Maria has a massive to-do list that only seems to get longer. She often feels frazzled, and finds herself yelling at family members for reasons that seem unimportant in retrospect. Maria's friend, Sophie, also feels stretched way beyond comfort. She is tired, annoyed and resentful. John often feels overwhelmed. When not at work, he seems to be on a treadmill of running his kids to sports practices and birthday parties, cleaning the house and maintaining the yard.

Why we neglect ourselves and why we shouldn't

Maria, Sophie and John all feel depleted. They share something else in common. None of them is taking the time to do something for themselves on a regular basis. Maria thinks she doesn't have time to go out with treasured friends. Sophie thinks that once her children are all in school full day, then she will have time to go to the gym. John thinks that it would be selfish for him to play tennis as he used to before he had children. These parents think that doing things to bring them joy is not as important as the other work of their lives.

Taking care of yourself, especially if you are a parent, is critical. Building in time for yourself can make you feel more centered and less prone to anger. Good self-care helps you be creative in your responses to your children. By taking care of yourself, you send a message to the world that you matter, and that can lead to a sense of respect. You also provide a powerful example to your children. Most parents agree that parenting is the most challenging job they have ever had. Parents learn that it is a marathon - not a sprint. Parents can burn out by the time their children are teens, which is a critical time for parents to be feeling their best. Good self-care in your earlier years of parenting can help prepare you for those later years.

Self-care comes in many forms

When some people hear about self-care, what come to mind are manicures, pedicures and massages. They think they have neither the time nor the money for such luxuries. The truth is that self-care does not have to cost anything, nor does it need to take a lot of time.

Self-care can mean maintaining important relationships. Sure, you may not be able to travel out of town to visit your college roommate as you did before you had children, but you can schedule a "virtual coffee" with her once a month. You may find going out to dinner and a movie with your spouse is too expensive, but on Fridays after the kids go to bed, you can have a candlelit dinner in the dining room with a takeout treat and enjoy each other's company.

Self-care can mean maintaining spiritual practices or creating new ones. If attending religious services was meaningful before you had children but is something you haven't made time for since then, you may find a way to bring that back into your life. For some, meditation practices begin later in life. Many parents enjoy fifteen minutes of quiet before the rest of the family gets up. Some may drink their coffee without interruption as a form of meditation and mindfulness. Others listen to guided meditations on apps such as Headspace or Calm as a positive way to start their day.

Be creative in finding what works for you

For others, exercise is critical to their being able to deal with the stress and challenges of parenting. Pascale, a mother of two daughters whose husband died when her children were in elementary school, found that walking in the woods with her dog was an important tool for her after her loss, as she navigated the new stress of single parenting. Another local mom chose a gym based solely on the quality of the child care it offered. She and the children went there daily, and the child care provider became the family babysitter when the Pascale went out for the evening.

Self-care can mean doing anything in which you find joy. One Silver Spring mom realized her need for self-care when she found herself at a doctor office visit. She was called to the exam room shortly after settling down in the waiting room. Instead of being pleasantly surprised by not having to wait to see the doctor, she was frustrated, as she had relished her brief time alone with a good book! She recognized the need to find time to make reading a part of her week. Playing a musical instrument, gardening, taking a class or cooking are other activities that people find gratifying, meaningful or just plain fun! Take some time to explore one of these activities, or another one that comes to your own mind.

Parents often build self-care into their day in creative ways. A parent may bike to work a few days a week to get the exercise he needs. One Rockville parent requested fifteen minutes of "alone time" in her room after dinner without interruption when her children were toddlers. As the children grew, the time increased to thirty minutes and then to an hour when her children were teens. On weekends, parents of young children sometimes alternate letting the other parent sleep in. (Yes, getting a little extra sleep can be self-care.) Some parents take turns watching the kids once a month to allow free time for their partner. Finding a new activity with your partner is a way to connect and care for each other and yourself at the same time.

If self-care is a new habit for you, be kind to yourself as you begin to incorporate it into your life little by little. Know that while it may seem a bit counterintuitive to take time for yourself (just as putting on your own oxygen mask first in an airplane may feel "wrong"), it can be your pathway to replace anger, resentment and sadness with patience, appreciation and joy, allowing you to be a better parent. And that is good for your child.


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Maureen McElroy, LGMFT (maureenmcelroy.com) is a licensed family therapist who sees individuals, couples and families in her Bethesda, Md. practice. She is also a Certified Parent Educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (pepparent.org), which offers classes for parents of children ages 2 ½ - 18.