Four and a half years ago, I became a parent. And almost two years ago, just as we were settling into the routine of one toddler, I became a parent of two. Life changed pretty substantially. The irony of parenthood is that it reveals all your areas for improvement, and simultaneously takes away 95% of the time you could use to work on those areas.
In some ways, parenting is the ultimate leadership position. There are small humans whose template for how to be a person in this world is you. “Do as I say, not what I do” just doesn’t work with highly perceptive young children, soaking everything up like a massive sponge. It’s a huge responsibility and an enormous privilege.
The great thing about kids is that they really test your emotional well-being at all times, so whether or not I’m taking care of myself is abundantly clear to me at home. When I’m not taking care of myself, I can’t believe I signed up for 18+ years of this. My daughter picks up on my internal state, and will ask me why I’m not happy. Or she starts to act up, letting out loud “UGHHHH” groans when I don’t do exactly as she demands. On the other hand, when I’m taking care of myself, I can find delight in the smallest interactions with my children.
Self-care does not come easily to me. I’m writing about it, but I’m not very good at it. That’s why the post is “The Importance of…” not “How to…” Writing this post and clarifying my own thoughts is part of my own struggle to find time for self-care. In sharing tips about self-care, I’m hoping that I will get better at it myself — sort of like when I tell people they should try meditation because the science shows it’s really good for you, but I haven’t established a meditation practice myself.
Here are some of the common traps I find that I fall into.
Common self-care traps
Shouldn’t I be doing <something productive>?
I do this one all the time, including right now as I write this post. In fact, for the first time in a few weeks, I have a few hours of unscheduled time. And I’m using it to write about self-care. Other things I considered doing include but are not limited to: re-caulking our bathtub, reading a leadership book, full email audit, and clearing leaves off the roof.
I’m really good at this one too, and it looks like reading a few pages of my dry book on being a successful consultant. Or watching Netflix while folding laundry so I don’t feel guilty just watching Netflix. Or what I did a month ago when I had a day off, which was to check out a new local co-working space. Exciting!
Only use in case of emergency
When my youngest was 6 months old, I told my husband I desperately needed a break, and stayed overnight at a nearby Airbnb. I ate a burger and watched The Good Wife. All too often, self-care is reserved for catastrophic times — when burnout is imminent or has already occurred. As a parent, I feel guilty carving out that time for myself unless I’ve reached a breaking point. And we both work in the tech industry, which does not help — companies proudly advertise their 70–90 hour workweek, and success is often tied to long hours and busyness, despite abundant research that says otherwise.
Self-care is still very much of a struggle for me. My kids are 4.5 and almost 2 years old. They demand a lot of attention. I’ve started my own coaching business, which affords me some flexibility in my schedule, but I sometimes feel even more driven to take every call or coffee to build my business. But it’s clear when I have a week or day when I don’t take any time for myself. When the weekend rolls around, and I’ve cared too much for others and not enough for myself, I’m impatient with my kids and husband.
Over the years, here are things that have worked at times.
Give your future self permission
Somehow I find it easier to be kind to my future self than my present self. Schedule ahead — block off time to do something that brings you joy. Before my husband and I had the second child, we used to alternate having a night off each week. If I hadn’t made plans with a friend, I just read at a coffee shop after work and had some much-needed alone time.
Take time off work — but don’t go anywhere
This is an especially good one for people like parents who have weekend obligations. The idea of taking time off and hauling small children somewhere for a “vacation” is daunting. I’d rather go to work. But if you have regular childcare already, take a day off every quarter or however often you can pull it off. No need to pay for babysitting! If you have a partner and can pull off coordinating time off, it can be a great time to reconnect and have a long day date.
Find a #treatyoself crew
I’m in a slack team for moms in tech, and I created a #treatyoself channel, in which channel participants share tips and indulgences. Being part of a community can give you new ideas for self-care. I lamented to a friend that massages are expensive, and she suggested some low-cost alternatives like spending time at a coffee shop and writing some cards to friends (and not responding to emails). We’re much kinder in our advice to our friends than we are to ourselves. “You deserve it! Take the day off! Get a massage 💆!” So find a friend or community who will tell you those things you need to hear.
Even though I rationally know that I can be a better partner and parent if I take care of myself, I still feel guilty and selfish for doing so. There is always pressure to give more and more of yourself to being a parent — to sign up for yet another music class, or go to so-and-so’s birthday party who you’ve never heard of. If not for yourself, do it for your kids, so that they may default to a healthier sense of balance and self in their own lives.
Earlier this year, I travelled internationally to Singapore by myself for a week to visit a friend. This was so outside my comfort zone of what I thought was ok for me to do as a mother of two children. But as I talked to my husband and explored my own hangups on the issue, I realized that I really needed the vacation, but I also wanted my daughter (my son was too young at the time) to see me taking care of myself and my needs.
I hope that she can see that I have an identity and life outside of being a mom, especially as she grows into adulthood.