As a therapist who works closely with moms raising kids with disabilities, my main focus is how well people are taking care of themselves. Recently a mom asked me what I meant by the term “self-care” so I decided to address this in a blog post of it’s very own.
When I use the term “self-care” I am referring to one’s ability to pay attention to, take responsibility for, and engage in practices that nurture one’s body, mind and spirit in order to manage stress and live happier, more effective lives.
Why do we need self-care?
I’m sure you’ve heard of the airplane analogy, but it bears repeating. Airlines instruct passengers that in the event of an emergency, to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping those who need assistance. Why? Because you can’t help someone else breathe when you can’t breathe yourself.
Another analogy I like is that you cannot give out of an empty cup. Ever feel like you are just empty? Like you have nothing left to give to anyone? That’s often because your own “cup” is dry. There’s literally nothing left to give because you haven’t taken the time to fill your own cup.
So often, moms- especially those with young children- will feed their kids first and simply eat the leftovers that the kids didn’t finish, calling that a meal. We simply cannot live on left-over scraps (literally and figuratively) and think we’re going to raise healthy, well-adjusted children.
It’s just not going to happen. Trust me. I learned this lesson the hard way.
My self-care journey
I became aware of the need for self-care in my own life sometime around 2003 when I was two years into my son’s autism diagnosis, and found myself sitting on a therapist’s couch in absolute despair over my life. I was down to 98 pounds, severely depressed and experiencing panic attacks. It was partly this experience that helped me make the decision to become a therapist. But before I could help others, I needed to figure out how to take care of myself.
I recall very clearly the therapist asking what I did for fun.
I looked at her like she was the one in need of psychological help.
I was a parent. A parent of a special needs child and a new baby. I didn’t have fun.
When I told her this, she then re-worded the question and wanted to know what my hobbies were.
Third time was a charm…what did I do for fun before I had children?
It was difficult to recall, but when I finally did, it was things like, reading, spending time with friends, movies, going out to dinner. Even singing and acting were things I had once done because I enjoyed them. In those days sleeping through the night would be considered “fun”. Everything suddenly seemed like a “have-to” and there was just no time for those things. They were trivial.
Or so I thought.
My life “after kids” definitely wasn’t the same as “before kids”. So, I needed to redefine what it meant to be “me”.
Three main self-care ingredients
There were three main things I learned during my time in therapy that have shaped me into the person I am today and have given me the tools to parent under one of the most stress-filled experiences: raising a child with autism and chronic illness.
Establishing healthy boundaries
Living with intention
Treating myself with kindness
When these three things meet, as in the diagram above, the result is true self-care.
What self-care is not
Going out with friends occasionally is not, by itself, self-care.
A weekly date-night with your spouse, while a positive activity, is not a complete self-care practice.
A trip to the grocery store without kids is definitely not self-care.
But when we practice these three concepts as part of our daily lives, day-in and day-out, we are engaging in self-care in the truest sense of the word. It’s not a perfect process by any means. And it doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s an evolution of sorts.
It’s taken me 12 years of practice to get to a place where I can do all three automatically, and without guilt.
And it’s definitely not always easy. But it’s definitely worth it.
Next week, we’ll delve into each of these areas and how you can start your self-care practice.