written by Amy Birdseye
edited by Lisa Rose
Dictionary.com defines self-care as "the act of attending to one’s physical or mental health." Based on this definition, anything from attending to your oral health by brushing your teeth to a mental health spa weekend away could be considered self-care. That's a pretty broad range of possibilities. And yet, I feel like I see the term "self-care" thrown around like confetti when referring to parenthood and surviving it all. Still, I personally do believe that self-care is vital to being a good parent. Why? Because if we don't show our children that we take care of our own needs as well as theirs, they will never learn how to take care of themselves as an adult — and a vicious cycle begins. Having said that, self-care didn't come easily for me when I became a parent. It took me years to figure out what on earth self-care looked like in my life with a child. Was it simply finding time to shower alone? Did it have to be done without my child? Did I have to go away for the weekend to feel the benefits of self-care? Honestly, it was just one more bullet point on my list of things that I was supposed to be doing as a mother, that I was failing at. But that's the flaw in the system, right?
As parents, we are showered with things we should do,
yet don't have the tools to actually do them.
They say things like "Breast is best," but nursing is really freaking hard, and sometimes it isn't the best option. They say "feed your kids vegetables," but isn't it a scientific fact that all 5 years olds won't touch 99% of green things? They say "Get 8 hours of sleep," but infants wake up every 2-3 hours at night?! There isn’t enough time and motherly energy to do it all and somehow sneak in self-care too!
So how do you make sure to take care of your child and yourself with the measly amount of time that we as parents have? For me, it is finding ways to sneak it in daily, rather than planning an elaborate weekend away.
Harsh Reality: Self-care can feel impossible to accomplish when you are a parent.
1) Make sure that all of your primary needs are met while your child is awake so that you don’t have to use your self-care time for basic needs.
I can't tell you how many times I would sneak out of my son's room after finally getting him down for a nap, and I would just stand there paralyzed because I didn't know if I should feed myself, bathe myself, or put myself to bed. And this was because I wasn't prioritizing my basic needs right alongside my baby's needs. Once I became aware of the fact that I was scrambling to meet every need of my child and not listening to a single need for myself, I came up with some very obvious and easy solutions to the problem. I had gotten into the habit of making my child a snack and not evening thinking about the fact that I could make a snack for myself at the exact same time without adding much more work and both of our eating needs could get met together. Novel idea, I know!
But seriously, it is those kinds of things,
the super obvious ones, that seem to be
impossible to realize when you are that tired.
Along those same lines, I realized that I didn't need to save showering for nap time either. I just needed to figure out a way to incorporate it into our daily routine. At first, I brought the playpen into the bathroom while I showered. Then we graduated to a small play area in the bathroom where he could get "ready" with a pretend vanity right alongside me.
Now, these were not long luxurious showers or elaborate hairstyles that I was pulling off. I saved those for the occasional self-care time. These were quick showers, in and out, and slopping hairstyles that got the job done. But I did it with my kid so that I didn't have to waste valuable nap time on showering and getting ready every day during my alone time.
2) Do all cooking and cleaning with your child awake.
The same thing goes for cleaning and cooking. I get my kid involved in the process whenever I can. I would highly recommend a Kitchen Helper Step Stool for Kids. To be honest, if there is one product I would say is a "must-buy or build" it would be this. We made our own, and I wish I had just bit the bullet and purchased one because it was a huge pain to build and didn't end up lasting as long as I would have liked. But I will say there is nothing more helpful than having your kid up at the counter "helping" you cook safely.
My little toddler loved helping put things in
bowls and adding seasoning.
And a major bonus — I was teaching my boy that cooking is an important life skill for people of all genders. To make it easier to actually pull off an edible meal, I would often give him a fake but highly important task (like scooping water from one bowl to the other) while I dealt with things like raw meat and sharp cutting out of reach of little hands.
I also built him a little make-shift kitchen where he could pretend to cook while I was cooking at the stove. Again, I wish I had just found a toy play kitchen that would have lasted longer. But this one was very small and did the trick in our tiny kitchen and on our budget. It made it so much easier to accomplish cooking at the stove where it wasn't safe for him to participate. I asked him to go to his little stove and help me cook while I was at the hot stove.
As for cleaning? It was the same game. I got my son the Melissa and Doug Play Dust, Sweep, and Mop! Not only could he help "clean" right alongside me, but when the unavoidable mess or spill happened, he could take responsibility and help clean it up with his own kid-sized cleaning supplies. This toy cleaning kit is a legit set. You can in fact totally get things clean with the little brooms, mop, and duster. Again, having these things not only allow your child to help out with daily tasks, but it opens up nap time for real self-care. Not housework, not basic needs. REAL CARE!
3) Wake up before your children so that you can sneak in self-care before the day truly begins.
