Self-care for the modern-day parent
The key to finding “me” time and how to make the most of it.
The demands of parenting can be overwhelming. The normal tasks of managing a household — paying bills, doing laundry, cooking and cleaning — intensify in young, growing families. These “normal” tasks are crowded out by many other daily requirements — pick-ups, drop-offs, music lessons and sports. Even reminding the kids of countless basic routines such as brushing their teeth, getting dressed and using the restroom before leaving the house can add up. Coordination playdates can itself become a part-time job. Even the simplest actions can degenerate into a battle of wills with your 6-year-old. The burdens of “administering” a family can begin to resemble those of a large company. Life can seem like a blur, a maelstrom of mad dashes.
Parents often struggle to find balances. Whether both parents work (from home, in the office or by constantly traveling), all families find it challenging to divide their time between kids, careers, family and friends. With so many demands on parents, it makes sense that at some point they will crash and burn. Burnout is a term used to describe psychological stress related to an occupation, but it can also be applied aptly to the juggling act of parenting. Physical symptoms of such exhaustion include stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, or headaches. You may notice changes in mood and focus. Some parents find themselves angry, irritable or disconnected from their former selves. They can feel resentful for not having enough time to do the things they once loved. Or, they might worry that somehow they can’t keep up with social expectations and unrealistically push themselves to do more and more in the hopes of being perfect parents. Such multidimensional parental burnout is best treated — or prevented — with self-care.
The wisdom of parental self-care
Self-care is simply the act of taking care of oneself. Everyone needs it to live a healthy life. Parents who engage regularly in acts of self-care experience benefits that extend beyond their own sanity. The immediate benefit of relaxation is refreshing parts of ourselves that are otherwise imperceptibly swallowed up by work and kids.
Once relaxed, our mood changes, and fatigue and resentment fade away. When we relax, we can re-engage in our relationships and have better interactions with our children. This is a win-win for the family.
Think of the safety speech before take-off. The flight attendant always instructs that we put our own oxygen mask on first. We can’t help others effectively if we are not taking care of ourselves. If our child sees us taking care of ourselves, he or she is learning that it matters. This can model sensible self-care and serenity to our children. If we often hit the panic button, our children may learn to hit the button, as well.
Early attention to the physical and emotional symptoms of parental burnout is a critical element. When you notice the symptoms, set aside time for self-care. Be kind to yourself and it will be easier to manage the chaos of having so many balls in the air.
Best practices of ‘me time’ and support ‘me time’
Give yourself permission to take time for yourself. Rediscover the things you’ve always loved to do. With your partner, give each other a break by sharing a calendar to request time off. Use this time wisely and engage in activities that recharge you. Whether it is exercise at the gym, going for a stroll or enjoying a soak in the tub, it requires us to take time for ourselves and do something for ourselves.
Other acts of self-care include:
Recharge by quietly reading a book
Have dinner with a friend
Go to the bookstore, the waterfront or the coffee shop
Take a nap
It needs to be an activity that works best for what you need to feel restored. Be clear with your spouse, partner or co-parent about your plan, and consider one another’s needs. Be kind to yourself, as well as to each other, and do what you can to support one another’s need for protected time.
The combo platter
Exercise, sleep, nutrition and hydration
Exercise is a classic component of self-care. Integrating exercise into a busy routine needs to
be deliberate. It doesn’t have to include a hardcore workout at the gym five days a week. Be realistic and set reasonable goals. By getting more exercise, you will naturally drink more water and make better food choices. Select a diet that includes plant-based foods, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates. Be mindful and balanced with your food choices. Sleep should naturally follow, especially if you focus on healthier bedtime habits. Improved sleep is also more likely with limited screen time and caffeine. Pay attention to your sleep cues. If you’re yawning and your eyelids are heavy, it is best to go to bed!
Setting aside time to lay the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle — exercise, sleep, nutrient- dense diet, hydration — will qualify you as excellent at self-care. Of course, overwhelmed parents may feel the shortage of time. However, the physical and emotional benefits of exercise are invaluable: better regulated mood, better sleep and greater self-confidence.
Vanessa Bradden, LMFT, is a practicing Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Chicago. She is an Approved Supervisor and a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) and a member of the Illinois Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (IAMFT). For more than a decade, Bradden has worked with individuals, couples and families facing a wide range of issues such as grief and loss, major life transitions and trauma and PTSD.