It’s tough to be a good parent. Actually, let’s be honest. Sometimes it’s tough just to show up, let alone be good at it. Personally, I think it is one of the hardest jobs in the world. What other job demands you be available 24/7, offers no paid vacation or sick time, and routinely disturbs your sleep? And once you’ve accepted the job, so to speak, it’s yours for the rest of your life, like it or not.
On the other hand, raising two sons to adulthood with my husband (and fellow team leader), has been one of the most fulfilling, growthful, intense, fun (I could add dozens more adjectives) and precious journeys that I have ever undertaken. Both my husband and I have had to learn a lot of things along the way–some by trial and error, some by educating ourselves on child development and effective parenting strategies, some by pure luck.
One of the most important lessons we have had to learn–and continue to teach the many parents who have been coming to our counseling clinic for the past thirty years–is how important it is to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. We use the metaphor of a garden because even the most beautiful garden, if left unattended, will eventually wither and die.
Just as plants need water, healthy soil and regular weeding, so do budding humans need care and attention in order to thrive. Perhaps this seems obvious (as truth often does), but most parents get so caught up in taking care of the kids, the house, the job and all the other responsibilities of daily life that they simply forget themselves or run out of time.
What does mean to tend to your own garden?
At the first, most basic level, it means to take care of your physical health. That means getting enough sleep, making it a priority to get regular exercise, and eating healthy, nutritious food. The meals can be simple rather than gourmet, the exercise can be walking, and the sleep can mean putting yourself to bed early at least one night each week. Or allow yourself a nap with the kids rather than trying to get one more thing done. Or if you have a partner, take turns getting up with the kids so you each get to sleep in on occasion.
At the second level, parents need to tend to their emotional health and well-being. This is the part of your garden that needs weeding. If you are holding onto anger and resentments, have tears that need to be shed, or are feeling anxious and worried, these negative feelings will begin to shadow your positive feelings of warmth, tenderness and appreciation. Children are often the telltale barometers of how the adults are handling their emotions. If the kids are cranky, annoying, sad or anxious, it’s a good idea to check out your own emotional state first.
Another aspect of self-care is to nurture our connections with other adults. It is easy to burn out when you spend all your time, day in and day out, with no supportive adult to talk to, commiserate with, or share the burdens. This is especially true if you are a single parent. Find classes or play groups with other moms and dads. Trade free babysitting or potluck meals with other families or neighbors. Remember the things you used to do before you were a mom or dad, and put those activities, hobbies, or passions somewhere in your schedule.
Finally, it means to make your relationship a priority rather than putting it on the back burner. Sadly enough (but understandable given the nature of very young children’s neediness), one of the most common times in the life cycle that marriages break up are when the kids are under the age of five. Although some adults seem to thrive on caregiving, most of us need to feel connected to our partners to get through this phase of development.
Take time (even 15 minutes) to talk about your day and to appreciate how hard you are both working. Tell each other what you appreciate about each other, and learn to listen especially when feelings need to be expressed. Human plants also need to be touched and loved. It is better to make a specific time to have sex than to think you can both manage without. Even it it’s not as spontaneous or passionate as it was before the kids, most couples find that both sex and cuddling keeps their bond stronger and more positive.
One of the best ways to love our kids is to love ourselves even when we make mistakes or are not the kind of parents we strive to be. What I learned in my marriage, and in working with other couples, is that many of the issues or disagreements about parenting we had, seemed to disappear–or at least feel more manageable–when we were each taking better care of ourselves and one another. Live what you want your children to learn. Watch and treasure your flowering and theirs.