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Moms, you deserve to take care of yourselves
November 8th, 2011
07:08 AM ET

Moms, you deserve to take care of yourselves

Anthony Youn, M.D., is a plastic surgeon in Metro Detroit. He is the author of “In Stitches,” a humorous memoir about growing up Asian American and becoming a doctor.

When I imagine the stereotypical Korean mother, I think of my mom. If there were four servings of food left for our family of five, she’d promptly announce that she wasn’t hungry.

My wife, a pediatrician, spends all day taking care of other people’s kids, then all evening taking care of ours. I’ve encouraged both my mother and my wife to put their needs first once in a while, instead of always trying to take care of everyone else. It’s not selfish to occasionally put yourself first. I’ve learned that it can mean the difference between life and death.

A few years ago, I received a call from the ER to see Mildred, a 65-year-old woman who needed a plastic surgeon. This wasn’t a typical ER request to repair a dog bite or knife wound. The doctor said, grimly, that Mildred’s left breast was gone.

The moment I walked into Mildred’s room the stench hit me like a fist to the nose. The smell of dead, rotting flesh filled the room. I approached her gingerly as she sat on the hospital gurney.

“Hi, Mildred. I’m Dr. Youn, the plastic surgeon. What’s happened?”

She stared at the floor, then finally looked up at her husband sitting in a chair next to her.

“Tell him, Mildred,” he said.

She hesitated. “About a year ago I felt a lump in my breast. I didn’t think anything of it, so I ignored it. I really didn’t have time to deal with it. I took care of my grandkids every day while their mom worked three jobs. Well, the lump kept getting bigger. One day, a sore opened up on my breast. It started draining and bleeding. We live out in the country and we don’t have much money, so I just covered up the wound with an extra diaper. Then it got even worse. I finally came here to get it checked out.”

“Let me take a look,” I said.

She hesitated again, then uncovered her left breast.

The sight and smell rocked me.

Her left breast was gone.

In its place sat a mass of wet gray tissue that looked like moist clay.

“How long has your breast looked like this?”

“Four months.”

I bit my lip. “Why did you wait so long?”

“I’ve been so busy with my grandkids that I didn’t have an extra minute to take for myself. They can’t afford a babysitter. They got nobody else to take care of those kids. One of them has special needs. They count on me.” Mildred swallowed. “Am… am I gonna be okay?”

I sat down on the gurney next to her. “I don’t know, Mildred. But I’m going to take care of you. I promise you I’ll do my best.”

A short time later a CT scan revealed that Mildred had breast cancer that had spread to several other organs. We brought her to surgery, removed what remained of her cancer-stricken breast, and placed a skin graft over the area. We’d done everything we could. She died four months later.

Mildred’s sad case jolted me. I started thinking about the sacrifices so many women make for their families. If Mildred had taken only a couple hours to see a doctor once she found the lump, she might be alive today.

It’s often said that mothers and grandmothers are the glue that holds a family together. Without them, the family falls apart. I’ve encountered countless female patients who’ve spent the majority of their adult lives caring for others - children, spouses, parents - at the expense of their own health. Although I encourage these patients to set aside time to care for themselves, I know that many don’t hear me.

My wife is a working mom who doesn’t do enough for herself. She constantly sacrifices her time, energy, and even her health to care for her patients and our children. It’s against her nature to take time for herself. But with a nudge from me - and some significant Daddy-kid bonding - she’s starting to allow herself an occasional breather. She needs it. She deserves it.

I urge all women to do the same - if necessary, get someone to help you out - but take the time to take care of yourselves.


soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. clutzycook

    Would that all men were like you. My husband wouldn't think to give me a time out from our child if my hair was on fire unless I specifically asked him to take her while I go stick my head under the faucet.

    November 8, 2011 at 08:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • anotherclutzycook

      Wonder if we are married to the same man...is he tall, dark and handsome??

