The Self-Care Parents Need Every Moment

I’ve been encouraged lately by a slew of online articles focusing on the importance of self-care. It’s one of the fundamental truths of successful parenting: Happy parents are better parents, which makes for happier kids. Self-care is not only unselfish, but mandatory for maintaining our sanity while raising healthy children.
But even with all this positive focus on self-care, there’s a vital downstream benefit that I believe is overlooked in the conversation. Self-care not only helps us to be calmer, happier parents, it’s an absolute must for teaching our children how to conduct healthy, respectful relationships.

In this sense, self-care isn’t just something we occasionally treat ourselves to like a bubble bath, a jog, or dinner out with a friend or spouse (or even the periodic “check-in” that mindfulness expert Tasha Lansbury recommends in the podcast we recently recorded together). Rather, it is a consistent consideration of our own personal needs and boundaries. This recognition will affect the way we structure our home environment and, most importantly, the way we respond to our children moment to moment.

When kids are having difficulties engaging appropriately with peers or adults, it is often because they aren’t clearly perceiving the boundaries and perspectives of others. This is understandable if parents haven’t consistently defined and asserted theirs from the start. It is an unintended consequence of prioritizing our children’s needs and desires over our own.  We’ll always be our children’s most formative relationship model, so we can’t expect them to be sensitive to the needs of others when they haven’t seen that those needs exist in us.

While I don’t recall infant specialist Magda Gerber using the term ‘self-care’, she was adamant that we treat parenting as a relationship between two whole people from Day One. She insisted that consideration for ourselves should be an integral aspect of our parent-child relationship — as it would be in any other relationship. She understood that while raising children requires a great deal of self-sacrifice, erasing ourselves to serve our children creates resentment for us and insecurity for them. Magda encouraged parents to clearly and confidently communicate their needs, because children can’t flourish without clear boundaries and confident leaders.

Which might mean making that cup of tea we crave even while the baby fusses (“I hear you telling me something, and I’ll be back in two minutes to see what you need.”), or feeling confident about weaning our toddler because we want to (“This will be the last time we nurse, and then we will snuggle instead.”). It certainly means confidently blocking our children from grabbing, hitting, pinching, or climbing on us rather than tentatively asking them to please stop and expecting that to be enough.

Here are some basic ways we care for ourselves while caring for our children:

We give value to our day-to-day needs, understanding the difference between our children’s needs and their wants (or habits).

For example, children need to be touched and held, but this need isn’t constant. And being picked up and carried is not a need at all. With that understanding, we can provide children the physical affection they need on our terms, in a manner that is comfortable, convenient and welcome to us.

We needn’t feel obliged to pick them up every time they request it, or to carry them around on our back while we do other things, or to squeeze them in when our other child is already on our lap (which isn’t likely to serve or satisfy either child). Instead we can (and should) be direct and honest in asserting our wishes: “You want me to pick you up, but I can’t (or don’t want to) right now. In a few minutes, I’ll be sitting on the sofa and I’d love for you to join me for a cuddle.” Or, “Your sister is sitting with me right now, but I see you really want to join in. I won’t let you” (while we capably hold our child off of us with our hand outstretched). That gives both children the positive message that we are not only taking care of your own body, but also that we value our one-on-one moments with them.

We structure our environment so that boundaries are built-in.

For example, children are wired to learn, which they do by exploring and testing their environments. Providing babies and toddlers with a completely safe, enclosed, appropriate spaces to explore prevents them from invading unsafe areas and our personal belongings. This not only encourages their uninterrupted play but also relieves us of the duty of constant supervision, saving us the annoyance of needing to protect our children and our stuff and constantly say “no.”

We calmly and confidently just say no.

There are also countless times that we do need to say a clear “no” (and then demonstrate through our actions that we really mean it), though we might not use that actual word. We’ll ideally assert ourselves with confidence and finality, a period at the end of our sentences.

“You want me to keep playing. I hear that! But now I’m going to take a break and make dinner.”

“No, I can’t give you another cookie tonight. I hear how much you want one.”

“I won’t let you walk across this street without holding my hand.”

