Self-care and why is it necessary?
Despite the crucial importance of tending to parents' internal well-being, many parents still struggle with understanding why self-care is necessary. Even if the concept is graspable, integrating it into one's hectic daily life often proves challenging. There's a common belief that other tasks and daily responsibilities are priority, framing self-care as something exclusive and even unattainable. A compromised nervous system and inadequate rest not only impact daily life but also influence relationships with children and the ability to handle situations beyond just parenting.
Regrettably, in my psychotherapy practice, I observe a persistent misconception among older generations that self-care is an indulgent or shame-inducing topic. For many, the notion persists that being a parent inherently involves making sacrifices. Regardless of this misbelief, self-care stands as a crucial responsibility for every adult. Shifting our perspective to recognize this adult task as an essential component of modern life may take time. From personal experience, I understand that "practice makes perfect"—repeatedly challenging internal resistance, guilt, shame, etc., is necessary to incorporate daily practices that contribute positively to one's well-being.
What exactly is self-care, and how does it manifest? Genuine self-care goes beyond addressing just our physical necessities; it also includes our emotional well-being.
Our physiological needs are fundamental for human survival, transcending cultural and social differences. These needs form a universal foundation that applies to everyone.
In contrast, emotional needs play a crucial role in shaping our emotional well-being, relationships, and overall quality of life. Unlike physiological needs, emotional needs vary from person to person, evolving with life stages, experiences, and cultural influences. Recognizing and fulfilling these emotional needs is vital for fostering healthy relationships, both with oneself and others.
Adequate sleep, nourishing meals, fresh air, time spent in nature, physical activities, moments with loved ones, enjoyable hobbies, physical touch, the chance to express oneself, and a sense of community – all contribute to strength, comfort, relaxation, and satisfaction; collectively, they constitute self-care. When these elements are consistently lacking, a person begins to feel drained, making it challenging to function optimally. Prolonged emptiness diminishes the ability to recognize and fulfill personal needs. This is linked to the pre-frontal cerebral cortex and its malfunction when an individual is fatigued. Decision-making and action-taking abilities are compromised. This serves as a clear illustration of the physiological repercussions when insufficient time or inclination is directed toward self-care. In such a state, even basic decisions related to daily life become impossible, and recognizing one's immediate needs becomes a daunting task. I vividly recall moments with a very small child in my arms, experiencing severe sleep deprivation and hunger, struggling to hold onto things, and feeling my patience waning. No matter how many excellent parenting books you read during such times, they offer little help because the challenge lies not in ignorance but in the inability to apply acquired knowledge during a chronic state of exhaustion.
Fulfilling our basic physiological needs forms the foundation for well-being and the capacity to handle stress. It's crucial for parents to recognize that their well-being is just as important as their child's. Consider asking yourself: "How do I respond when my child is tired?" The answer to this question can also guide you in taking care of yourself when fatigued – whether it's enjoying a warm shower, getting some rest, sharing a comforting hug, relishing tasty food, or offering yourself compassionate and positive words…
Both adults and children share fundamental needs. Interestingly, it's often simpler for many to tend to the basic needs of a child than to prioritize the same for themselves. Why is that? Unfortunately, not everyone received ample care during childhood, and positive parental examples weren't universal. The experiences and examples from childhood become the norm that people carry into their adult lives, sometimes adopting it uncritically, choosing to endure unnecessary suffering. While it might feel like self-care is selfish, and a parent might grapple with guilt when desiring alone time or engaging in enjoyable activities, it's essential to remember that neglecting self-care is the real selfish act. By not caring for oneself, consciously or unconsciously, individuals may seek this care from others, which is not their responsibility. When one's needs go unmet for an extended period, it can lead to irritation, dissatisfaction, impatience, and even more severe issues like panic attacks, apathy, burnout, or depression. It's common for people to blame their surroundings in such situations, and I believe almost every parent encounters this scenario at some point if they haven't prioritized self-care before their child's arrival.
Understanding physiological needs might come more naturally than grasping emotional needs. Thus, it's crucial to directly explore the definition and considerations of emotional needs. It's essential to stress that self-care goes beyond the external—more than just a warm bath, delightful tea, a good book, or a new dress. It's more profound than what social networks or TV advertisements often portray. Emotional self-care involves recognizing the current relevant needs. How can one establish better daily protection (boundaries)? What strategies can make the parenting journey more comfortable? Sometimes, self-care means having the courage to say "no" to well-meaning but unsolicited advice in child-rearing. It could also be as simple as needing a brief period alone—10 to 30 minutes—by requesting support from a partner or someone close to watch over the baby. Understanding that personal time is not selfish but a vital necessity for every parent is an aspect of self-care. It might involve openly expressing true feelings or seeking professional help if overwhelmed. Self-care can extend to asking for assistance with daily chores, allowing the parent to rest or nap with their child in the afternoon. Essentially, self-care revolves around paying attention to one's emotional state, recognizing existing needs, and acknowledging that neglecting physiological needs can make it more challenging to identify emotional needs. Starting with basic daily routines is often a recommended first step.
Certainly, time and opportunities for self-care with a newborn are limited, especially during the first year. However, by occasionally remembering your own needs—whether it's taking a short break, nourishing yourself emotionally, enjoying a healthy meal, or getting some sleep—new parents can benefit both themselves and their child. This advice is particularly relevant for first-time parents. While the desire to excel in every aspect of parenting, household chores, maintaining relationships, and personal activities is understandable, it's crucial to recognize that trying to manage everything simultaneously isn't realistic or healthy. Prioritize what matters most to you at the moment and focus on those aspects. The rest can wait!
If your children are older and you find yourself with more personal time, consider extending the same care to yourself that you routinely give to your children. Imagining a scenario where parents prioritize self-care, then care for each other, sets the stage for a harmonious family dynamic. Begin with self-care, followed by mutual care, and finally, collective care for the children.
When exploring ways to care for yourself, there's no need to overwhelm yourself with grand tasks. Start with the simplest actions, thinking: "Better this than nothing."
Regard every act of self-care as an investment in your children's well-being. A parent's well-being directly influences the child's happiness. Don't let daily concerns dominate your thoughts entirely; instead, periodically assess your daily life. Ask yourselves: How can we enhance it? What resources are we lacking as a family? Collaborate on making each situation more comfortable for everyone.
Dear parents, may we increasingly prioritize ourselves, finding joy and fulfillment not only in our roles as parents but also as individuals.
Gestalt Therapist / Founder of the Psychology Center AUGT