      November 8, 2011 at 09:46 | Report abuse |
    • clutzycook

      Nah, short, medium and only good looking when he shaves. 🙂

      November 8, 2011 at 12:13 | Report abuse |
    • Suzy

      My husband would ask me why I don't just bring her to the faucet with me and give her a bath while I am at it. Then he would go back to youtube and facebook.

      November 8, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse |
    • mm3400

      Equality starts at home ladies. We have to fight for it. We need time to ourselves. We can't wait for our husbands to give us the time we need. They won't do it. We have to demand it in a firm way. I know because I have been doing this for the last 8 years. My son is now 11. I used to think that doesn't my husband see I am exhausted and need my own time and space? How come he doesn't offer to take care of the baby so I can do whatever....He may never ask. It doesn't mean he doesn't love you, necessarily. Mine does but he just couldn't see this issue. We have to take the time, literally. It unfortunately doesn't get handed to us by our spouses.

      November 8, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse |
    • Jessica

      I better handle of the work myself than start fights on who can do what... I'm sad that my girls are learing that it is OK for the woman to work like a dog at work and home.

      November 8, 2011 at 14:12 | Report abuse |
    • clutzycook

      I'm the same way. I was just telling a collegue yesterday that it frequently takes more energy to nag and plead and beg and b***h at my husband to do something than it does for me to just do it myself. An example of this was a few years ago when I was running late for work, I didn't have time to take the trash to the curb. So, I called him and asked if he could take the trash out before 9am so it would be collected. When I came home, the empty cans were on the curb, but the recycling bin was still sitting in the garage, filled to the brim. When I asked him about it, he said, "oh, you just said take out the trash, I didn't know the recycling went out at the same time." Seriously?

      However, if it's something that I absolutely cannot do, I will ask him to do it, and if I seriously need an hour away from my child, I will ask him to watch her while I run to the store, etc. Usually he's fine with it. But I guess for men, the concept of taking the initiative ends when they clock out at 5pm.

      November 8, 2011 at 15:51 | Report abuse |
    • jo

      I am an Indian and I share your feelings. My husband is the laziest person I have met. I had a c-sec after laboring for 12 hours and my husband never shares any work..after 2 master's and a job as faculty I am a full time house keeper and baby sitter...eventhough he is a nice person, it irritates me when he pretends to be a dedicated hubby in front of other men(especially) and women..since I look like a crazy woman after doing all the work and running after kids..he comes across as a pleasant person.

      November 8, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
    • Me

      I'm under the impression that this is a typical an thing. My husband complains about how bored he is at work and has nothing to do all day, but when he comes home and I ask for a few minutes of peace and quiet from our 3 year old, all I get is "I've been working so hard all day long. I have 50,000 things to do! All you do is set around all day!" I guess the cooking, sweeping, moping, vacuuming, dishes, wall washing, doctors appointments, trips to the playground, book reading, and everything else around here just does itself every day. I WISH! He has been out of country twice, with out us, since she was born. Rather than coming back and asking if I need help with anything, he complains that it's too noisy with her tantrums.

      November 9, 2011 at 11:09 | Report abuse |
    • J

      Ladies I dont agree with how your husbands treat you, but to be fair you did marry them and decide to have a family with them. I find it hard to believe that up until the point of the child being born they were dedicated, hard working, considerate and always thinking of you, but once that little one arrived everything changed. At some point you have to take on some of the responsibility for how things are. My sister is in a very similar position but she shares just as much of the blame as he does. She could easily step up and lay the law down but she hasnt and probably wont. People dont tend to change so the fact is they are probably who they were to begin with, only now the problem is more noticeable due to the added stress of children.

