27 weeks pregnant, and how I’m going to take care of myself postpartum is the last thing I’m worried about. But many parents, brand new or not, are overworked and exhausted. And with no external accountability, it’s too easy to put oneself on the back burner in our busy lives.
Research in the Harvard Business Review demonstrates the more time mothers spent taking care of themselves, the better the emotional and physical health of their children. However, guilt (not only to take time for oneself but then to enjoy/appreciate it) and time, or lack thereof (self-care is just another thing on the to-do list) are two of the biggest challenges in prioritizing self-care for parents.
It doesn’t help that the term “self-care” sounds synonymous with face masks, manicures, and massages, luxuries for those of us without an unlimited disposable income. Worse, over-indulging or spending excessive funds in the name of “self-care” can actually be distressing, destructive, and work against our mental and emotional wellbeing, according to Kathleen Dahlen deVos, a psychotherapist in San Francisco.
So, what’s a parent (or parent-to-be) to do?
Define self-care for parents – for yourself
First, to get clear on what self-care is, and isn’t. aSweatLife Ambassador Tera Gurney, LCSW, mom, and facilitator of May’s aSL Ambassador Workshop: Taking Care of You: Self-Care and Compassion Reminders for Parents, defined the word right away. “There’s no ‘right’ way to do self-care. It’s whatever brings you joy; a sense of relief; makes you smile.”
Even better, Tera shared realistic, feasible, free ways to integrate self-care into everyday life.
Learn the power of boundaries
And self-care for parents isn’t all adding to your life; there’s value in saying no, too.
Her first tip? Setting boundaries: stating clearly what you can and cannot do, identifying consequences if the boundary is not adhered to (while anticipating pushback), and following through.
Along these lines, set deadlines for yourself. Not to get something done, but to alert you when to stop working. Gurney doesn’t schedule meetings after 3, leaving 90 minutes before daycare pick-up at 4:30 for herself.
Prioritize outdoor time and a soothing environment
If you can, spend some time outside, with or without the family. No matter where you live, you likely have access to outdoor space. “Getting outside and away from our devices calms our nervous system from the negative effects of everyday stressors”, says Tiffany Lester, an integrative medicine doctor based in San Francisco.
And if you can’t get out? Clean and organize your living space. Putting away laundry, unloading the dishwasher – these are things you can do even if the kids aren’t out or asleep. Even starting small, going through a junk drawer, for example, can alleviate the stress, anxiety, and overwhelm that a mess can cause your mental state.
At the end of the day, go back to Tera’s workshop title: Self-Care and Compassion. Practice self-compassion, or being understanding toward oneself, and remind yourself of what you do and do not have control over. Manage your expectations and try not to compare yourself – to anyone.
Every kid is different. There is no “right” way to parent. And as Tera reminds clients, her partner, and herself, “You are the best parent for your child.”