When my three-year-old told me that he needed a poo yesterday I gave a little cheer. Not because potty training has been difficult, but because it would give me 5 minutes much needed break from his incessant chatter! My jubilation made me realise that I spend so much time attending to my children that I barely notice my own needs.
Being with our little ones brings great joy, but parenting can be relentless and exhausting. We all need some time to recharge our own batteries. This could not be more true than at the present time.
We have had seemingly endless time without proper contact with friends and wider family and now another national lockdown. Although Early Years settings are still open you may, again, be juggling home-schooling and work. There is so much anxiety and uncertainty around and, to top it off, it’s traditionally the most depressing time of the year!
This blog highlights the importance of parental self-care for both you and your children. It provides some ideas on how you can look after yourself whilst managing the demands that parenting and the pandemic are throwing at you.
We still often pay lip service to the importance of looking after ourselves. Instead, it seems that we must be busy and exhausted to be a good parent. Self-care can be seen as indulgent, frivolous, unnecessary or selfish. All the evidence suggests the exact opposite!
I believe that self-care is an absolute necessity for parents. When we look after ourselves our children get the best version of us. We find it easier to manage trickier times, stay calm in stressful situations and be patient and present with our children.
Children pick up on our emotional states much more than we realise. Emotions are physiologically contagious (through “mirror neurons”) meaning that they will notice whether we are relaxed and stressed, however well we try to hide it. This is true even for little ones who haven’t yet learned language – in fact, their experiences of the world often reflect ours. Your emotional wellbeing, therefore, has a direct impact on your children.
We need to model to our children that looking after ourselves is part of life. We teach them to brush their teeth and eat healthily but often forget that they need to learn to look after their emotional wellbeing too. If they see us prioritising this, they are more likely to understand that it is important.
It’s not just about our children though. Self-care helps you feel more relaxed and happier, something which can be hard to find when you have small children. Its amazing how good we can be at looking after others and not ourselves.
Unless we truly believe that we need to invest in looking after ourselves, and take responsibility for it, we are not going to prioritise it. It can take effort to establish better self-care, particularly when some of us have neglected ourselves for a long time. The good news is that self-care takes many forms and you don’t have to jump into making huge changes.
Before making any plans on how you could become all Zen, it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about yourself.
- What are my stress levels at the moment?
- What have I done for myself recently?
- What has helped me when I have been stressed in the past?
- Do I tend to my needs enough? (I often cut up carrot sticks for my children and force water upon them only to forget about my own basic needs!)
- Am I aware of what I am feeling? It’s hard to tend to something that we aren’t noticing…
- Did my parents teach me about the importance of self-care? Am I following in their footsteps with my own children?
If you want to find out more about how well you are tending to your self-care needs you can fill in this inventory.
I know it’s a bit of a cliché but we do need to be kind to ourselves. When I work with parents, I am so often struck by the unrealistic expectations they set themselves, how they can berate themselves for not getting it “right” and how much pressure they put on themselves. We don’t seem to be good at treating ourselves with the respect we afford others.
Aiming to be “good enough” is much more helpful than trying to be perfect. Just accepting that you are doing your best, and that this is good enough reduces pressure on yourself. It’s OK to be vulnerable and feel overwhelmed at times. Cuddling under a blanket, putting sad music on and having a good cry can actually be quite helpful.
There’s no point in having time to yourself if your mind is not in the right place. For example, having time apart from your children won’t be particularly restorative if you feel guilty about it. We actually spend lots more time with our children than previous generations but children prefer smaller doses of happy parents than larger doses of stressed ones!
Try to set realistic expectations for yourself and don’t commit to things you can’t accomplish.
We all know about our 5 a day for optimal physical health, but have you ever considered what feeds a healthy mind?
A couple of neuroscientists have developed the “Healthy Mind Platter” as a guide to
optimum emotional wellbeing. You can learn more about the science behind this here.
Here are the ingredients:
- Sleep (8 hours – or thereabouts). If you have read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker you will be well aware of the importance of sleep for both mental and physical health. Maybe hold off reading this when your children are really little and you are chronically sleep deprived as it’s a bit scary! Really do try to prioritise sleep (over most things). Keep digital devices out of the bedroom if you can.
- Physical time (30 minutes if possible). Getting the body moving whether you are inside or out is really important. Not only does it improve your physical health but it releases endorphins (chemicals which reduce stress).
- Focus time. This is about focusing on one thing at a time. Although it’s not easy with the multi-tasking demands of parenting you can factor it in. For example, when my son is immersed in Duplo I make some too. The outcome might not be beautiful but I can step aside from everything else and really concentrate on the task at hand.