      November 9, 2011 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
    • rachel

      Really ladies? How about instead of being on the internet complaining about your crappy husbands, you DO something about it. You want to go have coffee with your friends? TELL him, here are the kids, I'm leaving. What is he going to do? Abandon the kids while you're away?? If so, divorce him for being an unfit parent! Why are you having kids with a person you wouldn't trust to leave your kids with in the first place?? Do you work a fulltime job, and then have to come home and do everything? Why? Because you nag and he doesn't do anything? TELL him, you're doing the dishes tonight. Leave them until he does. If it doesn't get done, and you end up doing everything yourself, again, DIVORCE HIM!!! Unless this was the arrangement you made prior to being married, he should be participating in household chores just like you. I do agree with the person who said these men were most likely always this way, and you went ahead and married them anyways. I have multiple friends who have done this. Married men who drink too much, or who never help out, and they expect these men to be different just because he's now married or has children. Here's a clue, if he's lazy before you got married, he'll be lazy once you're married as well! But, that info is a little too late for most of the ladies. So, now you have three options, do something about it, leave him, or stop complaining and deal with the decision you made. Married life doesn't have to be that way. I know! My husband and I both work fulltime jobs and have a teenage son. We've both always worked fulltime. We both contribute to household chores, and I have no problems leaving my son with my husband, or vice versa. Marriage doesn't have to be a trap where the woman does all the work while the man sits around and has everything done for him. If you're not happy in your current sitation, do something about it. Tell him what's bothering you, go to counseling. And, if he can't even do that for you, leave his a**!

      November 9, 2011 at 12:39 | Report abuse |
  2. Nancy

    Thanks for sharing that story, as horrible as it was for that patient it truly serves as a reminder for all woman that we need to take time for ourselves. We are our family's rock. I am personally going through a breast issue right now and am awaiting the results of excisional biospy from calcification found during a routine yearly mammogram and I am only 43 years old. I am grateful for the man I married as he has always been there to support me and he totally understands that we need to take care of ourselves in order to be better wives and mothers. This story made me cry. I shared it with all of my female friends as a reminder that we should never take our health for granted.

    November 8, 2011 at 09:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Valentijn

    Sounds like it was a financial problem just as much as a time-based one.

    November 8, 2011 at 09:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • maggiem

      I thought that also.
      I could see myself doing this too, all for financial reasons. In this case, it would be because I'd also be putting the medical and Rx needs of my husband and son before my own.

      November 8, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse |
    • Trina

      It may have been a financial problem... but the lady's choice, not telling the kids she needed time to see a doctor, cost her kids years of free babysitting!!! Yes, her life was priceless and her loss great. I am just saying that it was a poor humanitarian decision as well as a poor financial decision. Her decision not to see a doctor was unfortunate on so many levels!

      November 9, 2011 at 13:17 | Report abuse |
  4. An Asian mother

    Dr. Youn, your wife is a lucky woman. You think for her. Not many men out there remember or even know how much work their wives have to do.
    Thanks Dr. Youn for this article! It reminded us (women) to reserve time for ourselves. Especially Asian women, we not only take care of kids, we take care of elderly parents too. If we don’t reserve the time, we will never have time for ourselves. So we could reserve at least an hour a day and a few days in a year to do what needed for our body and mind. Think of it the same way the accountants’ budget their book. When they need to increase expense on something, they cut expense somewhere else. So, we could reserve time for us and reduce time on some thing less important, or reduce spending on the less important things and use the money to hire a helper. After all, when we stay healthy, we bring more join and happiness to the family.

    November 8, 2011 at 10:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • gaelowyn

      Taking care of parents isn't only an Asian thing, just a bit of an FYI. My mom and I both took care of my grandmother. I have many friends of various cultural/racial backgrounds that are taking care of elderly parents/grandparents.

      Now back to original article. A very well written article. Many women grow up with maternal role models of self sacrifice. I know I did, and I know I now do the same. If money has to be spent, it goes to the kids first. If things need to be squeezed into the schedule, it's stuff for the kids first. My husband has a very time demanding job(which we are still very grateful for) and I too work full time. I'm a single parent 80-90% of the week, and when hubs is home, I'm taking care of his needs on top of the kids. It's a hard cycle to break, overlooking your needs for your family's.

