Before even becoming a parent, I was conditioned to believe that good mothers always put themselves dead last. At a college reunion years ago, I complimented a former classmate, a mother of three, on how strong she looked. She shrugged it off: “Oh, that’s because I never take time to make myself food. I just eat scraps off the kids’ plates.”SIGN UP FOR NYT PARENTING: Get evidence-based guidance, plus personal stories and tiny victories from other parents.Sign Up

Years later, when I was pregnant with my son, Isaac, friends who were already moms eyed my bump and advised me to take as many showers as possible before the birth because I wouldn’t have time later. “Welcome to the club,” they said. It felt like hazing.

The message to mothers was clear: The second your child is born, if you take time to even rinse baby goo off your own body, you are overlooking your child and you are selfish. My husband, on the other hand, a super-involved father, hits the shower each morning like clockwork — and even exfoliates. Strangely, no one prepped him to go unwashed and underfed after becoming a parent.

“That’s patriarchy. I’m not going to buy into it,” said Steph Herold of Queens, N.Y., her voice garbled because her toddler had just hurled the phone into the bathtub. At the start of lockdown, he’d newly entered preschool, and having him home again felt like moving backward. “I’m someone who’s never really been great at self-care, and what I found was that the first few months of the pandemic felt like the fourth trimester,” she admitted. Self-care became asking, “What do I need to do to feel human today?”

For Ms. Herold, that can be a therapy session by telephone or even plopping her son in front of a screen for a break. But her needs are always hidden out of sight, she realized recently. When her son is awake, she’s reading him books, washing dishes or working remotely — not stretching out on the couch with a novel. “He needs to see me reading just for me,” she said.

Before my neighborhood sandbox in Brookline, Mass., became a potential infection zone, I learned fast that pulling up with the stroller in anything besides smudged black leggings would earn me glares from other moms. We squatted like identical crows on the sidelines, minding our toddlers with gentle voices, but our chit-chat quickly became a competition over who had gone the longest without a date night (or sex), who had stayed up the latest to finish a work project while cluster feeding. It was refreshing to eventually meet a new friend who regularly booked a babysitter so she could grab dinner downtown with the girls on a weeknight — someone who shamelessly admitted she parented better when her own needs were fulfilled.

These days, recommending self-care to moms is like blurting out the opening line of a dirty joke. Who has the resources for it? A spa day sounds obscene. Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist in Atlanta who goes by “Dr. Joy” and is the host of the podcast Therapy for Black Girls, explained that self-care has been totally commercialized by the wellness industry, but it doesn’t have to be expensive or even cost anything. Instead, she advised considering self-care as “all the things that you need to do mentally, physically and spiritually to just keep going.”

Recognizing that travel or visiting friends are currently off limits, and it’s impossible for anyone to have a full tank right now, Dr. Joy recommended setting aside a brief pocket of time either at the beginning or end of the day to listen to a short meditation track, journal or to practice gratitude for the small things — and definitely finding time to bathe and eat.

Even if it is essential, self-care comes easiest to those who are privileged. “We can’t really have a conversation about self-care and divorce it from the awful systems that have been illuminated by the Covid crisis,” Dr. Joy said. A solo walk is impossible for my friends who are single mothers and can’t afford child care, for example. Plenty of moms don’t have access to safe outdoor spaces, or a minute to spare because they are so focused on putting food on the table. And even when the pandemic is over, just how many dinners out, solo grocery runs or Netflix nights would be enough to restore a healthy sense of self?

Emma Kate Tsai in Houston is dead burned out. She has two little kids, and her oldest is nonverbal with autism. Ms. Tsai, a teacher, is busy caring for everyone else. If she had time, she would exercise, but it hasn’t happened for years. And braggy social media posts from fellow parents don’t provide motivation.

“There are Facebook groups of other English teachers, and the moms get up at 4 a.m. to exercise. I would die if I did that,” Ms. Tsai scoffed. “The problem with all these self-care expectations is that they are just one more thing to beat ourselves up about.” Instead, she squeezes in a 20-minute nap between her kids’ schedules and then feels terrible about it.

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and contributor to NYT Parenting, recently founded Gemma, a digital education platform focused on women’s mental health. She’s been bombarded with requests for help from moms who need self-care but feel awful taking it.

“You can’t make decisions based on the feeling of guilt, because guilt is always going to be there,” Dr. Lakshmin said. “Think of it as working a muscle, of building up resilience against the guilt.” That means starting with small new habits to develop a tolerance, she suggested, something as simple as stopping to sip a glass of water after pouring one for a child, rather than ignoring one’s own thirst.

I’d been ignoring my dehydration for a long time — 10 pandemic months, to be exact — when one night Isaac, who is 4, gave me pause as I tucked him into bed with his stuffed lion. “Mama,” he asked. “What are you going to do after we say good night?” I began reciting the list of boring housework I power through each evening — doing dishes, spraying Lysol on the doorknobs, mopping Pirate’s Booty off the kitchen floor. “No, Mama! You need to go have some fun now,” he said. And he was right.

My son never sees me putting myself first or being lazy — even for a second. If I’m not careful, he might start to believe that mothers exist to serve others until they fall over — or that taking care of himself should be his last priority. So now, I make a point to tell Isaac at bedtime about the library book I am reading, the show I am watching or that I’m just planning to sit on the front step, count a few stars and offer a silent prayer, even if it’s just for five purposeful minutes.

And when the guilt flares up in my stomach, which it inevitably will, I remind myself that self-care isn’t a reward that’s meted out once all the hard work is done. It’s what I need to keep inching forward right now, with a small child clinging to my back through a storm.