It sounds good: Nurture yourself.

But how? And if Alice Domar can't do it, who can? Even Domar, author of Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself As Effectively As You Care for Everyone Else, struggles to practice what she pitches. Pregnant and feeling lousy one afternoon this autumn, the Harvard Medical School professor accepted her husband's offer to take their child to a friend's birthday party for a couple of hours.

Free time! A busy mother's fantasy!

The first 10 minutes were great. Then, she confesses, she got busy balancing her checkbook, doing the laundry, cleaning the house. "I wrote the book on self-nurture — but you should have seen me!"

Indeed, combating stress and achieving a better balance isn't easy — but studies show that it will be better for you, and your children. There's a reason airlines advise passengers in emergencies to give themselves oxygen first, children second. Otherwise, they won't be able to. "It's not selfishness," observes Domar. "If you're not good to yourself, you won't be good to anyone else. What kind of wife, mother or daughter are you if you're irritable?"

Some suggestions from Domar and other experts:

  • Decide what your biggest needs are. Be clear about what you want out of life — and what's most important or missing. Your relationship? Your body? Your friendships? Your career? How can you devote your energies to those needs?
  • Get help from others so you have more time for yourself. Split weekend days with your husband. Find another young parent and take turns with the kids. Form a neighborhood co-op. Effective workers get time off — and so do effective mothers. A resentful, burned-out parent isn't a good role model, either.
  • Squeeze it in — and streamline. The impossible is sometimes possible. Exercise, for instance. Instead of having lunch, walk with a co-worker and get social support at the same time. Walk the dog — and kids — and husband. After dinner.
  • Don't always put the kids first. Partners in a relationship need time together. Go on dates. Get a baby sitter. Research shows that couples who work and play together have children who do better, as well. "Relationships can die and wither without attention," says Domar, "And that's a hell of a lot worse for kids."
  • Dodge manipulation. Parents away from their children sometimes overcompensate, giving them special treatment; kids catch on and use this to their advantage. Result, warns Domar: "The child thinks he rules."
  • Learn to compartmentalize. When you get home, leave work at the office. When with your spouse, leave the kids behind. If it's hard to do this, write your thoughts down quickly for later. When arriving home, don't rush to make dinner — give the children a snack and talk with them about their day. And when it's your time? Stick to that, too! Try to focus.
  • Settle for less. Lower your expectations about being the perfect mother, the perfect spouse — giving yourself reasons to do more and become ever-more frenzied. Establish realistic goals. One surefire way to increase self-esteem: Lower expectations.
  • Indulge thyself. Do something for yourself regularly. Take a bath. Schedule a massage. Go to a movie. Grab a cappuccino. Read a book in a park. Take a walk.