      November 8, 2011 at 11:28 | Report abuse |
    • An Caucasian Mother

      First and foremost, thank you to Dr. Youn for this, and for remembering that his wife and mother aren't infallable.
      To "An Asian Mother": I'm going to assume you did not mean to imply that the rest of us put our parents out on the street with the earlier woman's trash. My mother has Stage 4 cancer that we just found out has metastisized, and she and I are making plans for the day when she is no longer here and I need to run herd on my father (the classic "absentminded professor", love him dearly, and he's brilliant, but he will eat cereal for every meal, every day, if he can). I love my parents and will be caring for them, just as you are. Please remember that, too.
      I may be a bit sensitive- we just buried a beloved family member after months of around-the-clock care this weekend, so it's a raw wound. She was also an incredible woman, who raised a large family with very little money or help. She, thankfully, was here over 90 years, though. Come to think of it, it was her daughters that were caring for her, too- not her sons.

      November 8, 2011 at 20:30 | Report abuse |
  5. Brittanie

    This article was very moving for me. My grandmother did that for her kids, im her granddaughter, and it was hard when i found out she had three different kinds of cancer because she didnt take time to take care of herself because her grown children lived off her. So now with my children, i make sure to take a few hours a week to have a little me time, because i want to be healthy and happy all the time for them.

    November 8, 2011 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Bibi

    As a general statement, we are no good to anyone else if we cannot first take care of ourselves.Such a horrible end for an apparently very giving woman.

    November 8, 2011 at 12:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. HotMommythatsme

    Great advice, but really hard for a lot of mothers, wives etc to do. Especially those that are widowed...

    November 8, 2011 at 13:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. JLW

    Amen to this-- not easy but in the end the whole family benefits more.

    November 8, 2011 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Heather

    Great article, thank you for writing that. Now to just find the husband that agrees with that theory and won't cry when he has to quit playing video games for 2 hours to watch the kiddos...

    November 8, 2011 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. LVAL

    I was too busy taking care of my kids, husband, and home and didn't go for a six month follow up mammogram. Six months after that I was having a routine mammogram and BOOM! ,I had breast cancer. Never thought it could happen to me, I thought I was superwomen and NEVER took time for myself. What a hard lessons to learn, it changed my life forever

    November 8, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. LMack

    Ok, women need to take care of themselves, but this womans husband HAD to notice that his wife's breast was being eaten alive! If he loved her he should have MADE her get it checked out, pure and simple.
    I understand being busy, but c'mon people.

    November 8, 2011 at 14:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Natalie

    Ah ladies, it seems we all have the same problem, my husband depends on his mom when i refuse or get tired of him coming home from work and doing nothing but watch tv. God forbid I ask him to put our 3 year old in the bath while I clean up the dinner dishes, from the dinner I just made........or pick him up from daycare. i know he works hard, but I also work hard and 40 hours a week. When I get on him he turns to his mother.....I can relate to the woman who was talking about taking the trash out. We once had a neighbor comment how I was the one to go out and start the cars in the winter and clean the snow off and shovel the walk, not him...........we joked about it, but they were right. You do have to take time as a woman for yourself..........even fight for it. I know I do. Great article.

    November 8, 2011 at 17:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. HockeyMinny

    Dr Youn;

    Well done. Many thoughts about your comments. As a guy (who knows which end of the dish rag to use) I must also remember that "doing" is important but so is "being there" for your spouse. As a father of 6; 3 are mine and she's a widow of 3, it's a struggle to get "mom" to care for herself. She may whimper from time to time but shared responsibility and equal downtime is crucial so she doesn't feel guilty about doing something for herself. We cared for her cancer filled mom in our home and taught our kids the most important thing in life is family. I am sad to see so many in this country who have no health care while American's waste time and money on such trivial matters. Our family has faith in God and many moms will get a special reward in heaven... maybe some dads too. 🙂

    November 8, 2011 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. elleemme

    Dr. Youn: Are you for real?

