Work-Life Integration//

Why Self-care Has Never Mattered More for Parents and Caregivers

Making self-care a priority is arguably the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else in your life. Yes, now more than ever.

Illustration by Julia Yoon for Thrive Global
Illustration by Julia Yoon for Thrive Global

It’s time we all admit it: Life is going to look like this for a while longer. The health fears, the social distancing, the remote learning, the economic uncertainty, the emotional challenges. At the start of the pandemic, there was this feeling that we could “make it work” until things settled down, hopefully within a few months. We told ourselves that if we had to, we could juggle caring for parents from a distance, or for our kids from way up close 24-7, while also keeping up with the demands of home, work, pets, and every other part of life. Somehow, we managed to take a deep breath and cram it all in and collapse into bed at the end of the (very long) day.

But now we’re headed into the fall and, while we believe things will eventually get better, we have to accept our current reality. From this place of acceptance, we can find more peace and build habits that truly support our well-being.

In stressful and unpredictable times, self-care should be a non-negotiable, as it allows us to protect our mental health and our resiliency. This is important for everyone, but especially for parents and caregivers, as they may be putting themselves at the bottom of their priority lists while trying to meet the needs of everyone around them.

As summer draws to an end, all parents and caregivers — and anyone, really — can collectively harness that “back to school” mentality (even if we’re long past our school days) and start fall with a fresh new mindset. In particular, we can become students of our own self-care, relearning what it means to tend to our own needs while we take care of others. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Be flexible. A lot of caregivers who had pretty good self-care habits prior to the pandemic may have since left them by the wayside. They just don’t have the same time or access to certain routines that they did before. (Monthly massage appointments or daily yoga classes at the local gym, for instance, may not exactly be physical distancing activities.) But instead of giving up your old routines altogether, think about how to keep them up — in new ways that work for the current times. Fitness has always been my favorite form of self-care, but since the spring, I’ve had to be more flexible about my workouts. Instead of going to the gym, I work out in the parking lot of my building. And now that it’s the rainy season in my area, I’ve had to flex again: There are days when I look outside and it’s pouring rain, and I decide to exercise indoors. Self-care is just like the rest of life: Acknowledge that things won’t always go according to plan, and when life reroutes you, be willing to take a different course.

Identify what restores you. Self-care looks different for everyone, and it helps to do some honest self-reflection about what activities and habits are the most restorative for you. For some people, spending some time outdoors and getting a bit of fresh air each day is a fail-proof recharging strategy. If that’s you — and as long as you are doing it safely (socially distant, and with a mask, if appropriate) — try to schedule breaks in your day to ensure you get outdoors.

Even five or 10 minutes can give you a much-needed break from caregiving stress. Other people gravitate toward meditation, or reading, or relaxing baths, or music, or yoga. But even if it’s something that doesn’t immediately scream “self-care,” don’t rule it out. Your self-care moment might be weeding the garden, or calling a friend. If it works for you, it’s the right thing. Commit to doing it a few minutes each day, and see if it makes a difference.

Resist “time famine.” I’m not challenging the reality that there are a finite number of hours in the day, but I also think we need to stop telling ourselves that we don’t have enough time — especially time for ourselves. Hanging onto this belief only adds additional stress. Interrupt that narrative and take those three minutes that you might spend venting about the lack of time to do some deep breathing or create a mental gratitude list. Over time, you may see that it’s not about how many minutes you can spare, but about how you spend those minutes.

Treat yourself like your closest friend. When you find yourself dropping to the bottom of your priority list, stop and ask yourself: Would I really tell a friend, “You’re right, taking care of others means you have no choice but to abandon yourself?” Probably not. Instead you’d help them find solutions — even if it meant starting really small. You’d remind them how valuable their own well-being is, and how they can’t properly care for others unless they are also taking care of themselves.

Gather family support. For parents, introducing your children to the concept of self-care, and asking them to help you prioritize it, can have multiple positive outcomes. Get them invested in the idea by saying, for instance, “Mom needs some self-care, what do you think I should do? Should I take a quiet bath by myself?” Or, “Dad needs some time to recharge, maybe I should go for a walk, what do you think?” Then, the next time you say, “Mommy is going to go take her bath” or “Daddy is going to go for a walk,” they’ll feel involved and won’t try to stop you because they were part of the decision-making. You could even suggest that everyone in the family come up with a self-care plan, and then support one another in sticking to it.

Model your self-care for others. Once you work self-care into your routine, help create that permission for other parents, caregivers, friends, and colleagues. Talk about what self-care looks like for you, and encourage others to do the same. Ask, “What do we all need, and what does that look like for each one of us?” It will look different for every single person, but if you share what it looks like for you, it will inspire others to do the same. If you’re in a leadership position, modeling self-care is so important. If you say you work out from 9:30-10:30 a.m. but then respond to emails during that time, you’re not giving others permission to disconnect in a way that will be valuable for them. At Deloitte, we have a team meeting every week, and we’ve begun starting each meeting by describing something we’ve done that has brought us joy. As a result, our conversations are deeper, more than just, “Hey, how are you?” “I’m fine.” It’s more like, “How are you really doing, and what are you doing to take care of yourself?”

Give yourself credit. We’ve heard a lot about frontline workers and essential workers over these past months, and we’ve rightly given them much-deserved credit and praise for the hard work they do. But we must remember that parents and caregivers are essential, too. You don’t get to opt out — you have to show up every single day. It’s important to recognize that in yourself, give yourself credit for it, and give yourself grace. You’re not going to show up perfect every single day, but you are showing up. And that matters.

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