What You’ll Learn:

  • How to define self-care
  • Why self-care is essential in becoming a good parent
  • How to create a self-care plan

Parenthood: It’s the time we need the most “self-care.” Unfortunately, it’s also the time when self-care lands dead last on our list of priorities.

In the early years amid diaper changes, round-the-clock feedings, and documenting every developmental milestone, we’re so wrapped up in taking care of our children, we either feel like we can’t — or we simply forget to — take care of ourselves. For most people (including me), prioritizing self-care seemed impossible after having children.

Before I was a mom, my list of much-loved activities included:

  • Regular Exercise
  • Therapy
  • Rich Social Life
  • Guitar Playing
  • Voice Lessons
  • Surfing
  • Alone Time to Decompress

After having my first son, my list became:

  • Take Care of My Baby

I was sucked into what I call the “Motherhood Vortex” — an all encompassing role that demanded everything I had and left no room for the things that had previously filled me up.

This can happen to any new mom, no matter how prepared you think you are for motherhood. It doesn’t matter how much help you have, or how fervently you insist you won’t be “one of those mothers who loses her identity.” The Vortex doesn’t discriminate.

It’s strong and it’s fierce. It can swallow you up before you even know what’s happening. And when you have a child who requires extra time and attention, you are even more susceptible to being sucked right in.

It took me three years of struggling to realize that, as impossible as it seemed, I needed to start prioritizing self-care. My health and my family’s health depended on it.

But first, I had to let go of guilt. (Easier said than done!) I had to accept that, not only was it ok for me to take care of myself, it was absolutely imperative in order to be the best mom to my two boys.

As soon as I made it my mission to do things for myself again, I began to feel like a new person.

If you think you’re being a “good” parent by putting yourself last, keep reading. I hope I can convince you to take care of yourself with the same attention and love that you give to your family. You will all be stronger for it.

What is Self-Care?

Simply put, it’s any intentional action you take to care for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. It looks different for everyone. For some, self-care is journaling every night before bed or taking a relaxing bath, for others it’s exercising regularly, being out in nature, or keeping up a daily meditation practice. Self-care is anything that nourishes your soul on a regular basis to ensure that your tank is full.

Why is it Important?

If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we show up for others in an engaged and present way? Self-care is absolutely crucial for your overall health and the health of your relationships. When you are overworked, overstressed, out of balance and overwhelmed, you cannot possibly be present for others — let alone yourself.

Prioritizing our needs before our children’s needs goes against our instincts as parents. If you’re like me, the first step you need to take is letting go of the guilt. Because as the oxygen mask in the airplane analogy so perfectly depicts, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves first in order to effectively care for our children.

Examples of Physical Self-care

Anything that makes you feel good — walking, running, hiking, boxing, surfing, cycling, swimming…the key is that you love doing it.

Start your morning with 5 minutes of stretching.

Find a great yoga teacher in your area or start your morning with your own home practice.

Play your favorite song and dance around the house, or better yet, go out dancing with your partner.

Book a massage or ask your partner for one.

Change your diet
Make one small change to your diet for the week- drink more water, cut out dairy, sugar, or gluten (or all three!), drink a green juice each day.

Take a nap
Even a 20-minute cat nap can do wonders. This one seems impossible for parents, but try scheduling it and taking turns with your partner on a weekend.

Take a bath
Pour some Epsom salts into a nice hot bath and relax for twenty minutes before you go to bed. Finish by rinsing off with cold water to bring your body temperature down. (I do this as often as I can — it’s great for a deep sleep.)

Change your sleep habits
Sleep affects every aspect of your life and is the most important factor in your overall health. If you are not clocking enough, I highly recommend checking out the book Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson and following some of his sleep smarter strategies.

Examples of Emotional Self-Care

There’s a saying in psychology, “name it to tame it.” Writing out your feelings has an instant calming effect.

Gratitude journal
Gratitude is the antidote to anxiety, fear, sadness, and overwhelm. The moment we shift into gratitude, we make room for a richer, more present experience. Keep a journal on your nightstand and every night before you go to bed, write down three things you are grateful for. When you wake up, start your day by writing three more.

I think everyone should be in therapy! At least for a little while. Especially if you are struggling and feeling stuck, therapy can help you process your feelings of overwhelm and reconnect with your true self, ultimately making you a better partner and a better parent.

Connecting with a friend
We are hard-wired for connection. Having close friendships is an essential part of our health and well-being. Make it a priority to connect with friends, no matter how busy you get with your kids. Nothing substitutes for quality time with friends, but if you are in the midst of complete overwhelm, try to find time for a quick phone call or at the very least send a text message.