    November 8, 2011 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Notsolucky

    Thank you Dr. Yuan for reminding me of what others have already been telling me. Your wife is very lucky and I'm sure she knows it. Most men just don't think that way. My cardiologist once told me I needed a wife lol! In any case, I am only 37 and already have a roster of doctors, and have probably put three of them through college with all the health issues and hospital stays. As your story illustrates, I work full time and still do probably 90% of the childcare and household chores. Never taking time to do anything else for myself because I do feel selfish. As my health deteriorates, I think my husband has started to help more, but in his defense I was never good about asking for help because the hassle and stress were not worth it sometimes. Even now, I quietly keep going with my normal routine even on days my body (and doctor) tells me I should rest. Always a tough balancing act...Thank you again.

    November 9, 2011 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. LEB

    A person should order their life priorities like this: 1) Yourself. 2) Your marriage. 3) Your children.

    It seems like it should be the other way around because we value "selflessness" to a fault, but that order of priorities IS selfless. Who would argue that children should be raised by parents in loving, stable relationships? No one. Who would argue that to be a good spouse, you must first BE a good spouse? No one. So that's why it is the correct order... take care of yourself, which benefits your marriage, which BOTH benefit your kids.

    Does that mean you deprive children of what they need? Definitely not! What your child *needs* (not wants) are of utmost importance, and sometimes parents have to sacrifice. But your needs are important, too, and sometimes your needs will need to come before your child's wants. And sometimes your marriage needs to come first, too, because the marital relationship is considerably more fragile than the parent-child relationship. Honestly, your marriage won't end because you go to the gym for an hour twice a week (heck, the results might make it better!), and your kid won't be mentally scarred from you having a date night now and then with your spouse.

    November 9, 2011 at 04:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Happily Married

      I disagree: 1) God 2) Marriage 3) Children

      My marriage and myself became one when I said "I do". I gave myself to my husband and he gave hmself to me, we are one unit. If I need alone/personal time, that is an important to my marriage and together time and therefore the same.

      And to all these rants about men needing to be told what to do... you woman married the wrong men (especially if you feel the need to rant on a public site). My husband isn't perfect but niether am I, but he does value me and care about my health, happiness and needs, hence a major reason for my marrying him.

      November 9, 2011 at 11:20 | Report abuse |
  17. Helen

    So let's do something to improve the lives of the women of our future. For those of us who have sons teach them early to help around the house so they grow up knowing it is part of their contribution to the family as much as taking out the garbage or washing cars or mowing the lawn (usually boy chores) My 12 year old washes the breakfast dishes, does his own laundry, picks up and cleans his own room, and sometimes helps with cleaning the bathroom and getting dinner started even if it is putting the frozen pizza in the oven. Yes sometimes I have to remind him to do things and it isn't always as I've would have done it but he will learn how to do them and know that he can do them and not expect others (future wife?) to do it for him. WOMEN DELEGATE!!!!!!

    November 9, 2011 at 08:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. An Asian mother

    I apology to all Non-Asian women! I did not mean that you don’t take care of your parent at all. Sorry! It was a bad word choose.

    November 9, 2011 at 09:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. WorkAtHome!

    Taking time for myself is more of a hassle than anything, but that's just me personally. Sounds nice in concept...

    November 9, 2011 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. San

    I am reading what some of these women are writing and it alarms me. I divorced my good-for-nothing husband a decade ago. I am not advising anyone to do that because it has been a hard financial time, but my kids are now nearly grown and I plan to do a lot of things for myself since I have sacrificed so much of my life for their well-being (in addition to his being a bad husband, he was also a bad father, so I had to step up and do it all). You do not deserve to take care of everyone's needs while your husbands are on Facebook or watching sports and doing nothing to help raise your children. This is heartbreaking to read. God bless you all.

