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How’s my baby? I asked the kind ER nurses. Can you please check his heartbeat one more time? Does he know what’s going on? Can he feel my stress? This hurts . . . is he hurting, too?

It wasn’t exactly my ideal Friday night: lying in a hospital bed, utterly exhausted and dehydrated after losing a day-long battle to keep down food and water. I had no idea what was wrong, but all I knew was that I was scared. Not just scared for myself—although I certainly was—but for my unborn son, just 17 weeks old at that point.

I barely looked pregnant, but I knew he was there. And with each needle prick, IV insertion, and vitals check, I was terrified that my fear, anxiety, distress, and pain would shoot straight into his lime-sized body. My husband and my mother took turns attempting to calm me with saltines and an endless loop of House Hunters on the small flat screen, but all I could do was worry about my health. His health.

The nurse came in and placed the cold monitor against my fatigued stomach muscles, and I heard the undeniably beautiful, watery swish-swish-swish of my baby’s little heart beating away at a strong 140 beats per minute. I knew, at that moment, that he was okay—but also, that I was going to be okay. I was going to be okay, and so was he, because I would make damn sure of it if it was the very last thing I did.

Confronting my need for self-care

It’s no secret that self-care has become a buzzword that dominates social media. Whether it’s summed up in cursory platitudes or discussed more meaningfully, the term used to make me roll my eyes. Self-care? Please. I used to equate it with selfishness or self-indulgence, like tubs of ice cream and five-hour Netflix benders.

Needless to say, self-care has always been a challenge for me. This isn’t really a surprise. As a Type-A recovering perfectionist, I’m extremely hard on myself and perennially struggle to figure out how and when to take time for myself. When I do, I often battle guilt.

My serial neglect of self-care and my understanding of it has kept me swinging between two extremes: workaholism that leads to burnout and anxiety, or self-indulgence that, well, also leads to burnout and anxiety.

But then I got pregnant, and I was finally forced to confront self-care for what it is: absolutely vital.

I resisted at first. Put your feet up, they kept telling me. Pamper yourself! Instead, I wondered, why should I? When women have been having babies for generations, why should I take an afternoon off or spend a Sunday night doing something just for me, simply because I, too, am now expecting?

It was only after lying in that hospital bed that I was finally forced to confront the reality that self-care is not only about me. A season of stress at work combined with inevitable less-than-healthy habits like neglected physical activity, an unhealthy diet, and inadequate sleep were what had landed me in the ER. But my lack of attention to myself wasn’t just harming my own health; it was jeopardizing my son’s.

Self-care isn’t just for me anymore, and it never will be again. But in retrospect, I’ve realized that it was never just about me in the first place.

Remembering to look outward

If I don’t take time to fill my soul and enrich my mind, how will I have anything to give to my child—or my husband, family, and friends? When I take the time to practice yoga, grab a coffee with a girlfriend, take a long walk, or write in my journal, I’m preparing myself to be a better mother, wife, friend, and daughter. When I set aside time on Sundays to stockpile healthy, nutritious meals for my family instead of pouring cereal yet again, I’m not just filling my own energy stores but loving my family well. And there is no other vocation, avocation, or occupation that means more to me than that.

My journey into motherhood has shown me that self-care is so much more than self-indulgence. It’s our lifeblood. If we can’t commit to caring for ourselves, we are pouring from an empty cup. I understand now that if I don’t preserve time in my days to honor every part of me—spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, physically, and relationally—I simply won’t have anything to give my husband and my son. Quite simply, I won’t be able to authentically love or serve anyone. In fact, I may even deplete their own energy stores as I deplete my own mind and body and soul in the pursuit of some nameless, faceless, worthless end goal.

The joy and privilege of nurturing this child have impressed the vital importance of self-care on my heart. When I choose to care for myself, I am, quite literally, sustaining another life. And, even beyond my son, I’m better able to support everyone in my life.

Now, when I’m tempted to barrel straight back into old habits, I’ll pause, take a deep breath, and remind myself that this isn’t just for me. And that, alone, will make all the difference.