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Sanity Savers

Over the years, I have observed many of my once savvy, energetic, childless friends morph into distracted, exhausted new moms. I vowed to be different, promising myself that I would stay focused and vibrant when my baby arrived. There would be no dark circles under my eyes, or snacks of organic strained pears at 3 AM.

You won't be surprised when I tell you that those lofty resolves quickly became footnotes in history when my son Gabriel was born. All I could think about were the existential Big Three: feeding, diapering, sleeping. Sure, I became focused  -- on my newborn's every milestone. And just like my friends, I lived in an altered state, navigating hazily through time wearing sweats and a twisted pile of greasy hair on top of my vacant head.

The reckoning came one afternoon, about six months after Gabe's birth, when I took an uncompromising look at my reflection in a full-length mirror. My posture was hunched and sunken: I looked like something the stork had stepped on. Worse, I had a disconcertingly empty look in my eyes. As soon as I turned my worn body away from the mirror, though, I realized what it craved: sane time. My body and soul needed a period of both physical and emotional distance from my beloved Gabriel, so as to recharge and return to my baby feeling whole.

A Little R&R
"Women who fail to take time for themselves forget they were once clever and competent," says clinical social worker Loren Cole, co-founder of Family Solutions and mother of three in Brattleboro, VT. "Instead, they experience only the relentless demands of their infant and lose sight of their centers."

You don't have to take a week-long vacation from your baby, says Cole; any amount of "you" time will help you rejuvenate. "Once you return to pre-baby hobbies, interests, friendships, and intimate communication with your spouse, you'll feel competent and ultimately like a better mom," says Cole. "As a result, time with your baby will become less stressful and more rewarding because it will be enhanced by a rich, expansive life."

I took a chance and made arrangements with a neighbor to care for Gabriel so I could attend an hour-long dance class twice a week. But my first time in the studio was hardly footloose and fancy-free: Guilt and anxiety became part of the routine faster than the instructor could say "a-one and a-two...."

Thankfully, by the time I arrived home, my exercise-induced endorphins had dissipated my unfounded concerns. Not surprisingly, both neighbor and Baby were doing just fine. What was surprising was that, even after just an hour away, I returned with a new excitement about mothering. I held Gabriel tight in my arms, nuzzled my nose into his neck, and leapt across the floor toward his changing table. Here are some ideas that can help give you a little space for regaining your sanity.

Robin Westen, a freelance writer in Vermont, is the author of 10 Days to Detox: How to Look and Feel a Decade Younger.

Take a Mind Vacation

Using simple meditation techniques can give you a much-needed break from daily pressures. In a study at the University of Massachusetts, 20 out of 22 anxiety-prone volunteers showed a significant improvement in their stress levels following meditation. Here's a technique formulated specifically for new moms: Choose a quiet spot in your home  -- perhaps a corner with warm sunshine and nice plants. While you hold and rock your baby to sleep, pay attention to your breathing. Try to open your mind to the feelings of the moment: "This allows you to breathe into and receive the joy of your mothering experience," says Edwin Kelley, executive director of Insight Meditation Society, a retreat center in Barre, MA. You can also do as the serene Tibetan monks do by softly repeating blessings to your newborn, such as, "May you be peaceful. May you live in ease." Both you and Baby will feel the difference after only five to ten minutes.

Create a Scrapbook

Lots of new moms are getting into a new craze some call "creative memory scrapbooking." It's similar to the idea of Tupperware parties, but nothing is hawked. Instead, groups of mothers get together specifically to organize pictures of their babies, using stickers, pens, and personal drawings to embellish their photo albums. They also include personal journal entries, cards, and letters  -- in fact, anything goes.

Go to the Videotape

Kris Chernavage, of Redford, MI, felt deprived when her schedule became so hectic that she couldn't tune in to her favorite soap opera. She decided to put her VCR to use, and now she never misses an episode. Chernavage says that she waits for her husband to get home before playing the tape: "He knows it's my time and only under the most dire emergency am I to be disturbed."

