When tiny people suck up all of your available time, energy, and mental headspace or when your teenager butts heads with you and you’re just exhausted afterwards, then that is the time for self-care.
Every parent should know the importance of self-care, defined as, “the practice of taking action to improve one’s health.” Without filling your own tanks, there’s no way you can be a present parent and fill the tanks of your children. If you allow your kids to drain your batteries day after day, you’ll end up collapsing. You’ll be burnt out, unable to meet even the most basic needs of your children—or yourself.
I know that you might not think that you have time for self-care. But you need to make time, if not for yourself, then for the sake of your children. I know that when I don’t prioritize taking care of myself, I end up snapping at my kids and damaging their emotional health. I don’t want to be that parent, so I put my own oxygen on mask first, to use the metaphor.
Here are a few self-care ideas specifically tailored to parents with busy lives.
1. Go on a Nature Walk
Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce anxiety and improve your well-being. Take a walk around a forest, go to a park and step barefoot on the grass, or visit the coast, if you can. The best part is that you can bring your kids with you. They’ll benefit from a walk around greenery as much as you, which will mean they’ll be a lot calmer in the afternoons if you go in the morning. I know an outing requires a bit of advanced planning, but you can handle this.
I like taking to my 4-year-old daughter to the park as often as I can, both so she can run around with other kids and I can soak up some sunshine. We go in the mornings and return home before lunch. Spending time in nature is easier when your kids are in the sweet spot between infant (when going out is difficult) and pre-teen (when they’re not interested). But even if your kids aren’t 4-6, when they like parks the best, try to go out anyways. Your kids deserve a happier parent and walking around in nature is one of the best ways to buoy your mood.
2. Play Your Favorite Song
One way to improve your mental state almost immediately is to play your favorite song. If you have a bumpin’ playlist, even better. Crank up the speakers and have a dance party with your kids. They’ll enjoy wiggling around with you and you’ll all get some exercise in, which means naptime may be easier.
My husband gifted me a pair of Bluetooth headphones, on which I listen to music all day long. I keep one ear uncovered so I can play pretend games with my preschooler and discuss more advanced topics with my preteen son. I listen to Pandora radio, a streaming service, on my phone, and I have stations I’ve curated to match my mood and activities—fast, electronica music for cleaning, classic rock for everyday listening, and soft acoustic guitar when I’m anxious and need to calm down.
3. Engage Your Sense of Smell
Your sense of smell is tied to mood; if you smell rotten eggs or cat urine, that can ruin your day, whereas smelling sandalwood, the favored scent of your beloved aunt, can help improve your outlook. To engage your sense of smell, light a scented candle (after the kids have gone to bed), rub some perfume on your wrists, or open a bottle of vanilla extract and take a whiff. Smelling something good can help you recenter yourself during or after a busy day of child-rearing.
I love smells. My sniffer is super, so I love inhaling good scents as much as I can. When my son bakes bread, I love spending time in the kitchen with him just to get a blast of the aroma of yeasty goodness. I absolutely crack open a vanilla bottle on occasion.
4. Grab Some ZZZs
If you can, try to get some extra sleep. Studies have shown that the benefits of sleep are legion. Every parent understands the importance of sleep, especially parents of newborns and small children. Researchers recommend sleeping at least seven hours a night so your body and brain have time to reset themselves.
If your kids still take naps, nap with them. And even though it’s tempting to burn the midnight oil to get some alone time, try to snuggle under the covers before 11pm, as according to studies sleep before 12am is the most restorative. If you have a trusted family friend, ask them to watch your children for you for a couple of hours so you can grab some ZZZs.
I was actually falling asleep at the breakfast table today, and my husband happened to be home to take care of the kids. He told me to go take a nap, which I did, and I felt loads better afterwards.
As a woman with bipolar disorder, sleep hygiene is key to my mental health. Without sleep, I trip into mania, after which there’s always a crash, and that’s no good for anyone, especially me. I guard my sleep with the fierceness of Cerberus. If I’m too busy to sleep before 12am one night, I absolutely try to crash at 9-10pm the next few days. And when my daughter did nap, I slept with her.
Good sleep is essential.
5. Practice Good Hygiene
Most parents understand the appeal of a hot shower. (Those who don’t, you don’t know what you’re missing!) There’s just something relaxing about standing under the spray and letting your cares wash down the drain along with any grime you’ve gathered during a hard day of childcare. But what if you don’t have time to take a shower? What if your “shift” isn’t over for a few hours?
Well, the answer, my friend, is sponge baths. Rinse a washcloth in the sink and wipe down your face and arms. Scrub your kiddos’ face while you’re at it, and you’ll both feel better. If you find yourself with an abundance of time, brush your teeth. A clean mouth will help you feel like you can take on the world.
In the heat of the summer, nothing feels better than a bit of cool water on my face. I love dragging a cold, wet rag over my cheeks and forearms and even applying some extra deodorant, all of which takes less than five minutes. Even in fall and winter, when temperatures plummet, a warm, damp washcloth can heat up my face and make me feel great.
6. Eat a Snack
Snacking benefits more than just your kids; eating a small amount of food between lunch and dinner can sustain your energy levels. A snack can keep you from the 3 o’clock grogginess that’s so common in afternoons of child wrangling. A snack can provide more nutrients in your diet. And a snack can even help prevent binge eating. If you don’t have allergies, try eating some nuts, a piece of fruit, a piece of cheese, some sugar snap peas, or even a 1oz piece of dark chocolate.
Earlier today, I was feeling lower than low. I was tired and snappish and mindlessly scrolling through my phone while my daughter ate her daily snack after lunch, yogurt with graham crackers. She chattered with me, perky as ever, and I realized that my energy had dipped because I’d had a light lunch and I needed a snack, too. So I pulled a yogurt of my own out from the fridge and ate with her. That bit of food was enough to perk me up and help me take on the rest of the day.
When you find your energy flagging, your brain slowing down, and your patience thinning, it’s time for some self-care. Self-care is not an indulgence; it’s a necessity. Without self-care, you’ll end up drained and likely not the parent you want to be.
Going on a nature walk, playing your favorite song, engaging your sense of smell, grabbing some ZZZs, practicing good hygiene, and/or eating a snack can help you feel better.
So try some of these strategies today! You don’t have anything to lose!