Taking care of ourselves isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
I think it’s safe to say that, on a flight, most of us tend to zone out during the safety briefing. Somewhere between the oxygen mask and life jacket demo, my mind is already planning the things I can (or won’t have to) do with all the solo seated hours.
Both on flights and in life, flying with children is a very different ball game. There’s no time to read a magazine, go on a solo toilet run or even feed myself. The aim of this early childhood parenting “game” is to feed, hydrate, and entertain your kids until they fall asleep.
It took my husband’s relapse in his substance use disorder — and a steep slide into solo parenting two boys under 4 years old— before I took a real look at my own mental health. Once the “family disease” of addiction rippled through our home, I was left treading water with my marriage, finances, and mental health in tatters.
Even with family support and counseling, the trauma of more than 2 years of a spouse in active addiction took its toll on me. It deeply impacted my ability to parent effectively and thrive.
According to physician, addiction expert, and author Dr. Gabor Maté, when parents are stressed, they influence their children’s ability to attune themselves to the emotions of others, process their own stress, and manage their own emotions.
In his book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction,” Maté writes, “Infants read, react to, and are developmentally influenced by the psychological states of the parents. In a very real sense, the parent’s brain programs the infant’s, and this is why stressed parents will often rear children whose stress apparatus also runs in high gear, no matter how much they love their child and no matter that they strive to do their best. The infants of stressed or depressed parents are likely to encode negative emotional patterns in their brains.”
I realized I had a choice: I could either grab the oxygen mask for myself first or continue to be ineffective at everything else. And if that were the case, I’d risk long-term negative effects on my children.
Still, when you’re stressed, it can be hard to see past the overwhelm and know what to do to take care of yourself.
Let me share what worked for me, in the hopes that you, too, can fill your tank in this season of taking care of everyone else.
As parents, we are constantly planning, prepping, and making mental to-do lists. I found that putting some of those mental lists on paper released all the information crowding my anxious mind. In stressful or traumatic times, pouring everything you feel onto paper can be exceptionally healing in itself and provide a healthy emotional outlet.
The process of writing, say experts, may enable people who’ve been through a stressful life event to learn to better regulate their emotions, organize their thoughts, and perhaps break free of the endless mental cycling.
According to the relaxation response research of Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, people can counter the stress response by using a mindfulness approaches that help thwart the fight or flight response. These might include things like yoga or tai chi, deep breathing, and focusing your mind on a calm word or photo.
While getting to a yoga studio for an hour a day may not be feasible, adding just 10 to 20 minutes of a mindfulness practice each day can help. Sitting still and focusing on your breath can release your mind from past concerns and tomorrow’s worries to focus on what you can control now.
It almost seems bizarre that we need to add “caring for ourselves” to our to-do-lists. But if you’re like me, self-care is the first thing that falls off the priority list after work, kids, and adulting.
Simple things like a relaxing bath once the children are asleep can feel like an absolute luxury. DIY manis and pedis may seem like a simple act, but it’s something just for you and has a way of perking you up. Even allowing yourself the space to do nothing is permitted and should be encouraged.
Amidst the blur of raising kids, do you even recall what makes your soul soar and brings you complete joy? Was there a hobby that once made you happy?
Hobbies don’t necessarily have to be a physical activity: Why not try your hand at pottery, painting, or sculpture? Releasing your inner creativity can be a wonderful outlet.
But if you do enjoy sports or outdoor activities, you’ll kill two birds with one stone and get those endorphins pumping. Physical exercise like dance, surfing, running, or even brisk walking offers the added benefit of exercise and can serve to counteract the buildup of stress.
In a world where multitasking is often celebrated as a skill to master in order to increase productivity, it can often leave us feeling more hurried, stressed, and ineffective.
It may take practice at first but try just waiting while the kettle boils, or washing the dishes without trying to leave voice messages and plan the shopping list. Allowing your brain to focus on one thing at a time can give your mind moments of calm.
In the early childhood years social support is crucial to your well-being. Dig into your support network of family, friends, colleagues, and companions as this is where you’ll find strength, empathy, comfort, and enrichment. Emotional support from close friends and family plays a huge role in sustaining us in times of chronic stress.
These are stressful times for everyone. If, as parents, we don’t take care of our own stress level, our children may suffer too.
Instead, if we model how to work with stress and move through it, our children will learn the same. Refilling our tank is necessary before filling everyone else’s. Taking time for yourself isn’t selfish — to your family, it might be the best gift of all.
Lauren Manuel McShane is a travel and wellness journalist from Cape Town, South Africa, and mom of two boys under 5 years old. She’s always in search of a cappuccino, a moment’s peace, and the next outdoor adventure.