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Self-Care and Parenting

Self-Care and Parenting

Many parents believe that dedication to their children requires self-denial or sacrifice. They place their children’s needs above their own, and this is often regarded as the hallmark of the truly devoted mother or father. And yet, when we stop to consider that we are always role-modeling for our kids, it becomes obvious that the quality of care we extend to them depends on the quality of self-care that we practice. The role of parent is a demanding one, and as with any role, we perform better when we’re in good shape—rested, on good terms with ourselves and our life, “well in our skin,” as the saying goes. If we allow ourselves to become overextended, then this deficit becomes operative in the time and attention we have available to give to others, including our children. We are, then, only as good for others as we are good for ourselves, and in this sense, there is nothing “selfish” about making sure that we’re at the top of our own list. On the contrary, good self-care is the precondition of caring well for anyone else.

Conscious parenting is served, therefore, by keeping in mind the acronym H.A.L.T., which reminds us never to let ourselves get too hungry, too anxious, too lonely, or too tired. At the earliest sign of the encroachment of any of these conditions, we should take corrective steps—make sure we’re getting the nutrition we need to stay healthy and energized, talk to a trusted friend, seek out companionship or loving attention from a partner or other ally, or simply make time to catch up on much needed rest. Just following this simple formula will go a long way toward ensuring that we have the resources to handle the many demands of parenting, and also will be role-modeling self-care for our little ones—without question one of the most important lessons we can learn.

Self-care also is furthered by our learning to distinguish between what we want and what we may “feel like” at a given time. Typically, in a culture that perpetuates a sense of entitlement to instant gratification, these two get confused, yet in truth, they are not the same thing, and may even be at odds with each other. A person who wants to get in shape, and so makes a commitment to eat well and to get up early to walk or jog, recognizes that healthful nutrition and regular exercise are means to the desired end. When the alarm goes off at 6:00 AM, he may not feel like getting up, but in the larger context of his desire, he still wants to—that is, he wants to stay true to the program that will bring him desired results. If he gives in to what he feels like, to that extent he undermines what he wants. In the same way, he may go to a gathering of friends where he’s offered a piece of chocolate cake. While he may feel like having the cake, he wants to get in shape, and to the extent that he acts in solidarity with what he wants, he will pass on the cake even though he feels like having it. Momentary urges are not the same as desires in the truest sense, which means those promptings that reflect our values and commitments and support our best self-definition. Sometimes honoring what we want means standing up to what we feel like, noticing it, but not letting it make the call.

This is true many times a day for parents. Children, certainly through the teen years, have needs and desires of their own that may call us to set aside what we feel like in order to honor our desire to be empathetic, available, loving, and skillful parents. Even so, the conscious parent knows that there is no self-denial in this, and really not even sacrifice, except in the sense that the lesser is sacrificed for the sake of the greater—a theme that runs through every spiritual tradition in the world. Parenthood is a curriculum that calls us to overcome ourselves for the sake of those we love most.

It helps a great deal for parents to remember that self-care is essential, both in terms of maintaining the reserves, open heart, and clear head required to be a conscious parent, and also in terms of role-modeling for our children. Following the suggestions above can go a long way in ensuring that we get what we need, so that we can fulfill our deep desire to see to it that they do the same.

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