Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Parenting can be the most amazing experience, and yet so challenging! Parents constantly juggle adult responsibilities, such as career and household duties, and the needs of their children. Sometimes it can feel like there is nothing left over for the actual parent! Many parents describe not “having the band-width” to cope with it all. For this reason, I highlight the importance of self-care for all parents.
I am sure we are all familiar with the analogy of the oxygen mask on the plane. It goes something like this:
"In case of an emergency, place the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then on your dependents."
This is true for daily life too. If you pass out, then you can’t help anyone! If you are running on empty, it will be hard to respond to the needs of others. Resentment can build, and your mental health can suffer. Ironically, that is when parenting can be most challenging, because children often act out when they sense tension, or the lack of emotional presence from a parent.
Self-care is important to prevent "passing out," aka emotional burn-out. Self-care is not selfish. It is quite the opposite. Making time to nurture yourself will allow you to be more present for others, and more efficient. Taking care of yourself is a good example for your children. One day, they will be adults too, and will know how to care for themselves from your example. Also, children mirror adults. If you are calm and receptive, they will often mirror this, which leads to more peace in the home.
Although I truly understand that it is challenging to find time to for self-care, I encourage parents to be creative about this. Think about what healthy activities you enjoy and find refreshing. Then think about where it can fit into the schedule, at least once a week to start. Make this your “non-negotiable” time off. If you have a partner to co-parent with, ask for some “coverage” during a set schedule so you can engage in self-care. Remember, it is easier to stick to self-care when it is part of the routine. Also, set realistic expectations. It really may not be possible to have an entire spa day, but a one hour massage or yoga class? A 5 minute walk? Most likely the family schedule can accommodate this. If the schedule is too packed for any downtime, chances are this is not good for you or your children. Revisit the schedule and remove what is not absolutely necessary. If you do not have a co-parent, consider trading childcare with a friend, asking extended family to help, or getting a baby sitter. Some gyms do offer childcare as well.
As a therapist, I ask my clients to consider their needs regularly- are they putting their needs and feelings first, or something else? Of course, as a parent, you will have to cast your needs aside more often than not. However, there should be a protected time at least once a week, when you can do what you need to do to function, be in tune with yourself, decompress, and re-center. Ultimately, this will lead to more satisfaction. A happy and healthy parent is key for the family.
If you have time, read the following except from a blog post I wrote for my psychiatric practice.
How can I kick-start a self-care practice?
Schedule it. I recommend choosing one activity you consider enjoyable, and schedule it into your calendar at the same day and time every week. Consider this activity your “non-negotiable.” Choose a day/time when it is most convenient for you. With any change, moderation and consistency are key. I recommend against “all or nothing” lifestyle changes. You are truly better off achieving a half hour dance class once or twice a week, for almost every week, over several years, than you are having one month full of dance classes and then nothing until a year. Once you have the self-care activity in mind, and have added it to your schedule, the next challenge is actually doing it.
Ignore your inner workhorse. Pay attention to the feelings that arise when it’s time to engage in your self-care activity. You may feel uncomfortable leaving work early, leaving the kids with a babysitter, or whatever it is you are leaving behind for your moment of self-care. You have to go against the inner voice that will spout myriad excuses about why you have to stay home, stay at work, do the errands, etc. Ignore that inner voice and allow yourself to experience the discomfort that arises when putting yourself first. Notice any negative feelings such as guilt, sadness, or anxiety. Accept that you will never feel 100% done with everything EVER. If self-care is difficult for you, sometimes you have to fake it until you make. This means going against the uncomfortable feelings and engaging in self-care anyways.
Triage. Learn the art of triage. Some tasks are more important than others. When you are reluctant to let go of a task in lieu of self-care, always ask yourself this question:
“Is this task a true fire that needs my absolute attention RIGHT NOW?”
If not, then agree with yourself to take care of it later. Be ok with saving some tasks for later, in favor of your own health. You will be more efficient with your work later when you are more rested.
Self-compassion. Lastly, keep your expectations reasonable. Lifestyle changes are hard to do. Be kind to yourself if you skip a week of self-care or fall out of the habit. This is bound to happen. Life happens. Just get back on schedule the following week and give yourself a hug.