I mistook self-improvement for self-care for most of my adulthood. The trails near my home weren’t for walking but for 10-kilometer runs (12 if I’d eaten pizza the night before). Power Yoga was a great way to tone muscle, but gentle Yin was a waste of time. I tracked calories on my phone and had three apps just for goal setting: one for writing, one for workouts, another for home upkeep and improvement.
Then, motherhood arrived. And I felt all of the things that overwhelmed new mothers feel—isolation and failure at every turn. Alcohol became a ready sedative for my anxiety. A quick fix of bottled relaxation? Self-care!
But, of course, masochism isn’t self-care. I wasn’t bettering myself, or even finding true release; I was a woman on a mission. On the increasing number of evenings in which I’d felt I’d come up short in my parenting or marriage or home-keeping or work, I’d swallow cheap wine with the determination otherwise given to those 12k runs: Eyes narrowed, but vision shaky and blurred. The habit wasn’t anywhere near “care.” Drinking, for me, was self-flagellation. Self-improvement was abuse.
When I realized I had to change my life—and that such a deep change would happen only through gentleness, and not the discipline I used on myself—I had no idea how to love myself. But I did know how to mother. Caring for others has always felt instinctive; from the moment I held them, my daughters have always been nurtured with compassion, tolerance, and generosity. I just couldn’t seem to do it for myself.
But I had to. I think of getting through my early recovery as “mothering” myself—the closest thing possible to creating a third life, but, this time, recreating my own. Here’s how I did it, and how you can, too.
It’s no wonder that fatigue is often the first symptom of pregnancy an expectant mother experiences. And it’s also no wonder newborns sleep an average of 16 (non-consecutive) hours a day. Rest is essential in times of growth. This is never truer than in early recovery.
The first days and weeks of my recovery were exhausting both emotionally and physically. Knowing evening hours and sleep deprivation would lead to moments of weakness and impaired decision making, I started tucking myself in at the same time as I did my kids, which meant my bedtime fell right around 8 p.m. My “me time” was drastically altered, but that was the point.
In early recovery, I encourage you to tend to your own rest as a mother would her child’s. Make your bed clean, comfortable, and warm; allow yourself a few pages of a captivating and uplifting book; add soft music, white noise, or binaural beats to your space if that sounds appealing to you. If you struggle to sleep, try meditation. For the skeptic, I strongly recommend the secular mindfulness app Buddhify. For those open to adding an element of spirituality to their practice, check out the free Insight Timer app. (Sarah Blondin’s Live Awake series is especially powerful for those coming home to themselves).
Before the birth of my youngest daughter, I set up a rocking chair in a quiet corner by a window, and a table beside the chair to rest my tea. After she arrived, I’d watch the sunrise in that chair. It wasn’t just a time for feeding: I’d sing and whisper stories to her, too. While the rest of our family slept, this was a moment to give my baby the undivided attention pivotal to the development of her emotional and social wellbeing. It was a sacred time.
We all deserve such careful attention, especially in times of healing or growth. Meet yourself in those early hours: Set an alarm to wake at least an hour earlier than the others in your home, or, if single, before your day usually begins. Make a space for yourself—a table by a window or a seat in the garden, maybe a yoga mat stretched before the glow of crystals in candlelight. Spend your first hour journaling, meditating, stretching, or making art. Reflect, but in kindness.
So much of recovery is prickly—strive to be as physically content as possible.
Make your bed. It’s time to begin your day.
If you’re like me, you might be feeling a lot of anxiety right now. Early sobriety is inherently associated with discomfort as our bodies rebalance. The feeling is exacerbated when we find ourselves without our usual coping mechanism (booze).
Approach the day as would a mother planning an outing with her child. How can you make it more comfortable? Pack a water bottle, a book to read, earphones to listen to music or meditation tracks, delicious and nutritious snacks, and a few bags of your favorite tea. Dress in your comfiest clothes: soft materials, flat shoes. Maybe even thrown on a large scarf or extra sweater to ward off chills or catch a quick nap under. Pamper yourself. So much of recovery is prickly—strive to be as physically content as possible.
Now, you’re ready to face the world.
Remember that, even as life tosses you responsibilities that shouldn’t be yours to bear, your wellness has to come first. And, right now, this life still brand new! Be mother-bear protective and refuse anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for your survival, recovery, or comfort. Try to avoid social situations that will challenge your sobriety in these early days. Seek company that will understand and nourish your new lifestyle.
