Dear Mothers: Rest Can Make Room For Joy

Up until about 10 years ago, Domari Dickinson was your typical working mom.

"I got married, had some more kids, started a business, and I didn't feel like I deserved rest," Domari, a certified parenting coach with four kids between the ages of five and 19, told POPSUGAR. "I was like, 'so many things are happening, and I've got to figure out how to be a good wife, how to be a good mom, and how to be a good worker." She soon found herself on the clock from four a.m. until 10 p.m. every night, including weekends.

"This idea of rest is a way to push back against a system that's really trying to get people to believe that our worth or our value is tied to our productivity."

"I did that for years because that's what I had to do to take care of my family," she said. "We do what we have to do. And then I got burnt out, I couldn't show up for my kids at all. I just couldn't. I was tired, I wanted to be left alone. 'You all figure it out.'"

It wasn't until her oldest daughter started assuming parenting responsibilities that Domari realized her life was unsustainable.

"We've been conditioned to believe that if you're not chauffeuring your kids around to 17 different activities on the weekend, you're not doing a good job as a parent," she said. "Or if you're not spending your whole weekend cooking and cleaning and meal-prepping, then you're doing it wrong."

She decided to no longer subscribe to that unrelenting version of motherhood and set to work finding rest. Joyful rest, or, as she put it, rest as a form of resistance.

"This idea of rest is a way to push back against a system that's really trying to get people to believe that our worth or our value is tied to our productivity," Domari said. "The idea that the more I'm able to do, or the more I can produce, the better I am. And if I don't, I'm not valuable. Most of my life I lived that way. Right now, I'm resisting against a lot of external and internal forces and it's not necessarily comfortable because it's going against so much of what I believe it means to be a business owner, a mom, a woman."

The Obstacles That Keep Us From Joyful Rest

It's true that Domari's experience is universal among parents, especially now amid a pandemic that has forced mothers in particular to balance more responsibilities with fewer resources. Still, it hits far closer to home for her as a Black woman.

Shanicia Boswell — a single mother and self-care expert who created Black Moms Blog, authored the book Oh Sis! You're Pregnant: The Ultimate Guide to Black Pregnancy and Motherhood, and launched a series of self-care retreats for women of color across the globe — is acutely aware of this distinction.

"Black women absolutely have it harder," she told POPSUGAR. "I remember when the coronavirus first began, I spoke to many Black mothers who were unfazed. To us, this was just another struggle on top of the many other struggles that we have had to overcome. For some people, this is the first time in their lives of not knowing what's next, when work will start again, or being unable to safely leave their homes. For Black mothers, many had experienced these things before because of lack of income, systematic racism, or whatever other tragic occurrence and had learned to maneuver through it."

She's not wrong, considering that Black people are nearly twice as likely to die of COVID than white people, not because of a genetic predisposition but because of socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, or a risk of exposure due to a frontline occupation. And pre-pandemic, Black people faced similar inequities. Just as their parenting journeys begin, Black mothers are up to four times more likely to die during childbirth, often simply because they are monitored less carefully. Their family dynamics are different, too: roughly 64 percent of Black children are raised in single parent households.

The realities of these statistics only serve to add to the exhaustion of Black parents while simultaneously making rest – never mind restoration or the commodified act of "self-care" – feel impractical if not impossible.

"Many Black mothers are in robot mode — all they know to do is get it done. There isn't any time for tears and bubble baths."

"Self-care is a privilege," Boswell said. "Should it be? No. But it is. How can I focus on self-care when I don't know if I can pay my bills for the month or provide dinner for my family? It is a privilege to have enough time to stop and think about your feelings. Many Black mothers are in robot mode — all they know to do is get it done. There isn't any time for tears and bubble baths."

What's more, this need to be in constant motion is also rooted in a frustrating stereotype.

"Most of the time, people of color have not been able to ever be restful," Mercedes Samudio, a licensed clinical social worker who founded a Shame-Proof Parenting movement, told POPSUGAR. "We're often seen as 'lazy,' so you feel like anytime you stop, you're being lazy and you don't want people to think that."

Like Mercedes, Domari experienced trauma surrounding that very word as a child, and it informed how she moved through the world into adulthood.

"As Black women, we have that expectation that we always have to be strong and that we're not accused of being lazy, and that we can't complain because then we're going to be aggressive or the 'angry Black woman.' So we've been conditioned to not only carry this burden, but to not talk about how hard it is to manage, and worse, to not do anything about it."

Many of the Black parents Domari works with — who often lament they are "hanging on by a thread" as it is — asked her how they can possibly find moments of rest in their busy lives.

"I think it's important to ask the other question, too," Domari advised. "'What happens if I don't?' Instead of saying, 'I don't have the time,' we need to ask ourselves how we can make the time."

The Urgent Need For Joyful Rest

Contrary to popular opinion, rest isn't optional. It's not akin to a pricy spa treatment — it's a biological imperative.

