When I was pregnant with my first daughter, family and friends who’d been there all had the same piece of advice: Sleep when the baby sleeps.
It seemed so simple, and so obvious. Of course I would do that. When I was tired. Which wouldn’t be all the time.
Then my daughter was born, and, like a lot of babies, she struggled with nursing and wasn’t a big fan of sleep. When she dozed, I was either pumping milk, washing pump parts, warming milk or googling whatever strange symptom or poop color she’d had that day. What I never did was rest or even think about what I needed.
That pretty much set the scene for what early parenthood meant for me — pushing myself to the limit on the daily because I thought that’s what my family needed from me.
Taking time to recharge seemed like too much effort. Our finances were tight and my baby didn’t tolerate anyone else’s arms for very long. A shower every other day and the occasional solo walk around the block was the extent of my self-care for years.
At the time it seemed reasonable. I mean, she was still little. This was the hard part. If I just held it together a little longer, it would all get easier, right?
Not so much.
Here I am, nine years and two more kids later, and I wish I’d paced myself. In the beginning, last year and yesterday, I wish I’d realized how long the “hard part” would actually last — and focused on fortifying myself for a marathon.
On the rare times I made time for myself, I’d start feeling better, but then it would all melt away within a few hours of returning home. It really didn’t seem worth it. That’s because I was doing it all wrong. I should have been tending to my needs as a regular practice rather than an eleventh hour solution.
I learned the hard way to make my wellness a priority. Eight years of powering through had me fighting dark feelings, health problems and struggling to find the joy in my day-to-day life with my kids. I had tried to be the supermom who did it all. Instead I could barely function.
It would have been so much better for everyone if I’d topped off my tank regularly rather than only refilling it when I was running on fumes.
Parenthood isn’t so much about surviving the first years and then returning mostly back to normal as it is adapting to a new way of life. Some days parenting is a little easier, some days it’s a little harder. What I know now is that I need to prioritize my own needs — or I’ll burn out again and not be able to do it at all.
I no longer see my need for self-care in direct opposition to my children’s happiness. I wish I’d seen — as I do now — that all members of a family are interconnected and when one person isn’t getting what they need, it eventually hurts the others. Especially when that person is the caretaker.
In other words, if you can’t prioritize your own self-care for yourself, do it for the rest of your family. They need you strong and well for the long haul — and it is a long haul!
How to prioritize your wellness:
Shift your mindset to see your wellness as essential to your children thriving, and prioritize accordingly. Do it today.
Yes, your children need an involved parent who brings regular love and structure to their days. But they need you to be happy and well too. Maybe that means they eat more microwaved meals, maybe it means you stop taking them to that one activity you dread even if it’s their favorite. Your own wellness should be a consideration when you think about how your family’s time is spent.
Practice active self-care while you’re with your kids.
Whether that’s lugging them along to a free first Thursday at the Seattle Art Museum, reading that Peak Picks gem while they play or tucking them into the stroller in their PJS to swap their usual bedtime routine for the long walk you’ve been longing for in the evening. Your time with your kids shouldn’t always center on their interests and needs. It should be good for both of you.
Schedule regular breaks from your kids — and think ahead about how you’d like to spend them!
Consider trading play dates with a neighbor, or swapping babysitting with a friend or relative. Some PEPS groups organize regular kid swaps for date nights or self-care. Keep a running list of things you’d really like to do with a kid-free moment, then get that moment and pull your list out! Do you feel jealous when you see people wandering aimlessly through the record store? Then that’s the first place you should go when you steal an afternoon for yourself.
Accept that you might feel selfish sometimes.
Part of practicing parental wellness is accepting that the choices you make can’t always center on your kids’ optimal conditions. Take a minute for that to sink in because it’s a hard one. There will be times that your kid stays up a little later because you did the stroller walk. There will be times she’ll be disappointed you’re up on the couch reading instead of playing with her. There will be times you’ll have to accept that a choice you made seemed “selfish” to someone else.
Accept this mind shift as your new reality. Because ultimately, parental wellness isn’t something you tuck in here and there alongside raising your kids. Your own wellness has to be at the center of raising your kids.
Think of everything you’re teaching them. For one, it’s good for them to have to wait sometimes, to not see themselves as the center of all things and to learn to care for someone else.
Best of all, it is having a parent who is strong, well and happy. A parent who models that kind of life for them is a parent who prepares them well for their own lives — and for their own parenting marathons.
Take good care of yourselves, parents. Your families need you well!
About the Author
Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter who occasionally catalogs her personal chaos at Critical Playdate. She is mama to Quinn, 9, Ruby, 7, and Nora, 4. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.