Every mom has bad days. But when those bad days turn into bad months, it might be time to hit pause. That’s what happened to Abigael Tlatelpa, of Brooklyn. The Mexican-American mom found herself continually snapping at her sons—Joseph, 7, and Jayden, 2—for minor offenses like playing soccer inside the house. Things with her husband, Danny, weren’t any better, with conversations regularly devolving into petty arguments. And when her once-sporadic migraines began to flare up, Tlatelpa knew she was approaching a breaking point. “I was so busy taking care of everyone else that I didn’t take care of myself,” she says. “I was exhausted and angry, and I took it out on my family.”
Know the feeling? A British study recently found that moms average just 17 minutes of “me time” each day. That number could be even less for Latinas thanks to a historically machista culture in which mothers are the nurturing souls who gel families together, but they’re still expected to pick up much of the caregiving and housekeeping duties, even while holding down jobs outside of the home. “They’re doing it all. It’s what we learned from our moms,” says Erika Martinez, Psy.D, a Cuban-American psychologist in Miami. “Over an extended period of time, you burn out, and eventually that can give way to depression.”
The antidote isn’t always easy to achieve: finding personal time in your already “crazy-busy” day. Still, research shows that the one thing a mother can do to be a better parent is focus on developing herself. “You’re more grounded, centered, and in a better mood,” Dr. Martinez says. “You’re a better partner to your significant other and, just as important, to yourself.” The trick is to learn how to get what you need and enjoy it, guilt-free.
1. Ask for help.
Ask for help before your frustration boils over into anger, Dr. Martinez says. When Tlatelpa didn’t do this, she ended up butting heads with her husband. She’d demand that he run errands or drive the kids around, but he’d resist, saying he was too busy with work and school to contribute. “I finally had to tell him, ‘I do as much as you, and I still manage. I expect you to do the same,'” Tlatelpa says.
He got the message, loud and clear, but her bluntnesss could have easily backfired. “No one wants to get near you when you’re in that mode,” Dr. Martinez says. Control the tone of your voice, and be specific about your needs. “People are not mind-readers. Consider how you’d like to be asked for help, then do it that way.” To create a more compelling case, make a list of all the household responsibilities and get everyone together to fill out a calendar with the week’s activities, Dr. Martinez recommends. Then add how long each takes to complete. “It helps people appreciate how much you’re doing and makes them willing to step in,” she says. After Tlatelpa used this technique, her husband realized the load she was carrying. “He often tells me, ‘I don’t know how you did this by yourself,’” Tlatelpa says.
2. Let go of the guilt.
Once you master healthy, effective communication, you’ll need to allot time for yourself in the family calendar. Whether it’s a mani-pedi or brunch with girlfriends, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty or shameful for tending to your own needs. “Though younger Latina moms are moving away from the traditional idea that moms need to be selfless martyrs with no needs of their own, for many of us, it’s a struggle because deep down inside we still want the approval of our family,” says Jersey Garcia, a Dominican-American relationship and marriage therapist in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “When those feelings set in, take a moment to think about what would make you a happier person, parent, and partner. You’ll realize that what other people expect from you no longer matters. And since there’s not much you can do about their opinions, you’ll shift your focus to what’s best for your family.”
Of course, self-criticism can be harder to deflect. When Melissa Avery, of Freemont, California, started going on jogs five days a week while her husband cared for their three kids, the Peruvian-American mom always found a reason to feel crummy after each outing. “If my 2-year-old son was crying when I returned, or if they got sick the next day, somehow I felt as if it was my fault,” says Avery, who didn’t realize how those runs were positively affecting her kids. “Children learn how to relate to others through us,” Garcia says. “If we constantly put others’ needs ahead of our own and don’t respect our boundaries, they won’t know how to do it for themselves. It’s a disservice to them.” Garcia suggests doing a simple exercise before bed: “Women tend to focus on where we fall short, so to counteract that, jot down three things you did well that day. It helps you see that you’re doing a good job, and it encourages you to keep investing in yourself.”
3. Figure out what works for you.
How much time you decide to take will depend on your lifestyle. It can be as simple as five- or ten-minute sessions throughout the day or 30 minutes a night for starters. “Put the kids down early, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read a couple of chapters from that book that’s been sitting on your bedside table forever,” advises Dr. Martinez. “Your kids have a nightly routine. Why can’t you?”
Ruby Garcia, of Arcata, California, knows it’s not impossible to find that breather. As a single mom of three kids, ages 12, 4, and 2, figuring out how to carve out solo time used to be a nonstarter even though her job as an executive projects coordinator for nonprofit Latino Outdoors involves teaching others to use nature as a balm for life’s challenges. Then she found ways to leave work an hour early once a week to sit at the beach or hike in her area’s ancient redwood forests. “It’s saved my life,” says the Mexican-American mom, who supplements that weekly outing with a daily ten-minute gardening ritual she enjoys after the kids go to sleep. “I leave everything behind—dirty dishes, messy house—and repot and trim my succulents. It’s like a little vacation.”
4. Protect your “me time.”
Even if you decide to clear the sink first, you have to be stingy with your time by steering clear of unnecessary activities, Dr. Martinez says. That includes Facebook. “People put only the best 2 percent of their lives on social media,” she notes. “You never see the rest. So someone browsing through will inevitably fall into ‘comparisonitis,’ and that’s not healthy.” According to a 2013 study from the American Psychological Association, frequent Facebook users negatively compare their lives with their online friends’ lives, and they fall into depressive states. For people who can’t seem to stay away from their smartphone, Dr. Martinez suggests SelfControl, an app that blocks access to social-media sites for specific periods of time.
You should also avoid using those precious moments to compete for Mom of the Year by engaging in tasks you don’t enjoy. “Women often feel that they have to dress their kids in homemade Halloween costumes, bake the perfect cupcake for the school sale, or participate in PTA committees,” Dr. Martinez says. “If those things don’t make you happy, don’t do them. Make life easier on yourself, and you’ll encounter less stress and more room to schedule things that help you regenerate.” These days Tlatelpa recharges her batteries by teaching herself new makeup techniques through YouTube tutorials while her husband watches the children. “He gets it,” says Tlatelpa, whose dressing table is lined with blushes, eyeshadows, and lipsticks that help her look as lovely on the outside as she now feels on the inside. “This is the time to just worry about me, not anyone else, not my kids. It redirects me so that when I go back into the world, I’m more relaxed.”