Date night with your partner
Hands down one of the best things you can do for yourself and your marriage — aim for weekly.

Moms’ night out
Connecting with other moms without being interrupted every five seconds by your kids is must! At least once a month, make a point to get out with your girlfriends.

Plan a day or an afternoon to go through your house and declutter. Clean out your closets, the kids’ toys, the cupboards, etc. Your physical space has a direct impact on your emotional state. If your house is a cluttered mess, your internal world is most likely in turmoil as well. There is something powerfully cathartic about getting rid of things you don’t use anymore and reorganizing your living space.

Put all of your devices on airplane mode for an hour.
Take a break from social media. Go a day or even a week, if you can, without going on social media. The benefit of this one cannot be overstated.

Have a good laugh
Watch your favorite comedy or call a friend who always makes you crack up.

Join a support group
There are support groups for everything. Connecting with others who have experienced similar challenges is both validating and healing.

Examples of Mental Self-care

Dive into podcasts
There are so many amazing podcasts out there, you can search for anything you are interested in and I guarantee you’ll find one! I listen to them while I’m in the car, doing dishes, working out, folding laundry. Here are my favorites.

I was an avid reader before kids. After having my first son, I don’t think I picked up a non-baby related book for three years. (Yikes.) When I finally started reading again, it helped me reconnect with who I was before having kids and helped me feel more intellectually stimulated.

Have a conversation with a friend or your partner about an interesting topic that- here’s the key- doesn’t pertain to kids. It might feel weird at first, but I promise, you’ll remember how to do it.

Start a project
Is there something you have been wanting to start but haven’t? Start it!! Even if you can only devote a small amount of time each week, do it. Having something that is not related to your kids, something that is yours and yours alone, is so important.

Learn something new
What have you been wanting to learn? Spanish? Painting? Mastering a French pastry? Go for it.

Create a vision board
Imagine your ideal life, then look through magazines or google images that inspire you and represent this ideal life. Cut them out and glue them onto a posterboard. Hang it up somewhere you will be able to look at everyday. Another option is to make a vision journal- do the same thing, but glue the images into a journal that you keep on your nightstand and look at every night before you go to bed.

Examples of Spiritual Self-care

Spend time in nature
Go for a hike, take a swim in the ocean (salt water is so healing), or if you don’t have easy access to nature, spend ten minutes lying on the ground looking up at the clouds. This may sound odd, but it is very calming and relaxing.

Even five minutes a day can be a game changer. Having a daily meditation practice has made the biggest impact on my parenting and on my life in general.

Go to a spiritual service
Find a service in your area that is aligned with your belief system and commit to attending. This is a great way to gain perspective and take a break from the demands of parenting a child or children with special needs.

Even if you aren’t “religious” (I am spiritual but not religious), you can still pray. If God isn’t your thing, you can think of it as connecting with something outside yourself- the universe, collective consciousness, it whatever resonates with you.

Acts of service
Nothing feels better than doing something kind for someone else.

Do something creative
Paint, draw, sing, play an instrument, color (you can even use your kids’ coloring books!), dance, write...doing something creative is a wonderful way to tap into something bigger than yourself.

Listen to a podcast on spirituality
This can be a great substitute for attending a spiritual service. Here is my favorite.

How to Create Your Self-Care Plan

If you are depleted and can’t remember when you last took time for yourself, I challenge you to start prioritizing self-care today. Make a commitment right now to create and implement a self-care plan. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do this:

Step 1: Let go of mommy guilt.

Being a good parent does not mean giving up your needs to meet those of your children. That is a faulty belief that, unfortunately, many of us hold on to. You do not have to sacrifice your needs to be a good parent! Let me repeat that, you do not have to sacrifice your needs to be a good parent! In fact, doing that impairs your ability to be the best parent you can be.

Here’s what helps me when I am struggling with mommy guilt: Stop. Then ask myself, What do I want to model for my children? What kind of parent do I hope they become? A parent who is depleted and overwhelmed and has lost his or her identity to parenthood? Or a parent who is full of energy, vitality, and passion, who is engaged and present and has a strong identity? Another thing that has been helpful for me is to directly challenge my mommy guilt messages. When I catch myself feeling guilty for doing something for myself, I notice what I am feeling, let it pass, and then say to myself, “I'm a better mom when I take care of myself.”

Step 2: Take inventory and prioritize.

