Self-care as yet another responsibility
Self-care has become a popular concept lately, and for good reason. Stress, exhaustion and burnout can take a huge toll on your well-being, and self-care can help mitigate those factors. However, for parents of young children who are already feeling depleted by the demands of caring for others, engaging in self-care can sometimes seem like adding yet another person whose needs must be managed. That can feel burdensome, rather than restorative.
Instead of suggesting you work on your self-care by yourself, I offer the idea of self-advocacy. For the purpose of self-care, the process of self-advocacy can be defined as figuring out what would be particularly meaningful or restorative for you—no-one else—and asking someone else to help you.
Why not just do it yourself? There are many reasons to elicit support, but I think the strongest reason is that feeling cared for and supported has a tremendous impact on our overall resilience and well-being. My daughter was in and out of the hospital for the first couple months of her life, and we provided hospital-level care at home 24 hours a day after those couple of months. Of course, this was an incredibly stressful, demanding and scary time in my life as a parent. However, when I look back on that time, most of my emotions are very positive. I attribute my positive memories of that time to the fact that I was very well supported. Not just the typical supports of meal trains and running errands, but support in ways that were particularly supportive to me.
For example, my mother took over all the household’s laundry. She wasn’t just gifting me her time, she gifted me freedom from the full responsibility of laundry. I didn’t have to think about it at all. My daughter had severe GERD so there was A LOT of laundry to do and having clean clothes available was very important. Also, my daughter’s doctors had me on a specific diet, so another important support came from a friend that took it upon herself to organize other friends to bring us two meals a day at the hospital that adhered to those dietary restrictions. This freed me from the responsibility of having to figure out how to follow a new diet. These supports did not change the fact that my involvement in my daughter’s care still had to be nearly constant, but they kept me afloat at a time when I could have easily collapsed.
Support languages + styles of support
Identify the style of support that makes you feel most supported/cared for/not alone
Everyone can benefit from support, but it can be hard to ask for; after all, often the people to ask are also busy and overwhelmed. Furthermore, what they offer may not be a great match for what we need. Therefore it is helpful to identify the type of support that will have the maximum impact for you.
Types of Support:
- Taking full responsibility—so it’s totally off your plate. With this style, a task such as laundry or washing bottles is one less thing to worry about or manage.
- Introducing fun/levity—it’s amazing what a well-timed joke or being forced to go have some fun can do.
- Making decisions—someone thoughtfully helping with decision-making is an under-appreciated contribution.
- Time with kids/having fun with kids—some parents find they don’t spend enough quality time with their kids. They may feel supported by their partner or another adult making dinner or taking on another task to allow for time to just enjoy their children.
- Time for health—time for sleeping, cooking a healthy meal, exercise, visiting the doctor, therapy, etc.
- Recognition—being noticed for what you contribute, how you are feeling, etc.
- Active listening—validation even if your supporter can’t personally do something about the issue.
- Time away—or time alone at home.
- Being treated—massages, you name it. Emily, my postpartum doula, would always make me a healthy, delicious smoothie to help with my milk production whenever she visited and, even better, she taught my husband and mother how to make them as well. What a treat. This five-minute gesture that they would do for me consistently made me feel noticed and nurtured, so I could better focus on nurturing my daughter.
How to identify what you should advocate for
Self-advocacy starts with self-awareness
For some people, it's quite easy to identify what would feel restorative. For others, the following suggestions can help you figure that out. It can be helpful to keep a note in your phone where you add things as you notice them:
- Notice every time someone does something for you and it feels particularly good, you feel yourself relax a little, or you feel energized.
- Ask yourself:
- What do you feel annoyed by/complain about most often? Complaints can actually be really informative about what’s important to you and your well-being.
- E.g. “All I do is work” (concerns about needing fun/levity,) "I’m a mess” (concerns about health,) "Nothing would get done without me” (concerns about having final responsibility.)
- When do you feel relaxed?
- What are you doing when you procrastinate? This helps identify what you would prefer to be doing.
- What things do you procrastinate on? This identifies things you might find particularly challenging or overwhelming.
If you are feeling challenged by the idea of self-advocacy, and I imagine many of you are, there is help available. I credit Emily at Bridgetown Baby with helping to ground me in my needs during the vulnerable period of new motherhood. She gracefully modeled how I can engage my loved ones in the sort of support I needed as I tried to learn how to be a good mom, and stay connected to myself, in those early months. Therapy can also help in working through any barriers you might have to speaking up for your needs and for learning the skills necessary to communicate and negotiate for those needs effectively.
As luck would have it, the weekend that I'm writing this article about self-care, my daughter came down with a bad case of croup and I have a cold. I’m exhausted, but I’m getting through because I am identifying my needs and asking for support. You can do it, too.
Matia Kelly is a mother of one and a psychotherapist in Portland, OR. She offers individual therapy and couples counseling specializing in relationships, infertility and the intersection of life transitions and identity, such as becoming a parent. Check out her practice here.