Taking Care of Yourself First: Physical & Emotional Self-Care

An Ideal Parent?

A model of an ideal parent has developed in many of our minds that is based on extreme self-sacrifice and self-denial. This mother or father consistently buries his or her own needs in order to satisfy those of his or her children. This parent smiles cheerfully while anticipating every need her child expresses, while letting her own joy and pleasure in life go unexplored. I’m not sure where this model came from, but I think it’s time for each of us to ensure that we are not buying into it!

We’ve all probably heard about the oxygen mask analogy when it comes to parenting. If we are not taking care of ourselves, we are not able to take care of our children. Moreover, if that is not enough motivation for you to take care of yourself, you can also think about what you are modeling for your children. Do you want your child to think this his or her needs should consistently come before those of anyone else in his or her life? By creating some basic boundaries and expectations, we can create a family life that is pleasant both for parents and for kids.

Parenting Changes Everything!

Clearly, there are many physical and emotional changes that occur while pregnant and while parenting young children. Emotionally, we can have a huge range of responses to this huge life change. Some of us are overwhelmed by our child’s dependence and vulnerability while other relish the intimacy and bond of early parenting. Some of us experience hormonal changes that lead to dramatic mood extremes. Seeking help is the most brave thing we can do in this situation. Finding support is something to feel proud of and will allow you to parent better as well in the long run. I often tell parents that this parenting game is a marathon not a race. If we blow through all our energy reserves early on, we will need to reformulate our game plan to find new supports.

As a parent, we have very little control and often little mastery. As soon as we figure out what’s going on with our mysterious children, they are often on to the next stage, leaving us pondering these new changes in their wake. It can be helpful to acknowledge to yourself the very hard work you do every day to love and care for your family, appreciating all that you do even when it feels like you’re not getting much done.

What If We Aim to Be “Good Enough”?

D.W. Winnicott offered the lovely suggestion that what children need most is a “good enough” parent. The idea is that children do not need us to be perfect. In fact, if we met every need they had at the exact right moment, our children would grow up to people we would never want to hang around with! A good enough mother meets most of her child’s needs, but also fails, and comes up short, because she is a fallible human being. This teaches children that no one is all good or all bad. It also allows children to test their own resilience and to feel competent on their own at times. So, during those times when you mess up, remember that we all do, and that you are actually helping your child to grow!

Physically, as well, many of us parents are exhausted. We try to fit so many things into a too-short day. By the time bedtime comes around, we are tired and yet still wired. Our minds have a hard time shutting down for the night. Or, as soon as we are asleep, we may be awakened by a child who needs us. Our bodies may become worn down.

And, our bodies may look and feel different from how they did before we had children. How has your body image changed since having a baby? Has that image affected your self-esteem? Has it affected your relationship? What are you doing now to feel good about yourself physically? Often, the trick is to be happy with who you are but also to push yourself toward being the best version of yourself possible. This involves self-knowledge, optimism, and a sense of humor! Kristen Neff, the pioneering researcher in self-compassion, offers an alternative to self-esteem. Instead, she says that we can learn to be content being who we are, not special or above average. This state of mind can actually lead to a greater ability for positive change rather than beating yourself up over some ideal version of yourself you think you should become.

An Exercise

Of course, it is understandable that the time and even the inclination to do certain activities may fall away after having a child. However, sometimes we can’t even remember what used to bring us joy and pleasure in our pre-children lives. I would suggest a simple exercise that you might find helpful.

Begin by creating a large circle on a sheet of paper. Then, create another large circle on a different sheet of paper. Label one paper “Pre-Child Life” and the other, “Post-Child Life.” Each circle represents your time over the course of a month. It includes all of the time that you are able to spend on activities that bring you joy, relaxation, play, and enjoyment, as well as the must-do responsibilities. Some of the things to consider including are: work, child-care, sleep, exercise, pleasurable activities (a bath, a meandering walk, a massage, etc.), time with partner, time with family, time with friends, spiritual exploration, time for solitude, enjoying meal times (both pleasure and fuel in an ideal situation!), arts activities, etc. You then put these activities into the two circles to represent the amount of time you are able to give to each activity both in your pre- and post- kid lives.

In the end, the circles will be different for every person. The point is to examine what you value. Pay attention to your feelings. It may feel fine to have given up certain activities. For others, you may feel sad that they have left your life and you need to make a plan to bring them back in!

Love and Authenticity

For me, self-care comes down to love and authenticity. What kind of life do you want to be living? How can you find small tweaks to make the life you have more joy-filled? One thought is to find activities that you deeply enjoy doing with your kids. Recognize that you won’t enjoy every child-centered activity, but find ones that you do love. This will both build a stronger relationship with your child and help your life to be more fun. Recognize who you are and find ways to be okay with the special and unique parenting qualities you bring to your relationship with your kids instead of measuring yourself against anyone else.

What would it look like to put your own oxygen mask on first? What feelings are conjured up in you when you think about putting your own needs before that of your children?

Sometimes just noticing our reactions can help us to decide whether something needs to change. We can also examine the images and ideals that we see represented in our society and in the media about how a good parent should take care of herself. You can start to think about what you need most right now and what is standing in the way of getting it. What do you need most right now to take better care of yourself? These are hard and brave conversations to have with yourself, with your partner, and perhaps with your friends. They require vulnerability and an ability to be willing to change. I send you strength and self-compassion as you think about these important issues.