What is the best thing that you can do for your child? This is a question that I have asked many parents in the community. Most people think that it involves reading to, playing with or comforting their child. These things are all important for a child’s development, but they are not the answer I am looking for. My top parenting tip is to look after yourself.
Being a parent is hard work. I know this through my work as a social psychologist and my personal experience as a mother. The good news is that self-care is a simple way to make it (slightly) easier.
The idea behind self-care is quite straightforward: we need to look after our own need and wants too. Practising self-care is key for our well-being. It also gives us the energy we need to get through our busy and often stressful days.
We readily accept this idea on an airplane. Every flight, we are told that adults are required to put on their own oxygen mask before helping their children in an emergency event. This is because it is easier to look after your children when your own biological needs are met. The same reasoning applies to the importance of self-care. It is easier for us to cultivate the patience and kindness we need as a parent when we look after ourselves.
Self-care requires four things. The first step is giving yourself permission to prioritise your own well-being. This is often the hardest part for parents. We tend to think that self-care is selfish. It’s quite the opposite; looking after our own physical and mental health makes us better parents and partners.
The next step is to stop making excuses. Being a parent means that time, sleep, and money are often limited. This doesn’t rule out self-care. A weekend away or a day at the spa would be nice, but it’s not the only way to look after yourself. Self-care is about making moments for ourselves, however brief. My favourite self-care practice is sitting in my car, quietly, for a few minutes after I get home from work. This gives me a chance to collect my thoughts and gather the energy I need to really engage with my kids at the end of a long day.
The third step is resisting the urge to cancel. You need to commit to your self-care practice. Many of us start with great intentions, only to cancel our self-care activity when something else comes up. Try to avoid doing this, unless it is absolutely essential. If you have to cancel, then make sure to reschedule your self-care session right away.
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The last step is accepting that the house and kids will be fine without you. Let yourself enjoy the moment when you have given yourself permission to practice self-care. Your partner might not cook or play the same way you would - and that’s alright. The kids will survive and the household will run just fine without you.
Remember, self-care doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. Some ideas include social interaction (for example, a meal or a chat with a loved one), sensory stimulation (a warm bath or a cool swim), spirituality (meditation or prayer), pleasurable activities (cooking or reading), mastery (taking a dance class or doing a crossword puzzle), expressing emotions (crying or laughing), and physical activity (an exercise class or a casual stroll).
Making a pledge is a good way to start your self-care practice. Identify what you will do today, this week, or even this month. Share your pledge with your partner and ask them to support you in your self-care quest. Better yet, chat with them about how they can incorporate self-care into their own lives too. Everyone will be better off when you do - as individuals and as a family unit.
Dr Sarah Rasmi is a social psychologist and professor at United Arab Emirates University. She specialises in parenting, families, and well-being