loved and respected by her patients for her approachable, honest, and compassionate style of care. Jess is a diamond in the rough: a physician with whom you can entrust your life and the life of your child and also connect with on a real and meaningful level. In addition to being a phenomenal physician, she is a mom who really “gets it.”

Dr. Apel is dedicated to caring for women throughout their life cycle, from a woman’s first annual exam in her teen years (during which Dr. Apel has been known to take a patient’s cell phone and make her engage!) to the menopausal and post-menopausal years. For the pregnant family, she protects and promotes vaginal birth, including vaginal twin births and Vaginal Births after Cesarean (VBAC). She collaborates with her clients and their partners to identify birth preferences. It is critical to mention that Dr. Apel is also a skilled and seasoned surgeon. She brings a delicate balance of trusting the power of a woman’s body and using modern medicine in minimally invasive ways. During the postpartum period, Dr. Apel keeps a close and caring eye on each new family as they transition into parenthood. She cares deeply about a mother’s physical, mental, and emotional state and works closely with the other experts at TMS to be sure every woman gets the care and attention she needs to thrive in her new role as a mother.

Dr. Apel is passionate about integrating education, exercise, and nutrition into the care she provides for women at every stage of life. She is beyond excited to be a part of The Mothers’ Space, helping moms find ways to give themselves the self-care and support they need and deserve.

Dr. Apel and her husband George enjoy time together on their property in Kennett Square, PA. Their daughter Ella Mae will be five in June and their son Georgie is three-and-a-half. Jess enjoys exercise; cooking in her kitchen with a fireplace; skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; watching documentaries; and sitting on her porch with a hot cup of coffee.

Dr. Apel says. “I love that I wear a lot of hats within a moment, a day, and a week. I love surgery and delivering babies; it keeps my heart pumping. I love listening to, helping, and caring for women and mothers. But I know I am not everything. I love finding women the resources they need. This network at The Mothers’ Space is beyond important to me. Once I trust that another provider is valuable and passionate in the work they do, then and only then will I refer my patients to them.”