Reflect on what areas of your life feel the most out of balance. Is it your health (physical), your relationships (emotional), your intellect (mental), or your sense of purpose (spiritual)? Where are you suffering the most and what needs the most immediate attention? Make a list and prioritize each area. My list looks like this:

  1. Physical
  2. Emotional
  3. Spiritual
  4. Mental

Step 3: Make a list of self-care ideas for each area.

Choose at least three self-care ideas for each area and write them down. Choose things that make you excited and that speak to your soul. Even if you don’t know how it will be possible to incorporate them into your life right now, write them down anyway. Mine looks like this:

Exercise for one hour a day
Surf two times a week
Go to bed by 10pm
No screen time two hours before bed

Schedule a weekly date night with August
Write in my gratitude journal every night before bed
Connect with a girlfriend/girlfriends at least once a week without kids

Meditate for five minutes every morning before I get out of bed
Listen to one episode of the “Cosmos in You” podcast per week
Attend one Unitarian Church service a month

Practice my guitar for a minimum of 20 minutes a night
Add images to my vision book and look at it every night before bed
Read a non-fiction book about something other than SPD

Step 4: Start small

This is the key. You have to start small otherwise it is too overwhelming. Pick one self-care idea from the first category on your list and commit to doing it for two weeks. There is a wonderful app I have been using called habit list that is helpful for setting up reminders and keeping you accountable for habits you are trying to build into your life.

If you find yourself feeling so overwhelmed that you cannot figure out how to incorporate your self-care idea, remind yourself that in order to be the best mother and partner you can be, you have to take care of yourself first. For me, exercise was the first area of self-care I wanted to incorporate. It’s my main anxiety reliever.

When my boys were not sleeping through the night, there was no way in hell I could wake up early and exercise before they woke up. Once they woke up and the day got started, it felt impossible to find time in the day to do it. I felt discouraged until I realized that I had to dial it back. Rather than trying to exercise every day, what if I started with three days a week? Rather than feeling like I had to exercise for an hour, what if I started with just 20 minutes? This seemed much more doable.

With this mindset, it became easy to incorporate exercise back into my life. I worked out a schedule where, three days a week while I had our babysitter, I would go out for a 20 minute run while my boys were napping. Over time, three days turned into four, then into five, and 20 minutes turned into 30, then 40, and then an hour. Now that my boys sleep (thank god), I am able to get up at 5:45am five days a week to get my workout in. But, it took me awhile to get there. Remember, the key is to start small!

Step 5: Add a self-care activity from the second category on your list.

Again, start small. For me, I really wanted to focus on my marriage and build in quality time with my husband. But scheduling a weekly date night just didn’t seem doable. So, I decided to scale it back to two date nights a month. That seemed doable and it was.

Two and a half years after becoming parents, my husband and I finally started prioritizing time as a couple and it made a big difference. Two date nights a month helped us feel more connected. We stopped bickering as much and we both felt happier. When my younger son got on a good sleep schedule, we were able to start our weekly date nights. We even started having our babysitter come on Saturday mornings for a few hours so we could go surfing together and grab breakfast afterwards.

Having this time together did wonders for our relationship. It took deliberate, thoughtful, and conscious effort to make it happen. But once it was scheduled, it became a non-negotiable part of our life. When you're in a state of overwhelm, as parents of young children (especially parents of young children with special needs) often are, it takes focused action to create balance in your life.

Step 6: Keep going down your list adding in one self-care activity at a time from each category.

I keep my list in my journal and I like to check in every month to see which areas I am feeling good about and which areas I need to give some more attention to. I keep my self-care activities in my Habit List app where there are built in reminders to keep me accountable.

My goal is to feel balanced. When one area of my life starts to feel a little neglected, I shift my focus. For example, recently I noticed that while I was doing well physically and mentally, I was feeling emotionally overwhelmed and I wasn’t feeling spiritually connected. I had taken on too much and realized that I needed to let go of some commitments so I could refocus on my emotional and spiritual health. This not only helped me feel less overwhelmed, it also helped me feel more present and more connected to my kids and husband.

I cannot possibly stress enough how important it is for you to take care of yourself. Having a child with special needs puts additional stress on your marriage and on your life in general. Having quality self-care in your daily life helps mitigate this stress and enables you to be present, connected, and responsive to your children’s needs.

Key Takeaways:

  • Self-care is any intentional action you take to care for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
  • Self-care is your first line of defense when you are in a state of parenting-induced overwhelm.
  • When creating your self-care plan, start small. Pick one thing you can do this week to give yourself some reprieve.