“Be gentle with yourself, learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.” – Wilfred Peterson
As a parent, you are the most important caregiver for your children. That’s a tall order. Any good parent knows that taking care of children involves a constant list of to do’s: change baby, feed toddler, help preschooler tie shoes, help elementary schooler with homework, take tween to practice, prep teen for college, cook meals, fold laundry, pay bills, send Christmas cards, email boss, find time for spouse…the list never stops. In this flurry of everyday family life, it’s easy to fall off your own list.
Being a parent inherently requires self-sacrifice as you nurture your children from infancy into adulthood. But your sacrifice shouldn’t be “all or nothing”. To effectively nurture others, you must also nurture yourself.
When you nurture someone, you care for them and encourage their growth and development. You support and champion them, feed and protect them, bring them up, and train and educate them in the way that they should go. This obviously applies to the parent-child relationship. But it also applies to how parents treat themselves.
Some parents might balk at the idea of nurturing themselves before their children. Perhaps they feel guilty or an unable to separate their identity from their child’s. But there are valid reasons for making yourself a priority:
- Your child needs and deserves you to be happy. Nurturing yourself doesn’t mean telling your child to wait in line behind you. No, of course not. Being a good parent and nurturer is about recognizing and delivering what your child needs and deserves. Your child needs and deserves a happy, fulfilled parent who can, in turn, help to make them happy and fulfilled.
- Your cup needs to be full so it can fill others. It’s difficult to fill the cup of others if your cup is dangerously low or altogether empty. You can will yourself through only so much. Parents who constantly and completely sacrifice themselves on the altar of parenthood soon find it difficult to maintain peace and lasting joy in their lives. You’re the wellspring for your children during their young years. But a well without water is worthless. Keep yourself full so you can nourish your children.
- You teach your children self-care. Monitoring and maintaining your mood, feelings, and behavior teaches your children to do the same for themselves. Self-care requires thoughtful, deliberate, and effective actions. If you want your children to grow into well-adjusted, self-sustaining, confident adults who practice self-control, then teach them with your good example.
- You allow others to nurture you, too. How you treat yourself sets the standard for how others treat you. Allowing others to nurture you isn’t a sign of weakness or a lack of self-sufficiency. When given in proper amounts, the care you receive from others only helps you to give them more in return.
- You can better endure and enjoy life. Taking care of yourself is the key to having patience through the inevitable mishaps of daily life and being able to fully enjoy each day. When you don’t get adequate sleep, you’re likely to be irritable the next morning. Your children may sense your frustration and might end up unwittingly being the unfortunate target of it. Nurturing yourself gives you fuel to persevere through the difficulties and softens your heart to the good around you.
Nurturing yourself is the first step to nurturing others. If you aren’t good at nurturing yourself, you will have a difficult time nurturing anyone since you’ll resent the time and energy you give to others instead of to yourself.
Some parents might insist that they don’t need to be “nurtured”. “I’m tough! I’m strong! I’m an adult! I can handle it!”
While that might be true, being a tough, strong adult with a handle on everything doesn’t happen by chance. It takes work. Part of the work is recognizing the signs that it’s time for a self tune-up:
- You often feel resentful, depleted, or exhausted. Daily life is tiring. But you shouldn’t feel completely worn out for days on end. When you start to resent your family or your job for the way you feel, it’s time to recharge yourself so you can control yourself.
- You often have negative thoughts about your child or your life. It’s one thing to wish your child were more quiet in the store or would leave you alone for a couple minutes while you go to the bathroom. But it’s another and more harmful thing to wish your child were hurt or, worse, never existed just so you wouldn’t have to “deal”. If your thoughts of your child turn dark and pessimistic, you need an immediate and substantial self-care timeout.
- You often don’t feel gratitude. Gratitude has an enormous healing power that humbles you and helps keep you grounded. If you’re unable to see the blessing in what seems to be your stress, whether it’s your children, your spouse, job, house, etc. – and truly appreciate them, negativity will soon cloud your vision. It’s time for you to take a step back so you can gain a better perspective.
- You often have intense mood swings. Snuggling your child one minute and then yelling at them the next sends a confusing and hurtful message to your child. Intense mood swings set a tone of unrest, which make it difficult for your family to be truly confident about the good times. If your behavior has everyone feeling like they have to walk on glass around you, it’s time for you to balance yourself out again.
- You are often and easily angry. It’s unavoidable to get angry at your child – you’re human and so are they. But anger is never helpful when it’s impulsive. When you find yourself heaping your anger, anxiety, and other emotions onto your child, it’s time to take things down a notch (or ten). You might think that your child knows you still love them even if you’re angry with them. But your child can’t feel your love over your anger.
- You often have a difficult time controlling your emotions. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with responsibility. A good cry or quick vent can help you let off some steam. But if you’re letting your emotions get out of control and direct those feelings of despair and frustration at your loved ones, it will only make you feel worse. Instead, find constructive ways to help you regain control of your emotions.
Just as you shouldn’t ignore a blinking gas tank light on your dashboard, ignoring your own signs of running low can be disastrous. It’s better to keep your tank sufficiently full so you don’t have to worry about breaking down.
Parenting is a job wherein demands are high and time is short. Many parents would probably agree that they barely have time between family and work, much less for themselves. “How can I possibly recharge my batteries when my child is screaming, my project is due, and my house is a mess?”
The trick to taking care of yourself is to regularly schedule time for you. Mark it on your calendar and keep that commitment to yourself.
- Wake up early. I’m not a morning person. But I found that waking up an hour or so before my children and blocking out time for myself and my husband really helps to get us in a peaceful and prepared state for the day ahead. We say a prayer together and then he goes surfing and I meditate, exercise, and read. This time is completely for ourselves – no work, no emails, no cleaning, no daily tasks. By the time our children wake up, we feel recharged and ready for the day. Bonus: Eat a good, healthy, balanced breakfast. We get all our daily nutrients in a fresh fruit and veggie smoothie, complete with omega-3 rich flaxseed which helps protect against depression.
