Why Self Care Isn’t Selfish – Especially for Parents

I have a little mom rule I call the “oxygen mask method”. Very simply, it’s making sure my needs are met before I move on to meeting my son’s. This might sound a little selfish at first blush, but I’ve come to learn the hard way—over and over again—that it is indispensable, imperative, and utterly sacred in my parenting book.

Let me explain.

We’ve all seen the safety demonstration at the beginning of a flight; the attendants remind us to secure our own masks before we move on to our children. The logic is simple; if you pass out, you won’t do a whole lot of good for your kid.

Same principle applied to life. If you don’t feel safe, secure, loved, nourished, fulfilled, healthy, and content, your kid can’t either. They can’t because you are their example of how to be in the world, of how to behave, how to relate, how to love, and how to feel.

No pressure, right?

The good news is that this tosses old school guilt-driven parenting out the window.

Self-Care Isn’t Self-Indulgence

Parenting will always be self-sacrificing, because that’s the nature of parenting. You give up your own small desires, like going out for drinks or watching one more episode of Mad Men, but in so doing you experience the real freedom of acting for a cause that is greater than yourself.

The space created by giving up those fun but frivolous things opens you up to a larger purpose, one with much more meaning and value, one that is ultimately much more satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong, life needs a good dose of frivolity, too. That’s where the oxygen mask method comes in.

It’s easy to justify overworking, over-parenting, and over-adulting by the fact that you’re “doing it for you kid”. The problem is, you’re doing it for your future kid, not the one who’s there with you right now.

What that kid needs is for your to be, well, there with him or her right now.

Getting Back to Basics

The way to do that is to take care of #1. When my needs are more than taken care of, I feel that I have the space, the energy, and the patience to fully show up for my son. I’m not worrying about when I’m going to fit in a nap, or cook myself a nice meal, or when I’m going to get my next workout in.

And when I don’t have all those things worked out ahead of time, I notice that I get impatient, sometimes anxious, even resentful of my son’s demands on me. I’m less present, less playful, and frankly — less fun to be around.

That’s because my needs are actually coming into conflict with my child’s needs. Not a fun place to be, especially when you’re the primary caregiver.

It’s kind of like being hangry, except what you’re hungry for is a little TLC from you to yourself. I like to remember AA’s tip: if you’re feeling off, H.A.L.T. — and check in. Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? If so, you know what to do (we are pretty much like grown up toddlers, in the end).

Self-sacrifice is a beautiful thing. Self-negation is not. Your’re not going to put up with it in the long run, so the imbalance will seep out in ways that aren’t going to be fun for you or your kid. Plus, your kid needs to see a whole person, proud of and aware of who they are, so they can be that, too.

Being A Mom Who Is Her Own Person

This is especially important for women, who have been so conditioned to give their creativity and energy away for the benefit of others; their parents, their children, their husbands, their friends.

Being a mother and taking care of your own needs–and not just the basics but the deeper, human needs of creative expression, community, and contribution (whether that’s coding or accounting or cooking or being on the PTA)—is a revolutionary act. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it matters what it feels like.

The number one quality that comes from taking care of myself first and Noah second is playfulness. When I’m rested, nourished, and content, that means I’m ready to play, both in my own life and with my kid. And that makes me an awesome mom.

Stress puts us in survival mode. It kills creativity. It makes us lament the past and worry about the future. It is not conducive to playfulness, or joy, or presence.

It All Comes Down to This

When I have rest, exercise, healthy eating, and a fair dose of adult social time (even if it is the PTA meeting) auto-built into my routine, I can be at 100%. That means Noah gets the best of me when I’m with him. I can sit down on the mat and play cars for an hour, or climb up a hillside on an expedition for dandelions.

And those things don’t feel like impositions. They feel like the reason for everything else that I do. The job, the chores, the errands, are all for those little moments.

And the job, the chores, and the errands become little moments in themselves.

This way, life itself becomes a game, a playful and childlike journey, and an act of love. Easier said than done, for sure, especially in this extremely fast-paced, high-stress world that we’ve created for ourselves.

It’s more important and more difficult than ever to carve out time to just be, to go slow, to let go of everything else so we can show up in our own lives and be there with our kids.

In its best moments, parenting is a little taste of the most salient aspect of being human; moving beyond yourself and being of service to another.

Let me qualify this by saying I don’t feel that way 100% of the time. Or even 75% of the time. Being human is tough. Being a parent on top of that? The pressure is multiplied a thousand fold.

But in the end, we need to express in order to stay balanced and happy. If we don’t, we get stuck inside ourselves and have that vague sense of something missing. The really difficult part for parents is finding the energy.

I’ve struggled a lot with feeling strong enough to pick myself up and see friends, work out, or do something nourishing simply for the hell of it. Not only is it easy to come up with hundreds of little reasons not to, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel possible.

But living life in this way is the best kind of gift we can give to our kids. If they have a vibrant, fulfilled, and self-possessed parent as an example, they are a lot more likely to end up that way themselves.

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