- Time in. This involves focusing your attention on your internal world – on your feelings, thoughts and experiences. I understand this as equating to mindfulness (which seems obligatory to mention when writing about self-care!). There’s so much evidence that mindfulness is helpful and you can do it anywhere. For example whilst eating a strawberry or brushing your teeth – it doesn’t have to be a scheduled activity. If you can, try to stimulate and focus on different senses, for example smell a scented candle, listen to music or wallow in a hot bath.
- Down time. This is about allowing time in the day when nothing needs to be attended to. It’s much easier if you are in a good routine and feel reasonably on top of the house. Try not to make social media your “go to” when you find yourself with 5 minutes. Your brain does not need to be bombarded with information all of the time, nor do you need the stress that other people’s accounts can bring. Down time is about doing nothing (remember that?!) and, most importantly, not feeling bad about it.
- Play time. Both adults and children need time to be spontaneous and have fun. It helps us feel safe and calm. Laughter is good for diffusing stress. It’s one of the things that seems to go first when things are tricky so, if you are struggling to have fun try to find that inner child. We all have one somewhere!
- Connecting time. Being connected with others is an integral part of self-care, and the one I miss the most at the moment. Although it’s not the same, do try to catch up with important people virtually.
There are five more ingredients I would add to the Healthy Mind Platter:
- Get Outside. There’s loads of research of the benefits of being outside. Being in nature really does have a positive impact on your body and mind. At the moment the cold weather and lockdown may be restricting your normal outward adventures so you could also bring your green space inside with indoor plants. Interestingly, even looking outside has been proven to reduce stress.
- Be Grateful. Gratitude has been shown to have psychological, social and even physical benefits (including higher quality sleep). You could write a gratitude journal or just remind yourself the things you are grateful for.
- Give. Chances are you are giving a lot right now! Giving can increase your self-worth and positive feelings, as well as strengthen your connections, sense of belonging and sense of community. It doesn’t have to be anything big, but can make the world of difference to both you and the recipient.
- Ask for Help. Even though most people are finding life more difficult than usual there will be people who want to support you. It can be harder to notice from afar if someone is struggling so do ask for help if you need it. Even something like a grandparent reading a story over FaceTime can give you a much needed break. It’s a strength not a weakness to ask for help and this includes emotional as well as practical support.
- Consider your environment. Our physical environment is so important to how we feel about ourselves. Living in a house of clutter only brings a chaotic mind (I should know – I have been bought The Life-Changing Magical Art of Tidying by Marie Kondo by 5 different people!). Try to create some order at home as living with little ones can instil chaos so quickly.
I heard somewhere that the average mum gets 17 minutes to herself every day. This, in my mind, is not enough (but sadly sounds pretty accurate). So, you ask, how can you fit any of these self-care activities in?
A shift in mindset is something that we need to work at but doesn’t need to be too time consuming. Yes, it’s good to have some time to attend to our needs when we are alone but this doesn’t mean we can’t also do so with our children around.
Many of the ideas I have talked about are possible with children (who are probably with us more than usual, dare I suggest a bit more than we’d like, at the moment!). OK, so maybe not too much focus time or meditation when your toddler is running riot or your baby is screaming for milk but there are things you can do together.
For example, even little children can engage in breathing exercises and relaxation. I sometimes set up a “massage room” before the children’s bedtime. I put on whale music, get out essential oils and ensure that the children give me a massage as well as me giving them one. It may not be on par with the top spa hotels but it certainly serves to relax.
If you have more than one child try to have some one-to-one time. I make sure I take each of my children to a hotel for one night each year. This is just as much for me as it is for them! Obviously, that’s out of the question at the moment but a regular 10 minutes special time together is a good start.
Whilst this blog is still fresh in your mind, I urge you to make a self-care plan. It can be in as much or as little detail as you like. Think about the ingredients in the Healthy Mind Platter and consider what your recipe is for a healthy mind. It will be different for all of us (I’m guessing watching Married at First Sight won’t be on many of your plans but it is on mine!). If you’re really keen you could map out an average day, see what percentage of your time you spend in each area, and see what you could increase.
Right, I’m off to write my (realistic) self-care plan, probably when my little one next goes to the loo!
I hope you have a healthy and happy 2021. Look after yourselves…
Dr Sarah Mundy is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and author of Parenting Through Stories. Sarah has worked with children and families for over 20 years and is mum to three children, including a pre-schooler.
Parenting Through Stories is an approach to help young children make sense of their experiences, particularly those that they, and their parents, find hard to manage. It comprises a series of interactive children’s stories – Bartley’s Books – and a Parenting Handbook.
The stories consider separation anxiety, bedtime routines, tricky behaviour, healthy eating, potty training and the arrival of a new sibling – all perfectly normal experiences in the early years but often challenging ones. The accompanying Parenting Handbook explains the theory behind Bartley’s Books and provides helpful advice for parents to support their young children’s emotional and behavioural development. You can buy the first two books on Amazon (Parenting Handbook: Please Stay Here – I Want You Near)