By Ashwin Sanghi and Kiran Manral
Very often in the rush to be the perfect parent we neglect ourselves. We put ourselves second. It becomes a default setting from the time one’s child is a squalling infant and continues well into the time the child is an adult. But remember what they tell you when they demonstrate the safety instructions every time you take a flight, yes, before you put on someone else’s oxygen mask on, put your own on. This applies to parenting and how.
You cannot be a good parent if you are not in a good space yourself. This means being physically, mentally and emotionally fit to parent. Parenting is exhausting, demanding and relentless. Very often, as parents we are running ourselves ragged between home, work and caring from a young child. And children can be demanding monsters at times when they’re not being angelic and adorable, the latter more often than not when they’re fast asleep and can be forgiven all their misdemeanours for the day.
What is self-care at the end of the day? It is the simple act of putting yourself first as a human being. As a parent all our time is spent caring for a child. Some mothers of newborns confess to not having the time to run a comb through their hair in the entire day. Others have forgotten what it means to have a leisurely shower without little hands banging at the door, demanding to be let in, and for yet others even slipping into the loo for a minute comes loaded with the stress of wondering whether your child is going to do something disastrous for that one minute you’re inside.
Parenting can be quite overwhelming, just keeping up with the daily to do list can be incredibly tiring. All one’s focus is on the child, feeding, clothing, bathing, changing diapers, teaching, there seems to be no time left to spend on oneself. But taking time out to care for oneself is perhaps as important as caring for one’s child. The most basic things we do, taking care of our own health, physically, mentally, emotionally, can only impact our parenting positively. To quote Saint Francis de Sales, ‘Have patience with all things, but, first of all with yourself.’
To begin with, if you are stressed and unhealthy, you won’t probably be able to parent to the best of your ability. This will also reflect in the way you interact with your child, leaving you a tad irritable and exhausted. And irritation coupled with exhaustion leads to yelling and anger, and that’s not a nice place to be in when raising a child. By neglecting yourself, you are also sending out the message to your child that you don’t consider yourself important, and that is not a message you want your child to get.
Even if it is one thing you do for yourself, choose to ensure you do it. It can be something as simple as taking a long leisurely bath, or finding a spot in your day to work out. To make sure you get the self care you need, you need to ask for help—your spouse, your family, friends, ask anyone who might be willing, to pitch in to watch your child while you do what you must. Science journalist Lu Hanessian has correctly observed, ‘I know one thing for sure. It is impossible to find one’s own balance from the outside in. I now know beyond a doubt that finding—and maintaining— our balance is an inside job.’
Very often as parents, we tend to put ourselves in second place so often that it becomes second nature. We put ourselves so much on the back burner that we end up smoked, burnt remnants of our former selves, reduced to slaves and lackeys to the imperious demands of our pint sized tyrants.
In the first few months of becoming a mother, I remember being reduced to a zombie given the complete lack of sleep I was functioning on. The offspring, a tomato-faced squall with a foghorn of a yell already, slept for only two hours at a stretch and then woke screaming his little lungs out for a feed or change or whatever it was that tickled his fancy. But being a new mother, and paranoid about all things to do with childcare, I insisted on being available 24/7 even though I had enough and more support and help. It was only when I finally realised that I must grab my sleep and hand him over to my mother-in-law to care for when I was most sleep deprived, could I become functional again. As comedian Ray Romano said, ‘Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realise this as soon as they are born and they start using sleep deprivation to break you.’
Making it a point to note and accommodate your own needs as a functional human being is essential if you are to parent effectively. As you take care of your child, make sure you are also taking care of yourself. There’s absolutely no need to make a martyr of yourself, it will only make you increasingly resentful and you can’t possibly yell at the baby for being the demanding little thing he is, that’s the only way babies know how to be, unless they’re being uterine contractingly adorable and gurgling.
Paying attention to yourself and your needs will be a trifle difficult when you’ve just had a baby, or if the baby is still young. You’ve attuned yourself to concentrating all your energies on the baby. Make it a point to tune in to yourself by taking little windows through the day just to do some deep breathing to relax yourself.
Think of your needs and act on them. If you are hungry, eat something. If you are tired, sit down a while. Things can wait. You need to make yourself a priority. It is alright to not have home cooked meals every single time, or to let the clothes for the laundry wait a while. The universe will not collapse. It’s okay if your child goes into school one day with her uniform not perfectly ironed.
For the first seven years of my son’s life, I was guilty of being completely focused on him. Unhealthily so. I had put on weight, I was constantly stressed, I was constantly weighing myself against some perfect mom idol and coming up short, I could never bake the perfect cake, or make the perfect school project and I was always missing on dress up day and scrambling last minute for costumes because I was too scattered. I knew bliss only when I gave up on trying to be the perfect mom, and thinking about myself too. As silly as it may sound, it was only when I became selfish about myself and my needs did I feel some of the stress fall off my shoulders.
I realised that along with my responsibility to my son, I’d forgotten myself. I’d forgotten that my first responsibility was to myself and to nurture myself. As my dear friend and founder publisher of FunOkPlease books Preeti Vyas, says, “I have a chilli plant that produces the cutest, sharpest chillies. Expecting the plant to keep producing the perfect chillies without nurturing, nourishing or caring for the plant itself is unimaginable.’ She continues, ‘When I started practising Buddhism, I met a senior leader and began sharing the things I wanted, that I was praying for. After hearing me out patiently, she asks, ‘Are you praying for your own happiness?’ Because you do know that all these other wishes depend on your own happiness.”
Self-care can be as simple as ensuring you get enough sleep, to taking time out every day to pursue an interest or a hobby. Or it could be consciously setting aside enough time for self-improvement, pursuing it through formal courses, or even fixing self-improvement goals and working towards them.
Here’s what are non-negotiables in terms of self-care as a parent.
- Eating regular, healthy meals, and not just leftovers from the kid’s plate.
- Take time out for exercise, even if it is just an hour of a brisk walk around the neighbourhood.
- As much sleep as is essential and you can grab. Also when you have someone to watch over the baby, make sure you use that time to catch up on your zzzzzzs.
- Get your medical checkups done regularly. As you take your kids to the paediatrician regularly, you must remember that you too need to get your health checkups done periodically to ensure you are physically fit to handle the rambunctiousness of young children.
- Allowing yourself the freedom to express your feelings, whether happy or sad. You don’t always have to be in charge and in control.
- Spend time with your friends to distress on a regular basis or whenever you can find someone to babysit for you.
- Taking on only as much as you can handle.
- Meditation or prayer whatever works best for you.
- Indulging in a creative hobby that helps you de-stress.
Why should self-care be a priority for every parent?
When you focus completely on caring for a child and neglect yourself, you’re going to stress yourself out and this leads to a weakened immune system, and other nasties like high blood pressure, anxiety, anger issues as well as depression. This will definitely impact the way you parent positively. And at the end, this is what you want, to be: a positive, empowered parent who isn’t angry and resentful, in the best health and state of mind you can be in, in order to raise your children to the best of your ability.
(Excerpted with permission from ‘13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting’ by Ashwin Sanghi and Kiran Manral, Published by Westland (January 2019).)