"We've internalized this idea that rest equates laziness, but we need sleep," Mercedes said. "It's an essential bodily function. There's empirical studies that show if you don't sleep, you are worse off. You can't concentrate. You have negative health outcomes."

Yet mothers have long found themselves trapped when it comes to taking time to rest. They are sold the idea of self-care as a luxury to buy into while being reminded that society praises them by their level of selflessness.

"There is nothing empowering about giving all parts of yourself to appease others, even your children."

"Women are taught to be martyrs of motherhood in a way that is completely unhealthy and unrealistic," Shanicia said. "We are expected to do it all: raise our children, please our partners, and have the best careers. The interesting part is, a lot of this expectation comes from other women. We are in constant competition with each other to show that we have it all together."

It wasn't until she hit her "rock bottom" and realized that she was "giving away parts of myself to my friends, my family, and my work" and had nothing left for herself that Shanicia decided to release the "mom guilt" that had long weighed her down.

"There is nothing empowering about giving all parts of yourself to appease others, even your children," she said. "Take off the cape and learn vulnerability again. Allow people to be a helping hand. Say that you do need support. By putting down some of the bags, you can release stress from your shoulders, throw your head back, and laugh again. This is joy."

Domari had a similar turning point. Before discovering joyful rest, she was unhappy and it showed in her relationship with her children.

"When I don't rest, I yell . . . that's what comes out of me," she said. "If we really are serious about cultivating Black joy, then we have to make room for those restful moments in our home, within our families," she said. "It's so much easier to do that when we're not trying to pour from an empty cup."

She added: "Our culture thrives on that idea of mothers having to sacrifice it all, so we, the moms, have to be the ones to really start that shift — to stop apologizing and start normalizing the idea of self-care. It's the only way it'll change."

And change, it must.

"Subversively, Black children are affected by witnessing this," Shanicia said of the devaluation of rest in most households. "Young girls are raised to witness their mothers be overly independent and having to handle it all on their own. Boys are raised to see women do everything and are not properly taught to be a helping hand. So it creates a generational cycle. Self-care and rest were not passed down to us by our ancestors. We are just learning what it looks like to put ourselves first, not just as Black mothers, but as Black women."

How We Can Begin the Journey to Joyful Rest

Shanicia is a self-proclaimed "master napper" who hasn't slept with an alarm on in years. Domari has created a schedule in which every Saturday, she's off the clock. Her kids fend for themselves while she takes the day to sleep in, stay in bed, and catch up on TV shows. But they didn't come to these rituals of joyful rest easily.

For Shanicia, the road to reclaiming rest was hard-fought. "If you have spent years giving yourself away, be prepared for the resentment that will come when you take yourself back," she said. "This will come from loved ones and friends so also try to understand that they are only operating from the space of knowing who you have been to them for all these years."

Mercedes also recommends starting in minutes, not hours. "Five minutes of mindfulness is better than trying to go to a whole-hour yoga class," she said. "And if you have 15 minutes to scroll through Instagram, you have that exact same amount of time to replace it with a meditation app or a guided breathing exercise on YouTube."

"If you have 15 minutes to scroll through Instagram, you have that exact same amount of time to replace it with a meditation app or a guided breathing exercise on YouTube."

Then, work yourself up to more time invested in rest. "Give yourself the permission to say, 'I can give myself an hour because the rest of the day is for everybody else,'" she said. "And as you start to give yourself that hour, you start noticing what you can do for yourself in that hour. And it begins to even seep into other things where you'll notice that an hour a week probably isn't enough. Maybe you need two hours a week, or three. And then you start looking for how to do that. So maybe it's not waking up three hours early. Think, 'I'll have the golden hour in the morning, then I'll take an hour at lunch to do this while someone else watches the kids. And then maybe I'll take an hour after everyone goes to bed to give myself some time. You've just found three hours in your day to give to yourself."

By starting small and slowly building up, it's more attainable to find sustainable moments for rest.

So, what does joyful rest actually look like?

It can certainly be as simple and obvious as sleep, but it can also come in the form of reading, taking a bath, or going for a walk – it's different for everyone, but the purpose, Mercedes notes, is to find rejuvenation.

"Mostly, it's a process," Mercedes said. "It's not something that you just do once, or that you just get it right once. So you must be open to the trial and error of, 'OK, I tried yoga and that didn't really work out. Or I tried meditation and that didn't really work.' And not giving up the search. So if it's going for a run or if it's kickboxing, it doesn't have to be quiet and slow. Just whatever you need that helps you to get that energy back."

Add Mindfulness to Mindless Activities
For those truly strapped for time, taking tasks you already tackle and making them more restful is a good entry point. Domari, for instance, washes dishes as a form of joyful rest and decompression. "I have routines that are built in that allow me to rest," she said. "It's a time in the day where I don't have to think. I just have my music and the dishes. I'm not worried about what else needs to be done."

