As psychotherapists, we are often impressed by the range and variety of things parents will do for their children. At first, most parents minimize their contributions, and, when we ask them to list how many things they actually do, they are amazed. In contrast, when we ask parents what they do for themselves–that is, how much time, energy, and money they devote to their own self-care–the answer is often very little. This even applies to homes where resources are not an issue. You don’t have to be a parent to learn how to parent yourself; you just have to acknowledge that it’s not selfish to exercise good self-care—to consider your own needs as much as you do others.
Although many parents are more involved in their kids’ lives than ever, there is a price for that close attention: many believe that they have an indelible influence on their children’s lives and they are afraid of causing some kind of permanent damage by making a mistake. Our field itself is partially to blame—putting much more emphasis on what happens at home rather than considering the many influences on a child (cultural, biological, temperamental, and so forth). When we ask parents if they would blame themselves if their child was depressed, a surprising number say yes. So hyper-vigilance can occur and a devaluing of the parents’ needs.
Of course, this is not just true of parenting—how about work, for example. Many people put extreme amounts of time and effort into their jobs and avoid self-care. Kids and work are conversation stoppers—ready made, often legitimate excuses for isolation. Our society’s definition of self-care is somewhat at fault: many equate self-care with selfishness and meeting one’s own needs with narcissism. Good self-care is actually very healthy—like putting the oxygen mask that drops down in a plane on yourself first, as they instruct, and your child second. The message is clear: you can only help your child in an emergency situation if you are ok, and the same is also true for everyday life.
We can all develop a self-care checklist based on what we would be willing to do for our children. For example, if we saw a child who never went out, we would take steps to encourage or insist that the child socialize. Same with free time and play—we give kids permission to let their hair down but often don’t schedule it for ourselves. And, paradoxically, in the busy modern world, if you don’t schedule that unstructured time for yourself, it won’t happen. How many parents or professionals have let their passions and hobbies go? It’s not just an issue of time; we make time for what is important, and we have to see self-care as a vital priority.
Finally, we’ve all heard the phrase “It takes a village” regarding raising children. Many now recognize that successful parenting requires setting up a family and community support system to share many responsibilities. But how many adults have a personal and professional support system for themselves? For example, do you get a yearly physical? Do you make time to exercise, possibly with a personal trainer? Have you been evaluated for depression or anxiety? If you are on anti-depressant medication, have you seen a psychotherapist to look at the underlying causes of your mood issues and explored yoga or meditation as an additional treatment? Do you schedule unstructured or recreational time for yourself? Do go out with your spouse or your friends regularly? Have you let your past hobbies or passions fall to the wayside and neglected to cultivate new ones? Are you considering the role of meaning or spirituality in your life, whether or not that involves formal religion? In our work, we define treatment as any healthy thing you are doing for yourself. So creative outlets like reading, writing, painting, cooking, photography, travel, hiking, and many others are a vital part of being emotionally fit and happy.
We know it isn’t easy to make time for ourselves—we struggle with it too. Guilt is often a factor. Remember that everything you do for yourself is benefiting the people around you. And you burning out is not going to help anyone. A therapist can help you take stock, but, however you approach self-care, the time to parent yourself is now.
Art by Fotini Hamidieli
Copyright 2016 by Andrew Nargolwala and Alicia Nashel-Watts