This one took me a really long time to accept into my life. I was too tired to get up before my kid so I avoided it for years. But the problem with staying in bed until you are woken up by your child is that you start to think of your kid as an annoying alarm clock instead of the adorable loving child you know is in there. Having your first waking moments of the day to yourself is a lifesaver. Waking up to crying or jumping on the bed sets the stage for a stressful day because that is a stressful way to wake up. There is nothing better in my mind than waking up quietly, getting some sweats on, washing my face, and silently sipping some coffee with a magazine before my child is awake. Even though I get a little less sleep than I would if I didn't do this, in return is a peaceful morning that starts off with addressing my personal needs.
Doing this sets the stage for me to
continue self-care throughout the day.
As a result, I am a shockingly
more productive and patient parent.
4) Prioritize adventures and dates with your child.
When I think of self-care, I think of something that sparks a little light inside of me. Sometimes that is taking care of myself at home, but often it is as simple as just getting out of the house. For me, it was really easy to feel trapped in the house, especially those first few years when naps controlled our ability to leave. Though it can be so hard to pack up everything your child needs and head out, I have found it to be vital for my mental health. And whenever I can, I try to make our outings self-care focused.
I ask myself, "Can we do something together that will
spark that light inside of me?"
Often this means going outside. Little walks in nature not only feed my light but the light of my child. I also really love to take my kiddo on little dates. We go on coffee/cookie dates and lunch dates relatively regularly. A special treat for the two of us feels like double self-care and a major bonus is that I don't have to make the treat. Whenever I have a little extra energy (which I admit is not very often) I love to push the two of us outside our normal limits and do something that strikes the adventure side of my self-care. Paddleboarding for 20 mins with my little guy sitting up front or rock climbing at our local gym in the kids' zone can fuel my need for adventure. Remember, however, doing these activities with your child does not replace doing them child-free. However, it is a lot easier to find time to do them with your child. And for me, these little self-care outings for the two of us held me over until I could find time to do them on my own.
5) Find self-care that you can do while trading off with your partner.
Obviously, what works to fit into your day and what doesn't work may be very different from what I choose to do in my life. For example, I know a lot of mothers that incorporate exercise into their daily routine with their child. And I was able to do this when I had a little guy. We would do mommy and me workouts, stroller speed walks, and independent play/workouts. But now, I just find that it takes away from my full commitment and enjoyment of the exercise when my older kid is involved. Exercise is now something I prioritize for trade-off time. My husband and I trade-off tasks in the evening so that we both can have one full hour to dedicate to a workout. My husband works out while I give my son a bath, and my husband reads books and puts him down while I get an hour to dedicate to exercise as well. This works so much better for us and our family to keep our daily commitment to physical health realistic and enjoyable. You just have to figure out what works best with your child and what is best to leave to your own personal time. For us, trading off makes it possible to ensure dedicated alone time to do the things that are too hard to accomplish with our kid around.
6) Change your mindset about the things you do during your alone time.
Yet again, mindset comes up for me as an important thing to address when it comes to self-care. I believe this is because the intention has a lot to do with the difference between something feeling like self-care and something feeling like a task to check off of the list.
This one requires you to stop before you jump into something
and ask yourself if you can do it in a different way
that serves your mental health better.
A quick shower, for example, doesn't really feel like self-care to me. But a bath with bubbles and salts or a shower with music blasting and my special aromatherapy soap feels much more like self-care. Once you start looking, it is easy to adjust your mindset about something that you probably do every day and make it more self-care-oriented. Another example is my nightly skin routine. I have slowly been learning about skin care over the years, and I have changed the way I think about my nightly routine before bed. Now, when I wash my face, instead of rushingly sudsing my daily grime off and moving on, I am very intentional about what I put on my face. Sometimes just changing your intention from quick necessity to extra care can change how a daily task feels. So instead of feeling like I simply washed my face, I feel like I gave myself a mini facial that will help my skin and face age gracefully. That feels like self-care to me. Honestly, sometimes this can even go as far as doing housework. Sometimes I just want the time and energy to do something really well. Cleaning is not something I truly enjoy...like at all. But mowing the lawn is something I find weirdly satisfying. Doing it during my alone time can occasionally be just what I need to feel accomplished quickly. Get in the habit of asking yourself if there is something in your daily or weekly routine that you can change your mindset about to increase self-care?
What I have found over the years to be the most effective self-care is the daily practice of sneaking it in rather than a weekend away. Though a weekend away is lovely and absolutely needs to happen, it is not a regular thing and therefore it is not a solution that works for me. It is the daily breaks that make a big difference in my life. Self-care has been a very large hurdle for me to get over in my parenting journey. To be honest, I felt like I wasn't a good mom if I prioritized myself. Somehow, I felt that to be a good mom I had to sacrifice it all for my kid and even suffer. Now I know that is ridiculous, and now that I do self-care regularly, I am a much better mother.