Absence makes the self care fonder

My husband travels to China on a regular basis – not only does he teach and write about Chinese literature, art history, and visual culture, he still has family in Hunan Province, so when he goes home, it’s for an extended stay that combines guest speaking, research, and visiting family.

Of course I hold it over his head that at this point, he owes me approximately 24 months of vacation, which I regularly threaten to take consecutively.

Two months out of every year I’m left holding down the fort. This year, that fort includes a growing health coaching practice of individual and group clients, monthly workshops, cooking classes, my own studies, and a 30+ hour a week job.

Oh right – and two kids, each with their own lives that require a range of services, from chauffeuring to scheduling to homework supervision to…. You get the point. Perhaps that’s why I was so tickled by a little cartoon by Dan Reynolds in which two kids tell their mom that they’ve hired some subs for her (cook, chauffeur, teacher, maid, nurse….), so thank you to Dan Reynolds for recognizing how many costume changes a mother’s day entails.

I’m sure many of you find yourselves in a similar situation, juggling so many plates that it feels as though they will all come crashing down. And my hat is off – way off – to the single parents out there: you are my superheroes because you do this all. the. time!

I often get asked how I handle all that gets done in my life – especially when Max is away – and I finally realized that it can be summed up in three words: extreme self care. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it’s the way I get through it.

I talk a lot about self-care with my health coaching clients – as women, we easily slip into caring for everyone but ourselves. Our needs frequently take the back seat to those of parents, spouses, and kids, and as a result we are exhausted – not an option when you are the parent on call 24/7.

One client recently created a “sanity list” – things that had to happen for her to maintain her sanity. I love this approach! It may sound selfish to say, “I need this to happen,” but it’s really a form of self care to not only identify your needs but to communicate them with love.

So yes – I do get a few extra massages and might indulge in a bit more retail therapy in my husband’s absence, but I’ve come to look at self care in a much broader light, and I encourage you to do the same when you’re feeling strung out and your responsibilities are stepping on your very last nerve.

To break it down a bit, here is my list of tips, tricks, and tools for survival when you are the primary caregiver. Start thinking about these as self care – not as sexy as a mani-pedi, but they’ll get you a lot further!

  1. Schedule everythingEach year, my husband’s trip is scheduled so that the kids are in school for the majority of it, which helps take care of a large chunk of their time. Admittedly, bad cop is in charge in home, so things run on a somewhat bootcamp-esque schedule during the week, but weekends tend to be a bit more relaxed.
  2. Ask for help. It takes a village – I know and love my tribe, the women I can call at a moment’s notice if something goes awry. And I make every effort to be that woman for others when Max is home.
  3. Require help from every household member. Every year during his absence, I try to introduce 1-2 major tasks my kids are now big enough to manage, and once these tasks are mastered, I try to ensure that they become part of the routine and stay that way after he returns. What’s included?
    1. Laundry: start with sorting, move on to folding, then the actual washing/drying
    2. Cleaning: start with putting toys away, move on to dusting, vacuuming, bathrooms
    3. Cooking: start with simple dishes they love, such as spaghetti, mac + cheese, eggs
    4. Kitchen: start with clearing the table, putting dishes away, then loading/unloading dishwasher, etc.
  4. Cook ahead. As part of my coaching, I teach people to “flip their kitchen” – create 21 meals a week from scratch without spending their lives doing so. But I don’t only teach it – I live it! I always cook for more than one meal and “upcycle” leftovers.
  5. Make time for you – even if it means getting up a bit earlier. I joke that 4am is the only time I’m not “Mom” or “Honey” – I’m just me, and I can spend that time working out, meditating, organizing my day without interruption. And inevitably, those days run more smoothly. If your “me” time is in the evening, you’ll sleep better for it.

The most important tip of all? Be gentle with yourself. There are times when spending an extra hour with a child is much more important than making sure dinner is on the table by a certain hour. There really are some decent takeout and frozen dinner options out there as long as they are the exception and not the rule. Sometimes sleeping in for just an extra hour is worth losing “me” time. And people will understand if the house is not immaculate – really , they will. And your kids will learn a lot more from you handling most things with grace than everything with a bad attitude.

I’d love to hear some of your tips and tricks that fall into this broader concept of self-care: how do you keep all those plates in the air?




  1. Thanks Liz, for reframing my guilty pleasures…..they are self care. Compassion for single parents appreciated. I see a Cook, Pray, Love adventure to Italy as “your turn”

  2. This. SO this. Thank you for writing. Even with some recent health issues, I still had trouble asking for help with my 6 month old. Need to make time for Mama!!

    1. Glad it struck a chord. It’s a long, slow “recovery,” this learning to stand up for ourselves. You’re making the realization about 20 years earlier than I did – now for the hard work, actually doing it! I’m pondering a retreat for new moms – may need to tap your brain….

      1. In my case, I think “bring your baby” would be less stress, just because she’s SO attached to me, and won’t take a bottle…

  3. Liza this post is excellent. Congratulations on stepping up your self care and doing so well in writing about it. Hats Off!

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