There’s no shortage of the message that parents should engage in “self care.” In fact, it’s rather turned into something like a platitude. We’re hearing this message and seeing it everywhere, especially on social media, but are we actually taking in what it really means?
In many cases, probably not, because most of us are too busy and wrapped up in what’s going on in our lives to think consciously about self-care. There are no prizes for not showering every day or skipping workouts or missing a night out with friends but many parents act like there are. Our culture tends to view taking time for our own needs as “selfish” and of course, being self-centered is not something parents want to model for their children.
But is it selfish?
Of course, it’s not selfish to take care of oneself in the physical, mental, and spiritual senses. However, within the constraints of parenting, caring for personal needs can be a difficult goal to achieve. Taking time for oneself might mean not taking time for something else that is considered important — and every parent has a long list of those things. What parents must consider in this continuously evolving equation is the idea that how we treat ourselves is having an effect on our children, both directly and indirectly.
The Kids Are Watching
Children watch what we say and what we do, even when it’s not directed at them. The littlest ones may not understand finer nuances but they will pick up on big ideas and, of course, emotions. A parent who is expressing how tired, stressed, or upset they are on a daily basis is going to have an effect on their child. Not that self-care can mitigate all the challenging aspects of adult life but it can show children that when life situations become out of balance, it’s important to recognize it and work towards shifting back to something closer to harmony.
Probably the biggest hurdle with self-care and the surrounding talk about “pouring from an empty cup” is in recognizing that self-care is not always about major life changes: it can also be little things. Taking time to appreciate and enjoy a moment is also important. In short, it’s about quality rather than quantity. Self-care is not always about “doing something,” either, because it could mean practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion involves acknowledging the struggle and being kind to oneself when reality turns out to be different than expectation. In other words, not mentally beating oneself up over being late for the school play or missing a deadline at work.
Show and Tell With Self-Care
Parents may think of self-care as something that’s done when the kids are napping or at school or in bed for the night. These are certainly great times to practice self-care, but modeling a behavior for children means that it should sometimes be visible to them. It’s not necessary to go out of one’s way to achieve this but it might involve thinking differently about the role of parenting and what adult behavior children are “allowed” to see.
Parts of self-care might mean being away from children at times, which may cause stress to some parents. Leaving children in the care of someone else, especially when they’re small, may seem like shirking responsibility. However, it’s important for parents to develop connections away from their children and to have the time to be themselves outside of the caregiver role. Children will see that parents have their own community and their own interests, which is also an important idea to model.
You Are Already Modeling Self-Care
Taking the time for appropriate and effective self-care is part of teaching and role modeling for children. Parents wouldn’t want their children to go without meals or physical activity or a break from schoolwork because that would cause stress. Yet, as parents, we do this to ourselves because we think we don’t have time to care for ourselves, or we feel guilty, or we feel as though that is what is expected of us. Children are happier when their caregivers are in calmer and in balance. Parents will find that when their needs are met, it makes responding to children’s needs easier and less stressful.
Parents are a child’s first teacher. Parents teach children how to do things such as brush their teeth and wash their hair: which is basic self-care. When children see that their parents bathe and take care of their teeth, it shows them that these are important parts of taking care of their bodies. It follows then that it’s not so different to teach self-care and self-compassion by example: such as going to the doctor when there’s a need, taking a moment to breathe when there’s stress, or responding to negative situations with calm.
This is a shift in thinking which may take time and therefore may be another time to practice self-compassion. Carving out space for oneself in a busy, stressful life is important both to parents and to their children. Working towards that goal, whatever that looks like for yourself and your family, will serve everyone well.