Imagine you’d been running in the desert for hours and someone comes along and offers you a drink of water. Would you say that water was a need or something you deserve?* Most would agree that at that point, a drink of water is a need. You wouldn’t have to convince yourself you deserve it.
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Parenting is not unlike running a long marathon in the desert. Why do we so often feel that we can only look after ourselves when we deserve it when it’s actually something we need in order to keep going?
It’s easy to get so immersed in motherhood that you forget about your own needs. But caring for your precious child properly means caring for yourself as well. Continually denying yourself and your needs is not the sign of a devoted parent, it’s the sign of a budding martyr complex. If you want to raise a child who is assertive about what she needs and has good boundaries, start by setting a good example.
To get the most out of parenthood you may need to learn some new ways of thinking about self-care. Your new life requires high levels of energy. Maintaining them means looking after your body, mind and soul – not just your child’s.
So what is self-care? The answer is different for everybody, and it’s definitely not just manicures and facials! All sorts of activities can be nurturing. For some it will be having a massage, for others, it will be going for a run, and for others, it will be meal-prepping the night before so the next day goes more smoothly. I’d like to unpack some ideas about self-care and some practical tips that have worked for me.
Te Whare Tapa Whā
The simplest way that I like to think about my health and wellbeing is as a four-legged chair. Sir Mason Durie’s Te Whare Tapa Whā also describes wellbeing this way. We need all four legs to be balanced – take away one leg, and we’d fall off the chair.
As a person you are much more than just a body, or just a mind, so acknowledge this by making an effort to nurture yourself in lots of different ways. Try to get some regular input in each of the chair legs, and if you’re feeling not quite right, have a think about which leg may be lacking. In no particular order, the four legs are —
- Mental — This could be reading, studying, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, or taking part in a stimulating conversation. It’s about challenging your mind and giving it something bright and shiny to focus on, ponder, or think about. It’s also about resting your mind and switching it off occasionally.
- Physical — Moving your body, fresh air, eating well, staying hydrated, a warm bath, sleep and rest. What is your body trying to tell you? Feed it, take it outside and exercise it regularly, and do nice things with nice people as often as you can.
- Social — Seeing friends, going to the shops (and talking with the people you see there), watching a movie with others, visiting loved ones, date nights and girls nights. Something I’d add here is that the need for self-care sometimes really means a need for community care. We can put too much on ourselves and forget that we need people around us to lean on and to take care of us. This one takes time, but small steps to develop your network of support around you can really help keep your tank full.
- Spiritual — Acknowledging that there is more to you than just what you ‘do’, and that you’re part of a larger world. You can tap into this side of you by listening to music, being in nature, praying, going to church or a special place for you, meditating, making space for reflective time, and allowing time for silence, for doing nothing and just ‘being’.
Tried and tested tips for parents of babies
- Say yes to every offer of help, but if someone offers to vacuum when you’d rather they did your shopping – ask! If you’re not good at doing this, see this time of your life as an opportunity to practise. Learning to ask for help is an important life-skill. And if you feel selfish saying yes – first of all, let me tell you you’re not, everyone needs and deserves help – and secondly, take a big-picture view. You won’t feel like this forever. One day, you’ll be able to give back. To quote the Lion King “it’s the circle of life!”
- Encourage your partner to get confident with the daily routines; you don’t need the pressure of knowing you’re the only one who can bath/wind/change/get the baby out of the house.
Tried and tested tips for parents of all ages
- Avoid comparisons with other parents. These can be poisonous to your sense of wellbeing and rob your sense of joy and gratefulness for your own life. To go back to the marathon metaphor, you’re only racing yourself. You don’t need to ‘keep up’ with anybody. Stay in your lane.
- Realise that life isn’t amazing all the time and come to peace with that. Looking back at your own childhood, you probably remember the atmosphere of your home much more than the specific things your parents did or said. On the days where you doubt whether you’re ‘doing enough’, remember that being present and connected with your children is more important than going to the best holiday destination, having the busiest extra-curricular activity schedule, the most fashionable clothes or most modern furniture.
- Looking after ourselves implies that we know what we need! And sometimes we don’t know what we need. In times like these, I like this post for some ideas.
You don’t have to do all the things in this article before you can say you’ve mastered self-care. The last thing I want this article to be is another list of things you feel obligated to do! What one thing speaks to you? Can I suggest you try that in the next week?
Finally, I’ll leave you with this quote by Brene Brown: “It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol”.
*from ‘The Power of Having Fun: How Meaningful Breaks Help You Get More Done’ by Dave Crenshaw.