How I started taking better care of myself so I could take better care of my family

Self-care is often equated with spa days, girls’ nights out, and elaborate bath rituals. “Must be nice to have that kind of luxury” I used to scoff, as I hurried off to the next task.

And then, the world was upended by a global pandemic, and all my regular routines and support networks were stripped away. It was in the haze of endless days that I realised that self-care was far from a luxury, it was an absolute necessity. Without the habit of checking in and taking care of myself, I found my anxiety sky-rocketing. I’d come to the end of a day feeling exhausted and resentful that I was taking on a lion’s share of caregiving activities. I’d expect this to sound quite familiar to many people. A 2015 survey found that more than half of all parents say they don’t have enough time away from their children to spend on friends or hobbies. I expect this figure has since increased significantly.

Not only was the constant anxiety and exhaustion unhealthy, it actually jeopardised the well-being of my family. If I was feeling low or stressed, that overflowed into my interactions with my husband and daughter. It became impossible to be the kind, patient and compassionate person I wanted to be. I realised it was because I wasn’t showing that kindness, patience and compassion to myself.

So while self-care may get confused with one-off acts of pampering and luxury, I was relieved to find this alternative definition:

“…real acts of self-care have little to do with spending money. Instead, they’re showing up for yourself by setting boundaries.” Nejra Tawwab

I’ve found it helpful to reconsider self-care in this way. And I’ve learned that in order for self-care to truly become part of everyday life, it requires some intentionality. Here are some practices I’ve found useful:

Figure out what you need

It’s surprising how little we know ourselves. So often, our wants and needs get deprioritised by the needs of everyone else in the family. But here’s what I’ve learned. Nobody else can be expected to know what we need if we don’t get clear on it ourselves.

We often say things like “I’m so tired, I wish I could just have a break”. What will help ease our tiredness? Are there things we could say no to in order to protect our time and energy? Perhaps it’s saying that we’ll order food instead of cooking every single night. Perhaps it’s deciding to take a mid-day nap when the baby is sleeping rather than rushing to do all the housework. I needed to pause and check-in with myself to identify what I was feeling and what would help better the situation. Some of the needs I identified were: daily opportunities for movement and time outdoors, time to work during the day; and, staying hydrated.

Ask for help…and get specific

If you grew up in a culture or family where being self-sufficient and perceived as ‘tough’ was highly prized – it can be very difficult to get vulnerable and ask for help. But vulnerability with those we trust is crucial. It takes acceptance of a simple truth: It’s not weak to ask for help. As social creatures, we’re designed to give and receive support from one another. And the best way to ask for help? Get specific about the kind of help that’s needed. Maybe this is asking your husband to work out a routine with you where you both get at least 1 hour of uninterrupted work time while the other partner cares for the children. Maybe it’s saying you need to cater food for a couple of months. Maybe it’s communicating to your children that you want their help when it comes to tidying up the toys. Get vulnerable and get specific.

Do something small every day

In her TED Talk, Dr. Christine Carter shares a science-backed secret to habit formation. If you want to form a new habit, you must allow yourself to consistently do something so small, that it’s only slightly better than doing nothing at all. For many of us, self-care isn’t a habit. To make it into a habit, figure out a ridiculously easy thing you can do to take care of yourself and do it every day. Make it so easy that you’ll be able to do it even when your day has gone completely pear-shaped.

One of the ways I’ve done this is to start a habit of running a little, every day. Daily runs sound daunting, and they used to be when I had an expectation of completing a 5 km run every morning. Whenever I couldn’t (which was almost always), I would feel guilty and bad about myself. But now, I give myself permission to do just 10 minutes of slow running around my apartment. I don’t have a set time to do it. Many times it’s a painfully slow jog. But I do it, because I can always step outside my house, lace up my shoes, and do just 10 minutes (even during the current lockdown). I haven’t missed a day yet and I always feel better for it. What’s your small something that you can do every day?

Set boundaries clearly and consistently

Here’s a hard truth: No one will respect your personal boundaries if you don’t respect them yourself. We need to be vigilant about setting and protecting the boundaries that guard our time, mental space, and energy. For example, you may decide that after lunch is a time to take a 15-minute mid-day break. Guard that time. Block off your calendar if you’re working so that no one sets a meeting then. Communicate to your kids and partner that this is what you’ll be doing every day. And then stick to it unless the house is literally on fire. Don’t give in to requests to play pretend. Don’t fold the laundry. Don’t wash up. Take that 15-minutes, guilt-free. Eventually, everyone will come to expect and respect that boundary and it’ll become part of your family rhythm.

Ultimately, self-care shouldn’t be yet another thing that gets added to our to-do list and becomes yet another source of anxiety. It’s also not about saying that our well-being is our sole responsibility to manage and ensure. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we need one another. But it IS on us to figure out what we need to not just survive, but thrive – and then set up a system that supports it. I repeat this quote to myself whenever I slip back into thinking that I can keep running on empty.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation…” Audre Lorde

Let’s take better care of ourselves. Our families will thank us for it.

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