And then the really hard part… making peace with the idea that our children are very likely to react by whining, railing, sobbing, lashing out in anger. This is not only their prerogative, but the best thing that could happen, because these feelings need to be released. And chances are good that these emotions actually have little to do with us saying “no” to playing or cookies or running freely across the street. Those were merely the tipping points that helped them to vent. We’ve done well.

That will be clearer if… 

We develop a healthy, accepting, letting go attitude toward our children’s emotions.

Feelings flow more easily if we don’t take them on as our work. We don’t need to fix every problem or even work our children through them. It’s exhausting.  Instead, all that’s needed is to accept, acknowledge, and let the feelings be. Shifting into this mindset can certainly be challenging at first (when most of us have the instinct to do something to make the feelings pass), but it’s more positive and a relief for all concerned when we simply breathe, observe and trust.

We parent beyond the moment.

Consider our long-term parenting goals and the habits we’re creating for our children. We all resort to quick fixes sometimes, but they can make our job harder in the future. Magda used to say, “We should begin as we wish to continue.” For example, TV, videos and other screens for young children encourage passivity, which then makes it harder for them to initiate and create play for themselves.

We set limits early and approach power struggles with confident momentum.

Our interventions with kids are much more successful and graceful (relatively) when we anticipate and make a move early. I share much more about that in Confident Momentum: How to Stop Battling Your Toddler’s Resistance and Defiance.

We err on the side of less.

This might mean saying no to the stimulating late afternoon event or deciding against staying a few more minutes at the park or party (even when our kids beg us). We’ll save ourselves the headache of picking up the pieces with an overtired child.

Or it might mean realizing that offering our 2-year-old a brush and water to use on the driveway is more than enough to satisfy their desire to paint. We don’t need the extra hassle of setting up (and cleaning up) an art station.

Simple, predictable days offer us more dependable break times, because children are more likely to go with the flow when they know the routine. We need that time each day to recharge a bit and, if nothing else, think our own thoughts. If that’s not essential self-care, I don’t know what is.

Personally, I’m a fan of every kind of self-care. When my kids were small, taking time away made my heart grow fonder and helped me hold onto some semblance of personal freedom. The all-to-brief moments of “Me Time” helped me stay madly in love with my kids. The giddy (on my end, at least) reunions we’d have after even just an hour apart would do wonders for my morale, resilience and unruffledness. But it was the permission and encouragement Magda gave me to stick up for myself while engaging with my children day-to-day that helped them thrive as successful, socially aware people and made our relationships utter joy.

“A positive goal to strive for when disciplining would be to raise children we not only love, but in whose company we love being.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

I share more about setting limits with respect in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

9 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I confess to be a parent who can be classified as a controller. But, then, one day, it occurred to me that this control will be passed to the one who deserve exerting it. Would they be able to assert it healthily, if they have learnt to suppress their intuitions from an early age? I had to step back, sooner or later, why not step back now when it’s still beneficial? So, I tried and succeeded in establishing healthy autonomy. But I have to admit, it’s not easy to adhere to respecting those little people’s boundaries for a long time. Although I am getting better at considering them the powerful, autonomous individuals they are, I have a long road to travel before truly respecting them.

  2. I like to refer to the deeper self-care referred to here as “self-nurture” as i think the word “nurture” implies a more ongoing and mindful approach…. Great reminder and some new perspective on the notion, Janet! Thank you!

  3. avatar Ruth Mason says:

    Hi Janet! As usual, wonderful and important and in my case, timely. I am sending it to two of the parents in my classes to whom this is particularly relevant right now. You are a gift to parents — and to the world.
    This is the first time I’ve read something in your column that I’m not sure I agree with — and that is stopping a sibling from climbing onto mom’s lap when she is holding another child. I agree with the spirit of it — kids don’t like sharing laps from what I’ve seen. But I couldn’t help feeling deep inside that this “pushed away” child — especially with that hand blocking her from getting on the lap and the words said — will feel rejected. This is not a projection from my own family of origin cuz I came 10 years after the last child before me! But I’m sure it’s stimulating other childhood feelings of rejection. So it’s hard to separate what it’s triggering in me and what is really true, but…I think I would at least add something like, You and I can snuggle later…or in a few minutes…or when your sister goes back to playing…

    1. Thank you again for all your kindness and encouragement, Ruth!

      Thanks also for sharing your thoughts about my suggestions. Yes, this could definitely be added: “You and I can snuggle later…or in a few minutes…or when your sister goes back to playing…” I didn’t mean to imply that this limit would be set curtly or without empathy and acknowledgment and I’m sorry it came across that way to you.

