I think I was in grad school when I first heard the term “self-care.” I remember professors stressing how important it was and then assigning 200 pages of reading and a paper. I would roll my eyes (internally, I think) and then power through the assignments and ignore the self-care. I saw it as a luxury, something that people who weren’t worried about working or going to school did. Now and then I’d paint, journal, or go for walks, but usually only when I didn’t have much going on and it happened naturally. When I was busy, I laughed it off and said I’d do that when I had free time. I could power through the busy times and then relax during the breaks. This worked more or less when I was childless, but when I became a mom I realized that naturally-occurring self-care time was never going to happen, and there was only so long that I could power through before my stress began to show.
It’s not a luxury!
When you have a tiny human depending on you for comfort and soothing, you start to realize how important your own stress level is. As my son became a toddler, this became even more clear—when I felt calm and regulated I could respond to normal (and challenging) toddler behavior with kindness, firmness, and patience, whereas when I was feeling higher levels of stress I was more likely to snap at my son or give into whatever he wanted. Neither of these were effective strategies and left me feeling guilty and ineffective.
I realized that there was no way for me to be the mom I wanted to be without prioritizing my own self-care. I still have days, weeks, and months where I forget to prioritize my self-care. Sometimes the thought of adding it to my agenda feels overwhelming. However, I now know that I have to come back to it, because if I don’t then my whole family will suffer.
You don’t need lots of time or money
Self-care doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive, and it can be helpful to have a few options for the different amounts of time available. For example, if you have 30 seconds you can take 3 deep breaths to calm your nervous system or light a candle with a soothing smell. If you have 1 minute, get a drink of water or step outside. If you have 5 minutes, make a cup of tea, play a quick game on your phone, or do a few yoga stretches. In 10 minutes, you could take a walk around the block, have a snack, or check in with a friend. Of course, having longer stretches of time gives you more options, but as a parent you know that’s not always realistic.
Self-compassion is key
I also learned that self-compassion is an important part of self-care. There will be times when you aren’t the parent you want to be, and that’s OK. Just like our kids have tough days, so do we. “Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.” -Tara Brach
We won’t always act our best, but if we can treat ourselves with kindness we can let go of some of the guilt, stop beating ourselves up, and instead focus our energy on showing up for our families. And, whenever you do mess up, there’s always the opportunity to repair and maybe even strengthen your relationship with your child. When you take responsibility for your mistakes and make a plan for doing better next time, you are teaching your child that yes, you make mistakes, but you care enough about your relationship to own up to it and try harder next time.
Living through a pandemic is hard, and parents have so many demands on their time and energy! It may feel impossible to do it all and still take care of yourself, but I assure you that you deserve that care, now more than ever!