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When Being Selfless Backfires

April 2, 2017

Contributor and Thrive Hive Wellness founder Jennifer Khalaf shares her story of how being selfless didn’t work for her, and how she learned the value of self-care.


Selfless (adj.) having or showing great concern for other people and little or no concern for yourself (see also: Mom/Dad).

I used to think being selfless was a good quality and devoting myself to my family was my top priority, but I came to realize that in fact the word had a more literal meaning for me.  By taking care of everyone but myself for a prolonged period of time, I became…less. Less rested. Less nourished. Less patient. Less happy. Less fulfilled. Less…me.  I wasn’t the person I wanted to be and I felt helpless. I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew something needed to change because I was quickly approaching rock bottom. This is the story of what I finally did to make myself a priority and how my family benefited.

Three months after having my second child, I found myself in a very bad place. I was on edge, anxious, exhausted and beginning to grow resentful of my kids for not sleeping, nagging, being sick or just wanting more of me when I was already running on empty. I remember saying to my husband, “I’m scared. Is there going to be a big neon sign that says ‘last stop before you crack – mind the gap!?’”  I felt certain I would never harm my kids, but I was in a space that I could truly understand how otherwise loving parents cracked. It was a wakeup call. Something had to change.

To rewind a bit, for two years, I was a stay at home mom with my son who didn’t sleep consistently through the night until my daughter was born. I didn’t have family nearby to help, and I was of the mindset that since I decided not to go back to work, I should be taking care of the baby and all of the cooking and other housework.  I felt uncomfortable spending money on a sitter—or anything, really—because I wasn’t “earning” money.  I had that “I should be able to do this” mentality that I see so many other mothers exhibiting these days.  They say it takes a village, and it is so true, but many of us are doing it on our own. Sometimes the burden of exhaustion and lack of sleep just become too much for the body to bear. I was able to play super mama with one child, but I wasn’t able to keep up when my daughter came along, and that made me feel like a failure. I felt like I didn’t make the cut for (super) motherhood. I was bone-tired, yet, when I finally collapsed in bed at night, I couldn’t fall asleep.  My mind would run like a movie reel of all of the things I didn’t get done that day.  Then, I read an article stating that more and more mothers are suffering from adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance as a result of burning the candle at both ends and I thought, “that’s me.

What did I do? Crazily, I enrolled myself in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.  At the time I wasn’t sure whether I was completely nuts for adding more to my already overflowing plate, or a genius for finally following a passion of mine that was just for me. And, I made some big changes. I increased my babysitting hours, took naps on occasion, worked out twice a week, and met a friend for coffee or a drink here and there.  I had a really hard time making this transition because I felt guilty – guilty for spending time away from my kids and/or spouse and guilty for adding to our expenses, no matter how menial. I had to continuously remind myself that in order to care for everyone else, I needed to be in a better physical and emotional state.  I, too, deserved to be happy and whole.

Since making myself a priority, I’m a different person. I’m happier, more present, I sleep well and I eat in a way that makes me feel good. Now, I have the tools to bring myself back to calm when things get hairy (which—let’s face it—is every day, because I have two young kids).

Self-care has become a commercialized buzz word, but it’s not a luxury. The demands of modern life make us lose sight of the fact that we need to care for ourselves: mind, body and spirit. It’s all about holding space for yourself to do whatever makes you feel joyful. If that means buying a necklace to jazz up your soon-to-be spit up splattered t-shirt – do it!  If it means joining CrossFit for a great workout and social network – have at it! Want to belt out a daily power ballad in your shower? By all means! Make a list of things that make your heart sing (old passions or new adventures) and get them on your calendar once a week or once a month; whatever is realistic for you.  Treat this time as a very important meeting and make sure to show up for yourself.  At the end of the day you’re not “just” mom or dad, you are your own person and you DESERVE to be a priority, to be unapologetically happy and healthy. Start being a little more “selfish;” you may be amazed at the results.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Know your worth. So many of us judge ourselves by how good a parent we are, what kinds of foods our kids eat, or how much money we do (or don’t) make. What we do doesn’t define who we are and as soon as we realize that, we might be more likely to value ourselves enough to take care of our health and make joy a priority. I hope you take care of yourself because you want to, but I do understand that as parents we are often more motivated to do things if we know it benefits our children.  To that I say –  you can’t pour from your cup if it’s empty. Fill ‘er up!


Jennifer Khalaf is a Certified Holistic Health and Integrative Nutrition Coach (IIN) working with mothers and families to improve their health in a simple and accessible way. Jennifer specializes in helping moms reclaim their health and seriously increase their joy factor through nutrition and self-care. She offers one-on-one coaching and provides pantry makeovers and cooking demos for families in the NYC area. Jennifer also serves on the board of Tournesol Kids, a non-profit empowering children to lead healthy and resilient lives. Jennifer lives in Manhattan with her husband and two young children who are constantly keeping her on her toes. For more information, follow her on Facebook and Instagram.