    November 9, 2011 at 12:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Felicia

    It took twenty eight years of marriage,three kids, a full-time job, full-time student for me to realize I was truly tired. After the last child graduated from high school I decided it was time for me. The first thirty years was for my husband and family, the next thirty are for me. I no longer do what I do not want to do, talk to people I do not want to talk to , or go where I do not want to go. I have found the word "no" to be so liberating!! It is wonderful...I am finally taking the time for me to get my health in order and find out who I really am...what I like and what I dislike. I am truly fortunate, my husband understand my bi-weekly spa treatments....IT IS WONDERFUL! I AM WELL WORTH IT!

    November 9, 2011 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. cjf

    Yesterday here on CNN, a big story about how an poor guy was widowed by the war in afganistan and had to raise his child alone! Oh no! A man has to raise a child? Don't countless single mothers do that every day with no news story about it?

    Today a story about how a woman let her breast rot because she didn't have time to take care of the problem. What was this woman's husband doing while her breast was rotting?

    What do these stories have to say about our roles and society?

    November 9, 2011 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Cathy

    While I agree as a working mother...not all husbands are there to help. Good for you to be such a great Dad, Husband and Man!

    November 9, 2011 at 19:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Better off than most of you

    Clearly, some of you ladies need to get a backbone. My husband and I do everything fifty fifty. And I would have to be clinically insane to work full time, take care of the house, and the kids while my husband lazes around and not contribute. Seriously, it's you fault for letting it happen.

    November 9, 2011 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. LL

    Better to stay single and childless.

    November 9, 2011 at 21:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. TRACK

    Remember we choose HIM, unless you were forced...Yes I take time for myself and thinking nothing of it! If we take care of ourselves our children would be happier in later life not having to take care of us. Do not let parents n children manipulate you for your time, my opinion, and if you have sisters n brother Jesus left HIS mother with John to care for not one of HIS sisiters...TRACK

    November 10, 2011 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Teri

    I have 4 kids, 2 boys and 2 girls, and all of them pick a room to clean downstairs daily: Living room, office area, kitchen, and dining room. First one to get homework done picks first. My husband does all the laundry and anything else he sees that doesn't get done during the day. He is active duty military...if he can help around the house then I would say that just about any other man can too. I don't have a job (where we live it's very hard for military spouses to get work even with the programs for it) but I am starting school. I fully expect my family to help clean up the house...not just myself and my husband live here!

    November 10, 2011 at 14:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Christopher Dycha

    I have been blessed with a mother and now a wife that resembles the woman in this article. My mother was selfless, giving and nurturing-maybe to a fault. I use that experience to encourage balance in my wife's life. Whatever I am capable of doing, I do not dump on her. She already gives enough of herself. We make health and medical wellness a priority for each other so we can be there for each other for the long haul. Christopher Dycha

    November 11, 2011 at 07:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. WRS

    Dr. Youn, you raise a good and valid point. I´m a true believer that we teach people how to treat us and that starts within ourselves.
    I´m a single mother of a disabled child. Yet I didn´t hesitate a nanosecond to go and have a lump in my breast checked or having the itchy moles nipped off. I am all too well aware that I`m the only parent and adult to my son, to take care of him and that means I need to keep myself alive and well. I didn´t always think of myself that important, but then life got so heavy and I got so tired. I needed to just get happy and start doing things that made me thrive again. There´s nobody else here doing it for me. And I don´t want to leave that legacy to my son. I´m teaching him how to treat himself and other people by my own example.

    I know, I´m a bit late for the party but this story struck very close to home.

    November 20, 2011 at 15:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Emmy

    My husband helps out whenever I need him to. Why? Because I've made it very clear that unless he can work and support the family and let me be a stay-at-home mom, it's just as much his responsibility to make sure the house stays clean! I'm not his mommy, and I never will be! He and I work full-time and take care of our girls – TOGETHER. Anytime he thinks that needs to change, he knows where he can find the door!

    December 5, 2011 at 16:52 | Report abuse | Reply

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