When you’re a mom of young kids, it’s hard to find the time and energy to take care of yourself. You’re too busy focusing on your children’s physical and emotional needs, said Diane Sanford, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in maternal and child health in St. Louis, Mo.
Even more so, your relationship with your child isn’t just symbiotic; it’s parasitic, according to Ashley Eder, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo. That’s because it isn’t a mutual relationship.
“Yes, your children are — adorable [and] beloved — parasites, and you are the host, and that’s normal and healthy.”
But it’s also demanding and exhausting. Yet you might feel guilty or selfish for even thinking about your own needs. But, as Eder said, “the survival of a parasite is dependent upon the health of the host.”
So what can you do to help reduce your exhaustion and take better care of yourself?
In other words, sacrificing your needs for your child serves neither of you.
“It is better for your kids if you have periods of unavailability that increase your presence later on, than for you to be partially available at all times.”
So how can you make time for yourself while caring for young kids? Here are eight tips to try.
Practice self-care in intervals.
For instance, take 15 minutes for yourself, twice a day, said Sanford, co-author of the book Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide. “Don’t do the laundry, make dinner or read your email.” Instead, take that time to close your eyes and breathe, read a magazine or take a shower, she said.
Ask for – imperfect – help.
“Sometimes self-care means accepting imperfect help from someone you trust, who might feed them junk food, or let them watch too much TV, or simply do things differently than you do,” Eder said.
Just like it’s self-nurturing to say “no” to things that don’t serve you, it’s also self-nurturing to say “yes” to requests that can provide a positive distraction from the daily grind of parenting, Eder said. Offer to proofread your friend’s resume, give someone a ride or make a meal for a family who needs it, she said.
“This is creating a deliberate distraction to connect you with other people and remind you of the good you do in the world outside your home.” Plus, it helps you reconnect with the other parts of yourself, she said.
Mindfulness is “paying attention to the present moment on purpose, without judgment,” Sanford said. And you can do this with any activity, at any time. For instance, when washing the dishes, don’t think about your to-do list. “Just pay attention to the sensory experience” of doing the dishes. When playing with your child, focus on the experience of being with them, she said.
Sanford also suggests her clients try this breathing exercise once in the morning and once during the day, along with this body scan as they lie down to sleep. One client, who had a baby in October, sets her morning alarm for five minutes earlier to practice the breathing exercise.
It also helps to focus on the future. This creates internal space when you really can’t get away, Eder said. For instance, she suggested considering: What will your life be like in six months? What changes will you embrace? What will you wish you focused more on when your kids were younger? What won’t matter?
Explore future career goals or new ways to redesign your space, said Eder, who calls this “intentional daydreaming,” which takes into account your strengths and interests.
“Feel free to alternate between now and the future as much as it feels helpful, without giving yourself a hard time for needing a break from today.”
Temper your expectations.
Another part of self-care is having realistic expectations. For instance, moms may agonize about buying the right crib, stroller or toy and creating the optimal environment for their child in order to “raise a social, emotional and cognitive giant,” Sanford said.
They question their every move and “drive themselves crazy trying to attain a standard of perfection, which doesn’t exist.” But remember that “taking good care of your baby and yourself every day is enough.”
Build an empathy team.
“Who are the people you can call to complain, who can hear how hard it is, without trying to fix it, deny it, or smooth it over?” Eder said. Parenting is tough. It’s important to have several people you can turn to. (Remember that talking about how exhausting and frustrating parenting can be doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids or life, she said.)
This is especially important for parents of kids with a chronic illness or developmental concerns, Eder said. Her children have severe allergic conditions, so she understands firsthand the persistent worry and challenges of managing a chronic condition.
She suggested looking for others with the same condition in your area and setting up play dates. Or find online support on Facebook or other social media sites. This way “you can connect with similar folks when winter or illness prevent your kids from playing with their peers.”
Ignore the naysayers.
Some people might disapprove of you taking time out for yourself. Remember that others’ objections are more about the discomfort within themselves than your actions, Sanford said. Instead, “listen to your inner wisdom,” and tune into your own feelings. Does an activity feel nourishing to you? Do you feel recharged?
The next time you feel guilty or selfish for practicing self-care, remind yourself that “you matter too, and denying your own needs for a prolonged period does not serve anyone,” Eder said. As Sanford noted, self-care isn’t selfish, it’s “self-preserving.”