      The examples I used came to my mind because the parents I’m in contact with commonly struggle with them. Parents often seem to feel that they must try to keep all their children happy at all times, even if pleasing everyone isn’t so comfortable for the parent. One big problem with that approach is that it doesn’t work for anyone. All too often, “pleasing everyone” turns into a shoving match on the parent’s lap, making the parent frustrated when all he or she was trying to do was be kind and good. The child who was there first feels devalued and infringed upon and the other child is encouraged to behave insensitively. He or she also feels bereft of capable leadership from the parent and will therefore keep seeking it out by pushing more limits. Also, these wishes children have are usually not totally genuine and pure. They see full well that their “rival” is getting lap time and that’s why they decide to go for it themselves. This urge is not coming from a comfortable place… There are feelings driving it that need to be expressed and holding the limit helps do that. In other words, the child’s action does not usually reflect a need for physical connection with the parent, but rather a need for a boundary from the parent to push up against so that feelings can be shared.

      1. This is brilliant.
        So many times I have rolled my eyes at myself and have been so frustrated with myself, because I was trying to be “kind and good.”

        I am kind and good to my kid when I am kind and good to ME and that means having boundaries. And then my daughter grows up with a thorough modeling of a person taking good care of herself, without being mean, just strong within herself.

  4. “And chances are good that these emotions actually have little to do with us saying “no” to playing or cookies or running freely across the street”

    So do you think that there is always an underling emotion which was there before?

    1. When children have a very strong reaction, yes, I do think there are underlying emotions that are getting touched off. Sometimes the emotions are developmental. The toddler years are a time of such rapid development that children often have a strong mix of emotions under the surface for that reason alone.

  5. My daughter came to me today wanting me to say Yes to my husband’s No. I wasn’t going to do that and I supported and restated the request that she use her own spices for her baking (we got a bunch at the dollar store, so she didn’t have to go into my stash). Then, I remembered I hadn’t seen her much that morning (we were in the same room, and we were talking, but it was pretty much each of us doing our own thing: she’s 4) and I remembered you mentioning other emotions that are going on. So, I said, “I miss you, too. I will be downstairs after I put my shoes on.”

    She softened. Her whole body just relaxed: I saw her, I heard her and she appreciated it. She said ok and went back to her spices.

    Another experience today: I needed my daughter to stop interrupting my husband and me for a five minute family meeting. I remembered to get up from my chair and go over to her. It came out a bit strong and she got quiet, but I could tell she didn’t feel good about herself (I am getting really really really good at no longer imitating my mother’s tone, but a bit slipped out, because I didn’t nip the problem in the bud and frustration had seeped in).

    So, I went back over to her (she was up on a chair playing restaurant on the counter) and redid what I had inadvertently done a moment earlier: I startled her by talking to her just out of eyeshot. Quietly, I said, Does this startle you too? She looked at me and saw I was smiling and we laughed. And then I repeated this a few times, at her request, and then she just leaned in for a hug. I apologized for startling her the first time, telling her I hadn’t meant to do that, and we were just quiet for a bit. My husband and I got to talk uninterrupted and my daughter didn’t feel banished.

    I do best when I read you every day (I used to just read during a crisis, then I said, read weekly, then I said at least every three days and then my parenting just got more fluid, graceful, empowering, peaceful, fun, less exhausting and more delightful, so I switched to everyday). Thank you for having so many angles at which to look at parenting with, so I can learn something new everyday and go to bed each night more and more proud of myself.

    This self-care article is vital. I re-read it frequently.

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