“My parents are immigrants from India and the version of Motherhood that was modeled for me growing up was always, mother as martyr. That Motherhood was sacrifice. And if you had the luxury of choosing to become a Mother, then ultimately, the only way to do it well was to give everything up for your kids. And I knew I wouldn’t be happy in that. My career has always been really important for me and a huge part of my identity.” said Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, Clinical Psychiatrist, Professor, Author and Entrepreneur.
Honoring each part of your identity becomes harder after kids. Many of us work for change in our communities, industries, and families. And that tension, from stretching beyond the now to what’s next, is consuming. So, while striving for impact, in a system that wasn’t set up for you to win, how do you protect your health? It may seem impossible but there are options. Including learning how to care for yourself, unapologetically, inside of your busy life.
Reexamine Your Beliefs
Most of us swim in responsibility. Between caring for our kids, careers, partners and even parents, self-care gets deprioritized. So, Pooja has distilled wisdom from her expertise in women’s health, into a new book Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness to demystify this challenge. “Motherhood is such a pivotal, defining moment in our lives and the idea of self-care as a Mom, can feel out of reach for so many women,” she explained.
The wellness industry is booming while, health outcomes for women, plummet. A paradox that led Pooja to differentiate self-care from the false promise of a quick fix. She said, “One of my pet peeves with self-help is that we can’t just use a one-size, cookie cutter model for this. It depends on your family history, culture, social status and access to financial resources or social support.”
About Caring for Yourself
When it comes to career success, the gaps for women, can feel insurmountable. And for women of color, including those of us from immigrant families, the climb is steeper. Pooja felt strongly about including the impact of generational trauma in the book. She said, “We’re constantly living with the ghosts of all of these past generations. And the burden of sacrifice that our parents had put forth.”
And Where Those Expectations Come From
Many of us from immigrant backgrounds, including me, feel like we’re in a relay race. Our parents push themselves very hard then, pass the baton for us to do the same. “In my 20’s, I felt super resentful I had to carry the weight of their hopes and expectations,” Pooja explained.
“My father is a Physician. He’s retired now but worked his ass off to be able to send both of his daughters to Ivy League schools. But as I’ve gotten older and have been through years and years of my own psychoanalysis, I have much more compassion for my parents. And everything they’ve given me.”
To Create the Boundaries You Need
We experience life through the prism of our experiences. Our backgrounds not only influence where we start but how we move forward. Pooja said, “For you, the Black experience and for me the South Asian experience, is another intersectional point with being a woman and a Mother. It adds different textures and layers.”
She expands upon this in the book. She explained, “In Real Self-Care, when I’m talking about how to set boundaries, I acknowledge if you are coming from a different cultural background, these conversations are going to look different. And it might be more difficult.”
But Don’t Expect Applause
Boundaries are part of the answer to overdo and never done. But whether it’s with your boss, spouse, or friends, many feel guilty about setting them. In part, because we’re socialized to say yes, even when it doesn’t serve us.
Pooja said, “The thing that trips people up the most in my practice, when it comes to boundaries, is waiting for the other person to throw you a party. But when you set boundaries with somebody, they’re not going to be able to validate and take care of your emotions.” Boundaries work. Even though the process to set and maintain them, is rarely easy. So, how do you reconcile this?
It’s Hard to Reset Expectations
Pooja said, “You need to have a separate space for the guilt and bad feelings. Because that person, that you set boundaries with, they’re going to be disappointed. They might even say something snippy or mean. Or if it’s a family member, you might get an angry text message, right?” I laughed.
She added, “That is to be expected. You can’t expect them to be happy for you and need to have another support system.” Even when you become a Jedi-level boundary setter, if you don’t do what other people expect their reaction stings. Because when we breach these unwritten rules, by saying no, it can feel uncomfortable. But there’s a solution.
So, Find Your Community
Pooja explained, “That’s why communities, like yours, are so important. We need our tribe of women that can be our cheerleaders in that space. Because it’s not going to come from the folks that you’re setting the boundary with.” Amen! Look, your family loves you. But they’re unlikely to save you from overwhelm. Often, they unwittingly contribute to our unhealthy workloads. So, it’s the tapestry, the mix of friends, partners, parents, and even your network, that will sustain you.
When You’re Going for the Brass Ring
Whether it’s internal drive, or the desire to give your kids more options than you had, doesn’t matter. Remember, that post-kids, the career path is often emotional and non-linear. So, you get to choose what ‘going for it’ looks like in this season. Pooja said, “Our brains do like knowing that something is temporary and the reason behind why we’re making each decision. So, when there’s a values conflict, you can do some self-talk to remind yourself that purity is not necessarily the goal.”
Because it Likely Means Tradeoffs
We discussed how life’s situations are rarely pure, but messy. And because racism, not just maternal and gender bias, is still rampant there’s added complexity for women of color. So, we dance a fine line to make progress, especially in our careers.
Pooja said, “The goal is to understand that there’s going to be a spectrum of what is 100%, 50% and what is 0% values aligned. And for enough of a finely tuned self-censor, to have a good read on where you fall within those buckets. The thing that Moms usually don’t have time for, yet it’s important, is the whole process of reflecting.”
Asking Yourself Hard Questions
Pooja is intentional about differentiating ‘real self-care’ from pampering. And it’s not as if she’s anti-spa treatment. But she cautions against chasing fun experiences, over lasting solutions, for our mental health. Pooja said, “A massage is a method. But as I explain in the book, what we actually need are principles. A different framework for making decisions where we can ask ourselves different questions.” Yes!
She added, “So, instead of trying to cram a massage into your day, we need to completely reconceptualize our entire structure of how we spend our time. And ask ourselves the hard questions. Like, ‘how do I know when I’ve done enough?’ Or ‘where did I learn that I always need to be moving in order to be enough?’ And ‘how can I become okay with disappointing people in my life?’ These are deeper questions.”
And Space for Self-Reflection
“The answers that you get back might not be the ones that you want to hear. They might be scary and that is okay,” Pooja explained. It’s difficult but important for the type of emotional peace many of us crave. She added, “And that doesn’t mean that you need to quit your job, leave your life, or totally burn things down. That’s not the goal. The goal of Real Self-Care is to ask yourself these hard questions and then you sit with it. And that’s why community is so important, because you need a space to be curious and look at these questions.”
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Pooja Lakshmin!
Check out her amazing new book, Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included)! And follow Pooja’s great adventure on her website, Instagram, Twitter.
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Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, MD, finished her psychiatry residency training in 2016, and joined the faculty at George Washington University School of Medicine, where she’s a clinical supervisor in the Five Trimesters Perinatal Psychiatry Clinic. She has a private practice where she applies an integrative approach to taking care of women suffering from maternal mental health conditions like postpartum depression and anxiety, as well as non-moms who are dealing with depression, anxiety, burnout and identity loss.
She writes regularly for The New York Times and is a medical advisor to Peloton.
In 2020, frustrated by the systemic forces that thwart women as well as the gaps in the mental health system, she founded Gemma, a physician-guided women’s mental health community, centering impact and equity. In 2022, her colleagues Dr. Kali Cyrus MD MPH and Dr. Lucy Hutner MD joined the leadership team of Gemma.
She lives in Austin Texas with her partner Justin, their son, and their two cats, Kitty and Fifi.Tags: Achieving Goals, Manage Stress For Moms, mental health for moms, mental wellbeing for Moms, Moms Self care, Self-Care For Moms, work life integration for Moms