Practice Eye Gazing
During Shanicia's self-care retreats, she runs a session on eye gazing. "Stand in front of your mirror and really look into your eyes," she said. "When you do this, you'll realize how unfamiliar you are with your actual face. Tell the woman how beautiful and deserving she is. Are there things about yourself you don't like? Become comfortable accepting that because when you accept it, you will put forth the effort to change it. We have to be comfortable looking into ourselves and also being seen."

Sleep-Train Yourself
Much like babies, adults can be sleep-trained. Although Shanicia recognizes the privilege in setting your own sleep schedule, if it's possible to do so, she advises you allow your body to follow a natural sleep pattern, waking and falling as it pleases. "I know it sounds hippie-ish, but it works," she said. "I normally wake up naturally around 6 a.m. in the warmer months and 8 a.m. in the cooler months. My body requires a nap around mid- to late-afternoon, and I start to wind down between 10 or 11 p.m." For those who complain that naps are draining, it's likely because they are being used as sleep-replacements, not sleep-boosters. "I am very well-rested so when I do rest to nap, it normally only lasts 20 to 30 minutes. My body needs a reboot, not a rebirth. Learning to properly give in to rest will serve you well in the long run." For those less attuned to their natural body clock, Mercedes suggests experimenting with different amounts of sleep. "Don't feel like you have to sleep 10 hours," she said. "When do you feel most rested? After five hours? Six? After eight? Pay attention to that, and then try it for a week. See what changes or what happens."

Stay Firm With Boundaries
If Thursdays are your nights for self care and your partner is responsible for dinner and bathing the children, don't back down from this. "Uphold your standard even if excuses are thrown your way," Shanicia said, offering up a quick script: "Honey, I understand you want to get drinks with your friends tonight but tonight is my night for self-care. Please honor that."

Foster Independent Children
Domari's full day of rest takes preparation. She has to make sure they have food in the house that doesn't require her to make it. "Saturday breakfast isn't bacon, eggs, grits, and biscuits," she said. "It's cereal and some fruit." She also doesn't set screen time limits. If she gets free time, so do they. Shanicia, too, sees the value in letting go in this way so that everyone in the family can respect each other's needs for their own time. "It's vital to teach children how to entertain themselves but also be compassionate to others — especially their parents."

Find a Like-Minded, Rest-Focused Community
Through Shanicia's work, she discovered the impact others can have on an otherwise solitary pursuit. "I attracted a tribe of women who admitted that because of me, they felt like they could exhale and finally breathe into their motherhood journey," she said. "During the entire process, no one had stopped and told them, 'it's OK to focus on you.'" Domari agrees that a social network who can remind you of your commitment to rest is important. "Your old tendencies are going to pop back up and you're going to over-commit, and they can hold you accountable," Domari said, adding that these should be people who won't make you drum up excuses for why you aren't attending a Zoom birthday party. "They shouldn't make you feel like you owe them an elaborate explanation or shame you for your choices."

Sleeping in, enjoying relaxing in bed and not having to get ready for work.
Getty | Luis Alvarez
Getty | Gary John Norman

How to Foster Joyful Rest In Our Children

All of a mother's progress toward joyful rest ends with her if she doesn't teach her children to adhere to it, too.

"As parents, our goal is to raise children to experience life better than we have before," Shanicia said. "It doesn't mean that our parents did a horrible job — it means they did their exact job. They made it better for us so that we can make it better for our children. As a Black woman, I want to raise a daughter who knows what it is like to have her voice heard and know that she can do anything."

And that includes taking time to do nothing. Shanicia stressed the importance of teaching children self-care early on in life. By now, she said, her eight-year-old daughter knows what rest is and "why Mommy needs it."

She said: "I tell my daughter often that resting will give her a clear mind to make better decisions and see the world in a different light."

"As parents, our goal is to raise children to experience life better than we have before. It doesn't mean that our parents did a horrible job — it means they did their exact job."

These lessons, however, don't stick overnight. Shanicia and her daughter practice "separate togetherness" in which every Sunday, they spend an hour reading in the living room. "She reads her book and I read my own," she said. "It's an activity we do together but separately. It teaches her the importance of quiet time and forming self-pleasing habits. Whenever I tell this story to moms, they always express how they could never get their children to do something like this. Honestly, it's not easy, but parenting rarely is. It is a game of repetition. And this particular parlor trick took years of doing it over and over again without giving in before she realized this is just the normalcy of her life. We read together on Sundays because it is something we have always done. The same way children are trained to wake up, brush their teeth, and go to school, they can be trained to meditate, read quietly, and be empathetic to the feelings of others."

Domari is equally passionate about passing on these learnings to the next generation.

"I'm choosing not to put the pressure to produce on my kids," she said. "I want them to know, 'You are valuable because you are valuable. Not because you do all these things, not because you get good grades, not because you got these sports awards. You are valuable. If you do these things, that's awesome. If you don't do these things, that's awesome, you're still valuable. Just like I'm still valuable and I'm still an amazing mom even if I choose to rest and to not attack my calendar every single day for the rest of my life. And once we believe that, it's a given. I'm valuable even in my resting."