- Check in with yourself. Throughout the day, ask yourself, “How am I doing?” Take long, deep breaths often, not just when you’re upset. Be vigilant about negative thoughts hijacking your mind and sending you into a downward spiral. Make it habit to monitor your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. When you feel yourself becoming unhinged and unbalanced, align yourself again by remembering the bigger picture: you love your family and want only the best for them. Be your best self. Bonus: Sing, dance, and move! Listening to uplifting music throughout the day helps put you in a good mood and gives you energy. Instead of getting bored to tears while cleaning the house, I put on my own personal karaoke concert.
- Stop before you start. You might not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction. Every time you start to get upset, irritated, or resentful, stop. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to stay in balance? What do I need to feel better?” Then give it to yourself. (Five minutes of listening to music in your room, a drink of water, a power nap?) If you can’t do it now, make a date with yourself for later. (A long bath after the kids go to bed. More sleep tonight. Trading shoulder massages with your spouse.) Bonus: Change your vocabulary. Instead of using words like “stressed” and “impossible”, use “challenged” or “soon to be conquered”. Dr. Scott Sheperd, Ph.D., a psychologist in St. Louis and author of “Who’s in Charge? Attacking the Stress Myth” says, “That small switch gives you the power to do something about it. Words not only describe emotional states – they create them.”
- Know your limitations. Every stress, worry, and negative emotion starts small. Outbursts are most often caused by unchecked stress and frustration. The good news is that stress is a choice. If you know that it stresses you out to have a full schedule, don’t over-schedule yourself. If it frustrates you to have a messy house, designate specific places for things and teach your family to put things in their proper place. Better yet, declutter and simplify. If being late overwhelms you, leave early. Don’t take kids on errands that they can’t handle. Doing that one last thing isn’t worth a meltdown. Make sure not to place the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bonus: Take a power nap. I know that around 12:30 every afternoon, I get tired. (I believe it’s because of my natural “owl” chronotype…oh, and the fact that I’m getting older.) Once I get tired, I get irritated. Once I get irritated, all bets are off. Instead of fighting my fatigue and trying to hold on for the rest of the day, I block out a 15-minute power nap time. After those 15 minutes, I feel instantly rejuvenated and sometimes even better than when I wake up after a full night’s rest.
- Don’t be a victim. You’re in charge of your life, whether you feel that way or not. Feeling sorry for yourself gets you nowhere because it gives away the power you have over your life. Instead of being anxious about the thought of having to wrangle the kids to sleep at bedtime, find ways to make the routine less crazy: equally share the routine with your partner, start earlier, post a schedule, and make it your goal to peacefully send your children to their slumber. Bonus: Find something you enjoy and make time to do it. Sometimes I feel selfish or unproductive when I tune out and play my guitar for 15 minutes, but it actually helps to replenish my energy so I can have the clarity and stamina to keep up with my multiple responsibilities. Extra bonus: Don’t confuse idleness for relaxation, and be aware of “me” activities that can quickly derail your schedule and suck your energy. Checking Facebook or Pinterest is OK for 5 minutes if you have it. But don’t let it turn into an hour-long tune-out as your child fusses in the background which, of course, will only add to your frustration. Make sure your “tune up” doesn’t turn into a “tune out”.
- Soak in the beauty. Life is beautiful, even in the simplest details. But you’ll miss it if you go too fast. So don’t rush. Plan ample time for everything, including the “unplanned”. If you’re in a constant race from one thing to the next, cut something out until you finally have the time to simply enjoy each moment. Bonus: Stop chasing perfection. It’s OK if the dishes aren’t done every night or the laundry pile is a bit overflowing. You’re not perfect, and you don’t have to be. All you have to do is try your best.
- Count your blessings. When it seems like everything is going wrong, think of everything that’s going right. Gratitude heals and replenishes you by reminding you of the abundance of good in your life. Bonus: Help others. When combined, gratitude and service form a powerful, magical healing elixir that soothes your aches and gives you the best nurturing medicine.
- Prioritize healing. If your frustrations stem from deeper wounds, it’s time to heal them. Don’t let the way others attempt to injure you make you injure others too. Don’t let old hurts fester and infect your life. It’s time to dig to the root of your problems and heal yourself from the inside, out. Bonus: Get help. Find someone you can trust and who will listen to you with compassion, whether a friend or a professional counselor, and talk with them. There’s no shame in getting help. We all need it. If you’re feeling hopeless, helpless, irritable, worried and/or sad most of the time, uninterested in things you used to enjoy, or have thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, get support immediately. Talk with your doctor or contact a service such as 211.org which can help you find local support services. You deserve the support you need to take care of yourself.
There are many ways to nurture yourself. They don’t have to be flashy, expensive, obvious gestures, such as going to the spa every week or taking an extended vacation. You might not be able book a solo-getaway trip, but you can optimize those hidden pockets of time throughout your day. Deliberately making the time you need to nurture yourself – even if just a few minutes here and there throughout the day – can make a world of difference in feeling better.
Nurturing your family begins with you. If you want others to treat you well, treat yourself well first. Nurturing yourself transforms you and your parenting. As they say in the airline safety demonstration on airplanes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help those around you.
Of course, needing to take care of yourself doesn’t give you license to neglect others, especially your family. If you and your baby both need a good cry at the same time, tend to the baby first while promising yourself time alone as soon as is reasonable. It might seem impossible to have enough time for everyone in your life, especially you. But by nurturing yourself, you help to nurture your child at the same time.
“Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.” – Max Ehrmann