When the Going Gets Tough...
A Little Self-Care Goes A Long Way
by Karen Walant, Ph.D.
API News, September 2000
Let's face it. Even though the rewards are innumerable, parenting in an attachment style is demanding and stressful, both physically and emotionally. Wearing an infant in a baby sling is one thing, but hauling a toddler around in a sling is quite another. Nursing a 3-month-old through the night is one thing, but continuing to do so when he/she is a toddler, that is another. And yet, though we may be looking forward to "child-led weaning" and some well-deserved rest, many of us continue to follow all of these approaches because we believe it is best. The spirit is always willing, but the body is often...well, tired.
Many parenting books stress the importance of having one's own time, taking bubble baths or coffee breaks, but this is harder to come by in an attachment parenting household. After living through these earliest years with about as much attachment style parenting as possible, including baby wearing, extended nursing, family bed, empathic listening, and a nurturing, mindful environment, I've been asked to share some ideas about thriving, not just surviving, these early years. I might add that I did not begin my parenting years with this knowledge, thinking then only about the numerous benefits of attachment parenting, but learned it the "old fashioned way" — through fatigue, overwhelm and stress. Granted, I learned these lessons because my husband and I were blessed with three wonderful children, a now 9 year-old daughter and 5-1/2 year-old twin boys. Had I not had to juggle around the clock extended nursing and baby wearing, among other things, I don't know that I would have learned the three important lessons that I offer you now. I've followed these lessons with ten suggestions that you may want to incorporate into your own life, as you seek to find balance and nurturance for yourself as well as for your children. But be creative. Find what works for you, alter or dismiss what doesn't, and you're on your way to deepening your relationship with yourself and your children.
Think Oxygen. In an airplane emergency, the flight attendants insist that parents put on their own oxygen mask first, and then put masks on their children — not the other way around. It is crucial that parents are cared for even before our children. We cannot sacrifice ourselves to the point of endangering ourselves, for then we endanger both ourselves and our children. Caring for ourselves need not be in the extremes of narcissism; though, for some of us, caring for ourselves at all might feel like that. But think of it this way: the model you want to teach your children is that of love, for themselves, for you, for their siblings, for others. If you don't take care of yourself, then you are sending them a message of neglect — that sacrifice is mandatory in relationships.
Think Support. Even during pregnancy, begin to gather a support group that will nurture you and your spouse after the baby comes home. This can include family, friends, neighbors, support group members, other relatives, even your nanny or babysitters. Make sure these are people who will honor and support your parenting choices. One of the best gifts I ever got was a friend who brought us a week's worth of frozen dinners for the first week home. Another came and helped with cleaning the house. But even after the initial weeks home, this support is not just "nice to have," but crucial. Remember, oxygen first for you — so you need people you can trust your children with, and you must work to cultivate these relationships. Meeting people at the playground, at church or synagogue, finding out about API support groups or La Leche League meetings, can make a world of difference in your peace of mind and in your ability to have some long moments of serenity.
Even within the practice of attachment parenting there can be other nurturing and loving people who can care for your children — particularly people who will, hopefully, be involved with your family for years to come. The important idea is that your children are surrounded by loving, attentive, nurturant people. You will be giving your children richness by supplying them with others, besides yourself, who care for and love them as well. For my husband and me, one of our greatest gifts has been our loving nanny who has been with us even before our twin sons were born. She is a secure, loving presence for them and for our daughter and is viewed by all of us as a wonderful member of the family. We live in a society of isolation, where parents are expected to "do it all" by themselves, and to do it perfectly. This places unrealistic demands on parents and families. The truth is that it really does take a village to raise children. Resist the urge to do it all alone. Resist the belief that you and your husband can singlehandedly 'split-shift' all the parenting needs for your children. You will be giving a gift to your children as well as to yourselves.
Think Love. No, not just love for your children, and your husband, but love for yourself. The biblical advice that we should love our neighbor as ourselves means that we cannot really love anyone else, even our children, until we love ourselves. Think oxygen, but replace oxygen with love, and you will see the wisdom in this thinking. Love yourself and you will find yourself loving others with more enthusiasm, more joy, and more energy. My daughter recently told me she has lots of love in her heart, first and foremost for herself. Next in line, she told me, is her parents, then God and the Universe, then her dog, then her grandparents, then her brothers, then her friends, then the earth. She was not afraid to place herself at the top of that list. This is not conceit, nor a dangerous sign of narcissism. As you love your children, wouldn't you want them to love themselves with the same enthusiasm, the same joy?
