“About 3 days a month I wake up feeling excited about life, and all my responses to my kids are better. But the other days, I just can’t amp it up to be as playful and patient as I want to be.”
“Want to feel as playful and vibrant as your children? Want to feel an abundance of energy? Want to experience greater clarity in all you do? Want to wake up jazzed about the day ahead? Imagine taking care of yourself in all the marvelous ways you take care of others. It makes sense that, if you shifted self-care onto the top of your priority list, you would feel more rested, more centered, more present to your loved ones, more joyful…” — Woman’s Field Guide
Most of us find that when we can stay connected to our internal fountain of well-being, it overflows onto our children and we’re more patient, loving, joyful parents. To love our children unconditionally, we need to keep our own pitchers full, so we can keep pouring as needed. Quite simply, we can only give what we have inside. And even if parenting is the most meaningful part of your life, it still requires a whole lot of giving.
And yet, most of us live in constant stress, which means we’re often running on empty. Many days we wake up wishing life could be different. Small wonder we lose patience with our children. And then we feel even worse.
Sadly, remorse and self-blame after we lose patience doesn’t change anything. Actually, it makes things worse, because it’s hard to act like a loving, happy person when you’re feeling like a bad person.
What if, instead, you could find a way to stay in a positive state more often? You can. Not all the time, of course — into every life some rain must fall. But most of us can find a way to be more positive more often. It starts with finding ways to nurture and nourish ourselves, so we can stay more centered.
But if you’re like most parents, that’s not so easy. The secret is radical self-care. What do I mean by radical? I mean not just tending to yourself after everyone else’s needs are met. I mean actually moving self-care high up on your priority list. I mean overwhelming yourself with love and appreciation. Because that’s the only way you can be the happy, patient, unconditionally loving parent your child deserves. (And because you deserve it!) Wouldn’t that be a radical act?
1. Nurture yourself as you would your beloved child. Treat yourself as you would your child — do you need a snack or a break right now, so you don’t have a meltdown? Find a way to help yourself feel better. Maybe that means finding a way for your child to occupy himself, or maybe it means giving him a snack, too.
Do you need to go to bed when your child does tonight, so you get a really good night’s sleep? Why not do that routinely while your child is still waking up at night? It won’t last forever (even though it seems like it will!)
Do you need to take Sunday off and just enjoy being alive? You can’t stop being a parent, but you don’t have to do laundry, you can leave the dishes in the sink, and you can have peanut butter sandwiches and carrots out of the bag for dinner. If you feel like you’re playing hooky, ask yourself: Whose life is it, anyway? And at the end of it, who will have been responsible for how you felt during it?
What if your child needs you at this moment? I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t take care of your child. I’m suggesting that there is usually a way to take care of yourself at the same time.
Sometimes we simply can’t give ourselves what we need, just as we can’t always fix whatever is wrong for our child. In those cases, self-care means listening with compassion, whether to our child, or our own distress. In other words, just notice what’s happening in the present moment. “The baby is screaming…my jaw is tight…my shoulders are clenched…” You don’t have to change anything. Just “witnessing” is a huge gift to yourself. And often it shifts your experience.
And, of course, make a promise to yourself for more self-care as soon as you can manage it.
2. Contain Stress. Most of us live in constant stress, which doesn’t allow for self-nurturing. Rushing makes us less patient, less empathic. It sends our children the message that they aren’t as important as whatever we’re rushing to do. It strangles the joy out of life.
Luckily, while stress-inviting events are inevitable, stress is not. We can begin by gradually paring our lives down to what matters most to us. This may feel like a sacrifice, but only until you realize that what you’re choosing is your own well-being, and that of your child.
The next challenge is to change our reaction to whatever stressful events still pop up. Impossible? Remember that what stresses one person just rolls off another person’s back. When you notice a thought creating stress in your mind, can you reframe it? (Instead of “This child is driving me crazy” how about “This child is having a hard time….Maybe there’s a way we can both get what we need here.”) Remember, it isn’t stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.
3. Exercise. It’s magic! It increases endorphins, which make us happy, and serotonin, which calms us. Exercise actually prevents depression. No time? Who needs the gym? Put on music and dance with your kids. Get them out of the house and run around with them at the park, every single day. Take your baby with you to a “Baby & Me” yoga class.
4. Take Responsibility for meeting your own needs and solving the problems life presents to you. Do you need some appreciation? Give it to yourself! Really. Once you get in the habit of appreciating yourself, you’ll be amazed how much more appreciation you feel from those around you.
Some of us have a hard time feeling appreciation from others, and even from ourselves. In that case, daily practice stretches our ability to receive that self-love. (And give it to our children.) What needs do you have that weren’t met when you were little? That’s what you have to give to yourself now. Maybe you felt you were never quite good enough. Can you start reassuring yourself, every time you look in the mirror, that you’re more than enough, and are deeply loved? Once we take care of that old unfinished business, it gets much easier to find ways to take care of ourselves in the present.
And what if your problem is in the now? Fights with your spouse? A job you hate? A life on constant overwhelm? Life challenges like these are tough, but when we leave them unaddressed, they demoralize us. Can you take a step, any step, toward solving that problem now? It may not solve everything overnight, but moving in the right direction will help you enjoy your life more and stop spilling tension onto your child.
5. Don’t postpone joy! We’re all guilty of taking the joy that pours into our lives for granted. We let it slip right through our fingers, in the name of efficiency and responsibility. But what if reveling in that joy is part of what makes you a more inspired parent? What if enjoying your daughter’s dancing on the sidewalk helps her start the day basking in your love? What if that water fight is just what you need to defuse tension and reconnect with your kid? What if those bedtime stories give your child the message that you’ll always be there for a snuggle, no matter how old she gets? What if you and your spouse need those kisses to stay connected so you’re a better parenting team? What if that bubble bath would help you be a more patient parent tomorrow? What if you never know which sunset is your last?
Don’t wait. Commit to radical self-care.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.