Keep the Romance Alive

It took about three months into Gabriel's life for me to realize that my husband and I were drifting apart on the seas of newborn stress. So I began what I called our "Evening of Romance." Once a week, while Gabe was napping, I prepared a special dinner, set the table with candles, and poured two hefty glasses of red wine. I even greeted my husband at the door wearing something sexy (as sexy as I could look with a baby hooked to my shoulders.) Gabe wouldn't always drift off when I wanted him to, but the effort was there  -- and just making it part of our regular schedule really boosted our marriage.

Express Yourself

Like so many new moms, my friend Ellie Goldfarb, a certified massage therapist, chose to breastfeed her daughter Freesia. But, as she explained to me as she cradled her baby in her arms, she decided early on to express her milk into bottles as well, thereby allowing her some free time away from her baby. "I'm able to leave our baby with my husband to have occasional afternoons or evenings all to myself," she says. "Whether it's gardening, massaging a client, or going out with a friend, I do it without hesitation. I know Freesia is in loving hands, and she's still getting her mother's milk."

Connect With Nature

It's amazing how nature can sweep us away into another realm. Just ask philosopher Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond  -- or new mom Ann Marie Daniel, of Isle of Skye, Scotland: "Sometimes after spending the entire day in the house nursing, it feels like my world is the size of a baby wipe," she says. "It helps me immensely to put my baby, Oscar, in his carrier, step outside, and focus on the natural world. Watching a bird soar, looking at the landscape, or just feeling the fresh air helps to broaden my perspective."

Take a Coffee Break

Amy Murphy, a busy mom and editor in New York City, coordinates her "me time" with her son Toby's naps. "On weekends, I walk to my favorite local coffee shop, buy a scone, and read the paper while Toby's asleep in his stroller by my side," she says. "I suppose I could do that at home, but when I'm there I can't help but fold laundry, write checks, wash dishes, or do anything else that needs doing."

Know When to Say Yes and No

"I know some moms have a hard time passing their babies into someone else's arms," says Emily Greer, a lawyer who practices from her Boston home and the mother of 10-week-old Darcy. "But not me. When I'm at a gathering, and someone I know wants to hold Darcy, I pass her over immediately. It gives me both a physical and an emotional break. I'm able to focus on the adults in the room and have a 'grown-up' conversation for as long as Darcy is content."

Greer, who entertains frequently with her husband, Larry, an assistant basketball coach at Boston University, also encourages certain guests to stay for weekends. "We had one visitor recently, an old college pal, who was ready to be a mom  -- all she wanted to do was hold Darcy. My response? 'Be my guest!'"

But welcoming visitors takes discrimination and tact. We all know about the guests from hell who expect to be waited on. "I already have my hands full," agrees Greer. "I don't want another helpless baby in my house. If I think a visit is going to be a draining situation, I've learned how to say no. Nicely, of course."

Walk in a Group

In the months after Gabriel's birth, I bumped into lots of new moms in town or at the supermarket, and we'd inevitably find ourselves standing around moaning about weight gain and boredom. Finally, I started taking down phone numbers and organized a walking group. Every week, at least four of the six of us managed to make it out of the house with our babies in tow. We walked at least a mile, and all agreed that the fresh air and exercise worked wonders. I found that walking in a group, rather than alone, gave me a real incentive to get moving.

Stick to a Schedule

Laura Jacobs, a graphic artist in New York City, learned to be firm about scheduling, but only after trying to wing it and do it all: "Before Lotty was born, I had this fantasy I would be able to rock my baby's cradle with one hand and draw with the other," she says. She tried doing full-time work and babycare every day for about three months, but her battery burned out.

So Jacobs got a giant calendar and marked off those times and dates when she would be at her studio, home with Lotty, or on her own. "My personal time was written boldly in purple ink, and believe me, there wasn't much of it," she recalls. "But I learned that when you're a new mom, scheduling is a serious business. If you just leave it to the fates, you'll never get a moment to yourself."

Probably the biggest problem we all face when it comes to securing some sane time is guilt. We think we should be with our baby every free minute we have. But trust me, in order to give your newborn your all, you've got to get away from it all once in a while.