I have noticed that the idea of loving oneself has a peculiar shame associated with it, a shame found only in Western cultures. It seems that we have viewed self-love as self-centeredness and egotism. Perhaps we would do well to think of this kind of love in a different way. In the spirit of wishing you happiness, I will share with you some specifics of loving, self-care that you can do even now.
Self Care Basics
1. Mental Quiet. Take five minutes a day, preferably in the morning, perhaps before you take a shower, to "check-in" with yourself. For those of you who pray, make this your time. For those of you who don't, make this a time of reflection, perhaps focusing yourself on your goals for the day, on the mood and thoughts that you want to have, etc. You might try getting a day-by-day book that offers specific thoughts for each day. If you are at all like me, I couldn't even imagine having five minutes to myself. So I started with 30 seconds, while lying in bed nursing a baby, then increased it to one minute, then found a way to get out of bed a few minutes before the babies. As with most things in life, keep practicing at it and eventually you will find a routine that works for you. It will make a big difference. Some people find they can get up before others in the household and meditate, others find their time comes late at night when the house is quiet. Search for your own rhythm — it will be worth it.
2. Affirmation. Some of us may find the concept of self-love hard to imagine. I was given a mirror exercise that I found particularly helpful, and I pass it on to you, in the hopes that it will provide you with some much needed centering. I guarantee you, it does not take very long to say but the rewards are wonderful. First thing in the morning, look yourself in the mirror and say to yourself: "I love you. You are beautiful. You are whole in mind, body, spirit and soul. The whole universe supports your every need, wish and desire." Repeat this 9 times, and then end by saying, "So be it, so be it, so be it."
3. Exercise. Make sure you have physical exercise in your weekly routine. Wearing a baby is exhausting after about the first 3 months and after about the millionth hour. You need to get physically strong again, so that you can tolerate the physical stress of mothering. This will most likely mean that you need some kind of babysitting arrangement, but again, you must take care of yourself. Some moms have found yoga tapes have done the trick, and that, as their baby gets older, he/she joins in on the fun. Experiment and find what works for you.
4. Rest. If you recently gave birth, and even if your child is older, make sure you've had some recuperative time from the delivery itself. That may mean a massage or chiropractic care, a splurge of a few hours at a nearby spa. Make sure you are continuing with vitamins, and are eating a healthy diet. I know I relied too much on caffeine — try to avoid this particular avenue for getting your pep and rejuvenation.
5. Ask for help. And ask for more help. Call friends, call relatives, call API, but make sure you call. You and your husband should not carry the enormity of parenting yourselves. Pamper yourself and hire a housekeeper for the present time. One of my good friends hired someone to make delicious, healthy dinners so that she could spend more time with her daughter and not feel frazzled during the dinner time hour.
6. Tune in. Throughout the day, check in with your emotional state. It might be helpful to follow what Louise Hay suggests, which is to constantly remind yourself that "I approve of myself." That may counter negative, self-destructive thoughts.
7. Take a break. And insist on it. Even when my children were younger, I tried to insist on just 10 minutes of reading or meditation time. They would often sit down near me, and imitate my meditating, or they would color or have a few minutes of quiet time. Just 10 minutes, when done on a regular basis, can go a long way. But it must be on a regular basis.
8. Soothe your soul. Put on some music that you enjoy, music that soothes you. Even if this is for 10 minutes at a clip, it still will nurture you inside.
9. Assert your belief in self-care. Have your children participate in loving you and loving themselves. Arrange for "family massage' time, plan for a night of special treats like eating ice cream and candy, watching a family movie together, or even having family manicure time. Turn off the phone, lower the volume on the answering machine, and insist on your own separate time — even 10 minutes in another room, done consistently, can be helpful. Perhaps you can even work with your children to give you and your husband a "date' upstairs while they are downstairs, even if that means hiring a mother's helper for a few hours.
10. Refuel. Keep doing that which refuels you. If that is sewing, then sew. If that is reading, then read. If that is sending and answering email, then do it. Remember, you are worth it!! Your children and your husband will thank you. The separate time I've detailed here amounts to about 40 minutes a day. Split this out over the day, and that's only 4% of each waking hour spent on self-care. You can afford to spend that on yourself.
(In addition to her job as parent, Karen Walant is a psychotherapist and author of Creating the Capacity for Attachment. Karen is also a member of the API Board.)