In our Listen to Your Mother (or Father) series, we ask moms and dads working at Highmark Health to share the wisdom that can only come through the experience known as parenthood. In this post, Keren Gifford confronts the challenges of making healthy lifestyle changes while juggling all the challenges of being a new parent.

In my first Listen to Your Mother post in 2016, I wrote about the challenges of being a new parent trying to juggle taking care of my baby with taking care of myself.

Drawing on health behavior change theories I’d studied in graduate school, I discussed how increasing and sustaining the inner motivation to change depends in part on building confidence from short-term successes. I’d just reached out to a health coach through Highmark to help me, and said I would write an update after six months or so.

This is not the update I had in mind. In fact — I dropped the ball.

I didn’t keep up my weekly calls with the health coach, some healthy changes got derailed, and I still have habits that are decidedly unhealthy.

I’m not giving up, though. If anything, the past few months have helped me realize that my desire to be healthy, like my desire to be a great mom, is a long-term commitment. It’s strong enough and clear enough to endure many changes, and the inevitable ups and downs.

Like any long-term commitment, it will need to be integrated into my identity. Who am I? I am a fantastic mom. I am a person who eats mainly whole natural plant foods and is physically active every day.

I feel disappointment at not really being myself. Who I am is not someone who would eat an entire pint of ice cream and find it therapeutic! I feel that kind of behavior is somehow a betrayal of my true self. But becoming a parent is a time when I must perhaps reevaluate who I am. I had strategies to cope with stress before I was a mom, but those strategies need to change to fit my new life as a parent.

Healthy Parenting, Meet Healthy Behavior

When I strayed from my “health path” over the last year, I had my excuses. The baby brought home one cold/ear infection/stomach bug after another. If I wasn’t caring for a sick baby, then I was sick myself.

On top of that, there were some work stresses. It’s a challenging time for the health insurance industry, with many organizations reevaluating their strategies to better align with consumers’ needs — short term, that can make for some difficult changes.

All those things amplified a more basic challenge: lack of time.

Keren's son in his high chair with a healthy lunch in front of him

Getting an early start on the “healthy lunch” habit.

It’s not just the extra time required to care for another being, it’s also that I want to spend what little “free time” I have with my son, not driving to a gym to work out alone or researching, shopping for, and preparing the healthiest possible meals.

Since being a good parent is my highest priority, any approach that makes me feel like I have to choose between family and personal fitness is not going to help me get healthy.

Fortunately, this is not an either/or situation. There are many ways I can combine family and wellness.

My desire to be a great mom can motivate, rather than compete with, healthy behavior. Everything from food choices to physical activity to how I manage stress gains momentum if I think about how much I want my son to be healthy.

Being a parent for me has really meant learning to care for myself so that I might care for others. I imagine being a role model: Not just healthy, but smart, compassionate, resourceful, connected. It’s all about small victories, growing confidence, taking care of myself, and modeling what I want for my son.

Keren and her son outside among trees

My son and I enjoying a little “nature” exercise.

Don’t Lose Enthusiasm, Do Make Intentional Choices

So, no, I have not been a perfect model of health and wellness. But rather than feel badly and dwell on how I failed in one area or another, I am continuing to move forward and stay focused on health as a long-term commitment, as part of who I am. As Winston Churchill reportedly said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Of course, enthusiasm alone won’t guarantee success in overcoming all the challenges of balancing real life with real health. To keep me focused, here are a few tips I’ve been giving myself:

  • Be honest with yourself. Saying you intend to do something “later” often means you will not do it at all. The choice isn’t “later” — it’s now.
  • Plan your time. Smart scheduling is how you set and control priorities. Don’t be afraid to schedule even the minutia — the exact time and place, the specific how and with whom and under what exact circumstances. If you set a goal without a specific plan to get there, you never will.
  • Win small victories. Go ahead and dream big, but never lose sight of the simple choices right in front of you. Every small victory where you make a healthy choice will build motivation and momentum to help you achieve additional successes.
  • Remember — this is your life. Focus on what matters most, now. Don’t get bogged down in tasks that may be urgent but aren’t meaningful to you. Life slips by — those hours you don’t do what matters to you quickly turn into weeks, months, years.

    Keren and her son crawling up the stairs of their home

    Nothing against those “step machines” in the gym, but we’re having more fun climbing real stairs!

  • Find your way — no one else can find it for you. Books, websites, programs, doctors, health coaches, and other resources can all help you, but they can’t replace your personal commitment. They can’t tell you who you are. And as in any other area of life, a commitment to health will be most successful if you are defining who you are and what you commit to in the first place.

I hope those tips help you too, especially if you’re a parent struggling with similar challenges. If you want to make a healthy change, take a moment and think of that one thing, that one small thing you could do right now to win a “small victory” for your health. Then do it! And tell me how it went in the comments below!