Self-care has become a buzzword lately and is sometimes used as a marketing ploy. When we think of it as it relates to moms, it’s likely to conjure up images of bathtubs and trips to Target sans kids. But I'll be honest. This doesn't feel like self-care to me, and I've come to realize that taking care of yourself isn’t one size fits all. I can't help but wonder: What if moms practiced self-care like dads? And what if this helped our kids become more self-sufficient and resilient at the same time?
How do parents practice self-care?
For definition purposes, I see self-care as the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health. It’s a broad concept that encapsulates many modalities. For example, self-care can mean more than setting time aside to do something for yourself; it can also mean things like setting healthy boundaries and saying no, as this article from Positive Psychology explains. I think that one of the problems with self-care for moms is we think of it as one more thing we need to plan. It's one more thing we don’t have time for.
There are countless cliché recommendations online as to how moms can practice self-care. However, I want to offer a different suggestion: Do self-care like a dad. Dads don’t have to label it, and they don’t feel guilty about it either. My husband has always been good at taking time for himself to refuel. This caused some contention in our marriage after we had our first child because I felt I couldn't get a break. I became jealous and resentful of my husband’s free time, but then I realized that I needed to follow his example. Slowly, I figured out how to relinquish some control and put myself first once in a while.
Self-care shouldn’t be about marking off a to-do list.
After realizing that I needed to make time for self-care, I had to learn which actions improved my mental and physical health and which ones did not. According to Gallup, “In households where married or partnered mothers and fathers both work full time, women are more likely to take the lead on everything from doing laundry, cleaning, shopping for groceries, and preparing meals, to planning family activities, caring for children and furnishing the house.”
That’s a lot of domestic responsibility! This might help explain why when moms get some time to ourselves, we feel that we need to be productive.
We also live in a society that praises dads who grocery shop with their young kids but considers moms who shop alone to be indulging somehow. When did we get to a place where we consider basic hygiene and running errands to somehow be self-care for moms? Personally, I have never considered running errands without my kids to be a form of self-care. A convenience, yes, but it's not fun or rejuvenating. Moms get lectured on the importance of self-care. Then everyday tasks are supposed to be enough for us to be well? No thanks.
A short time ago, I practiced what I have found to be my favorite form of self-care. I checked into a hotel, alone, and spent some time doing relaxing and creative things that I wanted to do. My husband had gone fishing and camping alone earlier in the week, his form of self-care. So then I took some time to do what I wanted to do. This works for us. We do things together as a family, we do things as a couple, and sometimes we do things alone. I am fully aware that this is not possible for everyone and that all family situations are unique. That is why it’s important that we look for ways to help one another and support parents (especially single parents).
Modeling self-care for our kids is so important.
When parents practice self-care, they are demonstrating to their children that taking time for your health and well-being is important. I have three sons. I don’t want to give them the impression that dad takes time for his hobbies, but mom is too busy taking care of things around the house. My husband has been a wonderful example to our children in that he consistently takes over all of the responsibilities at home so that I can have some time for myself. And I do the same for him.
It’s also important that we teach children to practice self-care for themselves. As the Gottman Institute points out, “Children, just like adults, benefit greatly from consistent and deliberate self-care activities. Even if they are not currently stressed or upset, teaching kids to regularly take care of themselves will help ensure that they have the skills to manage future stressors in healthy and effective ways.”
Self-care for kids doesn’t have to be about spending lots of money or making elaborate plans. It’s more about cultivating regular habits that encourage healthy outlets and family bonding. Examples of these include getting outdoors, family game nights, and volunteering in your community. My son sometimes struggles with anxiety and has recently discovered that he enjoys taking long baths in our jetted bathtub before going to bed.
When parents practice self-care, it gives kids the opportunity to gain independence.
Remember that big list of domestic responsibilities that moms are disproportionately taking the lead on? Kids can be responsible for many of those daily chores. This can free up some time for moms, and it can also be a way of teaching kids independence (so they aren’t calling to ask you how to do laundry down the line). I know that’s a lot easier said than done. When I ask my sons to help out around the house, my request is almost always met with groans of protest and a so-so job. I’ve learned that when it is routine, however, it goes a lot more smoothly. I set the expectation that certain things need to be done the right way before they have free time.
When I learned how to practice self-care in a way that actually fueled my well-being, I became a more loving and patient mother and partner. Moms are individuals, so self-care will look different for each of us. However, let's put to rest the idea that a bubble bath is all we need to be well.