Like most new moms, I was terrified by the possibility of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, an unpredictable occurrence that abruptly ends life in its first few months. “What are you doing?” a friend once laughed as I held my eldest close to a fragrant loaf of fresh-baked bread. I often did things like this, raising her to feel the sun on her face, or slipping a silk blanket over her soft, tiny hands. “If she gets a sense of how good it is here,” I mused, “maybe she’ll decide to stay.”
These early days of your new life are so precarious and precious. Decide to stay.
Be good to yourself. Get a sense of how good it is here. Remember that recovery isn’t punishment— you’ve gone through enough of that. Love yourself and seek delight. Ride a bike over rolling hills. Walk in the sunshine. Challenge yourself to photograph one beautiful thing each day. Join your kids on park swings and point your toes to the sky. Dance, if you want to. Definitely sing. There’s wonder in this world. No one deserves joy more than you.
There’s a phrase in the parenting community: Fed is best. It means not to stress about whether your infant consumes via bottle or breast—the important thing is that they have access to nutritious food.
The subject of nutrition in recovery can sometimes feel like a problem of mommy-war proportions. Although this facet of health is definitely worth pursuing, right now it simply matters that you eat. Don’t track calories or try a detox diet, and don’t let yourself get hungry. You might find yourself craving sugar in the immediate absence of alcohol, or you might want nothing but carb-heavy comfort foods to soothe heavy emotions. Treat yourself and try to get adequate protein to combat mood swings (you can always fill nutritional gaps with easy-to-make smoothies). As long as you’re not consuming drugs or alcohol, you win this health challenge.
These early days of your new life are so precarious and precious. Decide to stay.
Most mothers take care to set boundaries around the media to which their young children are exposed. We protect them from stories that devalue their experiences, and from images that undermine healthy growth.
When I stopped drinking, the amount of media painting alcohol as benign was immediately apparent: there were drunk memes on Facebook; Instagrammed photos of wine glasses and golden pints; Bad Moms had just come out in theaters. I chose to remove myself from social media until my resolve felt stronger. It took a year.
But I did find ways to make tech work for sobriety. Using Pinterest, I created a secret Recovery board and began collecting inspirational images and information regarding sober living. Another positive tech change was to download a sobriety tracker. I also crawled sites like this one to read other women’s stories, and signed up for health-based newsletters so that even if I forgot where my priorities were, my morning inbox would remind me. I downloaded a positive quotes app to help bring me to mindfulness every time I reached for my phone, and replaced some of the more drinky podcasts I used to listen to with This Naked Mind, Home, and The Unruffled.
The first thing doctors did after the birth of each of my daughters was to place her sticky, naked body on my bare chest. Skin-on-skin contact was vital, they said. Children denied physical affection often fail to thrive.
Loneliness can be the most painful part of recovery. Sometimes we must remove ourselves from others in order to meet ourselves. As the relationships we choose in addiction often reflect damaging values (heavy drinkers usually choose to associate with other heavy drinkers, for example), sobriety often requires we pull away from our strongest bonds. If your partner drinks, you might need to step away from some of the routines you shared. If friends are likely to argue against recovery, you likely need to avoid them for a while. It’s heartbreaking, but it won’t always feel so bad. Until life rebalances—and yes, it does have a way of doing that—you’ll have to make peace with solitude.
There are ways to meet your need for relationship, though. Although AA wasn’t my modality of recovery, group attendance is an excellent way to connect with others, and individual therapy is also a great way to help you feel heard. You can also pour greater love into the relationships you have with those who don’t drink. Spend more time with your children; draw shapes on their backs with your fingertips as you sing them to sleep. Take greater care in grooming your pets and massage pet-safe oils into the pads of their feet after long walks. Visit your grandparents and stay for that second cup of coffee. If these relationships aren’t in your life, consider volunteering at homes for the elderly or in preemie wards or at animal shelters.
Take greater time loving yourself, too. Enjoy long baths and tend to yourself in compassionate non-judgment. Use scented Epsom salts to aid detoxification, boost your magnesium levels, and calm your senses. Wash the day off and give thanks for it as you do. As a mother praises her child, thank yourself for doing such important work. Envision the you that is to come. Tell yourself how the glow of your spirit shines brighter every morning you wake up well. You were a champion today. You created a life.
Now, sleep. And repeat.