Parents know the drill: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children put on theirs.
It’s so true, and yet it’s become a cliched metaphor for parental self-care.
If there was ever a time that it’s especially true, it’s during this now months-long pandemic and our added ongoing concerns over racial inequality.
In times of crisis, self-care often goes out the window. Who talked about self-care during the 1918 flu epidemic, World War II or the fall of Saigon?
But this pandemic is diferent. Life goes on, albeit in an altered state, with parenting duties still piling up. Self-care is necessary, not optional, for recharging one’s batteries and fulfilling responsibilities.
Parents with younger children may be more absorbed by routines, emotional highs and lows, virtual learning and more, said Vaile Wright, the senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. These adults are responsible for everything their children need, while older teens might fend for themselves more often.
When the well-being of your children depends on you, it can be all too easy, even gut instinct, to put yourself on the back burner. But that decision may also have to do with your own internal critic or expectations, Wright said.
“It’s this internal message we have that says it’s somehow selfish to prioritize myself either above my children or at the same level as my children or work,” she added. “It’s usually not a message we’re receiving externally. More often than not, it’s this internal pressure. So you really need to address and ask yourself, ‘Where is this internal pressure coming from?’”
Self-care is important for overall health always, but especially now as parents juggle multiple responsibilities on top of the emotional and mental turmoil caused by the pandemic and often painful discussions about racism.
If you’ve let chronic stress build up, you’re at risk of burning out, Wright said. With burnout, you start to lack empathy, she added, which is a crucial skill needed for raising children and helping them navigate the world and feel better.
Burnout can also make it hard to tap into empathy, so you become irritable and have a shorter fuse. Things that normally wouldn’t upset you bother you, then you’re at a much greater risk of snapping or saying something you might regret — all this aside from the physical and emotional consequences of chronic stress.
“Failing to take care of ourselves actually compromises and hinders our effective caretaking of others,” said Robin Smith, a Maryland-based marriage and family therapist. “Our nervous systems encounter more wear and tear. We get stressed out more easily,” he added. This in turn raises cortisol, leading to poorer sleep that then restricts mental and physical performance the next day, not to mention impacts your mood.
“Preventing those things from happening, of course, is the goal because if you have a heart attack, that’s putting you at risk for death,” Wright said, “but also of not being able to take care of your kids.”
Unpack the guilt
Choosing to care for yourself starts with unpacking the notion that it’s somehow selfish.
“In order to be an effective parent, to be an effective worker, you have to take care of yourself,” Wright said. “We, as humans, have a finite amount of resources, like a car that runs on gas, and you have to fill the tank up or you’re going to run out. People are the same way.”
Maybe you’re concerned that your children will miss out on something if you choose yourself first.
To overcome this mindset, reframe how you view the situation, Wright suggested. Know that you can’t adequately help others before you help yourself. If your friend came to you with the same problem, would you hold her to the same unrealistic expectations? You’d probably tell her that it’s OK to take care of herself, especially since it’s critical for maintaining physical and mental health.
“It’s a choice to say to yourself, ‘No, this doesn’t make me selfish. No, I don’t have to feel guilty about taking care of myself because I know that it’s going make me a better parent,’” Wright said.
Treat your body better
Your current lifestyle is likely chaotic, so don’t worry about making big changes all at once. You can make one little change at a time, so you don’t become overwhelmed. Caring for your body starts with what Wright called the “foundational four,” which include eating healthy, sleeping enough, staying active and continuing social connections. (Do one at a time.)
“Those four things really require routine of some sort in order to be really effective,” she added. “And if you can establish a routine but also these sort of four foundations for yourself, then you’re also likely establishing them for your kids, too.”
If you’re eating healthy, then your kids are (ideally) eating healthy. If you follow a specific bedtime, your kids have to follow suit.
Check in on your mental health
That includes muscle tension, heart racing or teeth grinding. So being in touch with your body is an important first step in managing mental health.
It’s important to stay informed on current events, but “being constantly connected to our devices elevates our stress levels,” Wright said.
Wake up 30 minutes earlier to enjoy a cup of coffee before reading the news. Take advantage of early morning by journaling your thoughts and feelings, working through the stress. (It’s OK to write about stress.)
Have an hour in the evening when everyone puts away their devices.
“You can implement things as a family that will elevate and improve everybody’s coping skills,” Wright said.
Allow yourself moments of joy
You might have been focused on making this pandemic experience as non-traumatic and stress-free as possible for your children. You provide them little moments of happiness when you can, and you should grant yourself those same bits of delight. They’re hard to come by these days.
Lowering your expectations and accepting this situation for what it is makes those opportunities easier to find, Wright said, because all your resources aren’t focused on alleviating the circumstances.
Take a break from work to watch a funny video and laugh. Joy involves doing things for others, too — Wright and her friend enjoy a series of memes with the same running joke, so every time she sees one, she sends it to him because she knows he’ll appreciate it.
“It’s about identifying what fills you back up and then making space and priorities for it,” Wright said.
Maintain your relationships
One of the things that helps people to be healthy overall and maintain resilience is receiving encouragement and security from healthy relationships, according to an article Smith authored on mental health hygiene.
“We know our social connections in general, whether it’s a partner or somebody else, are a huge buffer to stress,” Wright said.
For partners, that means taking time to sit down and prioritize checking in with one another. Do this without kids around, whether you’ve put them down for bed or while they’re in front of a movie. Be honest with each other about whether your needs are being met, how connected you’re feeling and anything that needs to change.
And there are all types of ways you can virtually hang out with your friends, including video chats, virtual happy hours, streaming a movie together and games. With your partner or your friends, you can ask intentional questions about how everyone is doing.
Ask for the help you need
Parents may need to “take slightly different approaches to their coping based on what they’re really dealing with,” Wright said. “If women are feeling overwhelmed, it’s probably because they feel like they’re doing the majority of the work around the house.”
Wright, a psychologist, often hears from mothers that they wish their partner “just knew that they needed help.”
“And the problem is [that] they don’t,” she said. “So it really becomes important for people to ask for the assistance they need, not wait for it, not just hope that somebody else will figure out what they need.”
Negotiate with your partner to see how you can achieve some of the alone time you need. Alternate who’s in charge of lunch that day or another task.
Starting with small changes that can gradually turn into habits can positively affect the work, family and personal aspects of your life.
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“Parents who don’t care for themselves properly increase the likelihood that their children will encounter a version of their parent that will terrify and/or upset them,” Smith said. “Your children benefit from having more access to the best parts of you. These will be switched on more often and for longer durations when you are properly caring for your needs.”
Becoming more emotionally healthy and stable can benefit your physical health, making you better able to do what is required of you.
“We’re less likely to be mentally absent from work and more likely to get our assignments or deliverables done on time,” Wright said. “We’re a better partner when we’re in an emotionally good spot. And we’re a better caregiver in general.”