If you’re a parent of young children, you probably feel like there’s never enough time to get caught up. You might be managing your work obligations, supervising homework, scheduling appointments and trying to get a healthy bite of food into your kids’ mouths. Taking care of yourself might feel like something you won’t get around to until your kids are out of the house. Kristine Goto, PhD, a psychologist and family medicine specialist with Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix, gets it. She’s a working parent herself.
“Even before the pandemic, parents were far less likely to take care of their own needs and to prioritize their own health and self-care than they were to take care of their children’s needs,” Dr. Goto said. “But self-care and mental health are not luxuries. It’s not optional, and it needs to be part of our everyday lives,” she said.
Ideally, you want to carve out some time to yourself—even 10 minutes—for something that gives you pleasure. Dr. Goto pointed out that self-care is individualized—what’s restorative for you might not appeal to someone else. And self-care can change with your stage of life. “Maybe playing the guitar or painting watercolors was incredible self-care in a different season of life,” she said. Now, self-care might be watching a TV show, physical activity, gardening, calling a friend or baking.
Here are ways you can work self-care into your existing schedule
Carving out 30 minutes to watch a TV show might feel as unattainable as jetting off to Paris for a long weekend alone. But Dr. Goto said there are self-care steps you can take even if you don’t have a minute free in your day. “We need to catch self-care in the existing structure of our lives,” she said. Here are some strategies to try:
- Incorporate mindfulness into your day. Look for moments where you can find joy while you’re doing something else. For example, suppose you’re walking to pick up your lunch. Instead of letting anxious thoughts spin through your head, be present. Feel the air on your skin, hear the sounds of the outside world, and notice the leaves on the trees. Breathe deeply. You can use the same mindful technique when you’re showering—treat yourself to the expensive shampoo or the fancy soap. “Take some of the things you’re doing out of necessity and amp them up,” Dr. Goto said. “If you’re in the moment right now, you can’t be worried about the past or future, and that can be very grounding.” She tries to turn her daily commute into a mindful practice, where she enjoys her coffee and her music.
- Eat healthy food. “Parents are notoriously poor at making healthy nutrition choices for themselves,” Dr. Goto said. “But we try very hard to make nutritious, healthy, well-balanced meals for our children.” You don’t have to revamp your diet all at once—making small changes toward healthier habits can move the needle in the right direction.
- Do your best to get enough sleep. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. “We think, ‘I got six hours—I’m rocking this.’ The reality is the body is creating a sleep deficit. Every time we do that, we’re less able to concentrate, more irritable and not as resilient,” Dr. Goto said. If you’re a parent of a newborn, it can be tough to get the sleep you need. But if your kids are older and you’re staying up late to have some time to yourself, reconsider whether you would get better self-care from a good night’s sleep.
- Use technology in a way that works for you. A lot of well-intentioned advice tells you to turn off your technology when you leave the office. “For some people, that is self-care,” Dr. Goto said. “But for others, the buildup of calls and emails is stressful.” Find the balance of screen time that keeps your stress level to a minimum.
- Broaden your sense of purpose. “There are benefits to being needed so much by a child,” Dr. Goto said. “Of course, the demands are enormous, and it can feel legitimately burdensome at times. But we know from research that people who are caregivers have the potential to get a tremendous amount of fulfillment and personal meaning out of those relationships.”
- Accept help from friends or family members. “Moms especially are not the best at accepting help. We’re socialized to say, ‘I can do it all,’” Dr. Goto said. “And we also think we can do it better. We are doing ourselves a tremendous disservice by refusing the help that’s available because we have unrealistically high expectations.”
- If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids. Your kids are watching, and they can see if you are modeling self-care, health, vitality and fulfillment. They’ll carry those lessons with them to adulthood.
- Give yourself some grace. There will be times when you could have fit in self-care, but you didn’t. “We’re all human,” Dr. Goto said. Maybe instead of taking care of yourself you scrolled Instagram or watched a trashy TV show and then felt like you wasted your time. Don’t judge yourself or beat yourself up. Remember that you’re doing your best to try to build in daily self-care habits. “Self-care requires some discipline,” Dr. Goto said. “It’s a dramatic behavioral change for parents, because it becomes habitual to think about what we need to do for our kids. But if you start small it’s very possible, and the long term rewards for our own lives and for modeling for the next generation are limitless.”
The bottom line
As a busy parent, you may not feel you have time to take care of your own needs. Strategies that take minimal time can make a big difference in your mood and well-being. If you would like to speak with a behavioral health professional about the best ways to care for yourself, visit bannerhealth.com.
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