Good parenting starts with mothering ourselves.
As mothers in our culture, we are conditioned to sacrifice. To put everyone else's needs before our own. Because that's what mothers do. But when we allow ourselves to be completely sucked dry, we are in reality not only much less happy, but much less effective. And we're setting up our kids to follow the same pattern in their lives.
But, of course, we don't want this for our kids. We want them to have rich, full lives as their authentic selves. So why do we allow less for ourselves?
Here are some ways I've learned to nurture myself after being in the trenches of parenting. I still fail at some of them every day, but that's okay. We should give ourselves the grace we give to others.
1. Learn to listen to and honor your own needs.
First we have to accept that we are worthy at all of having our needs met. Remind yourself that you also deserve to be cared for, and you are setting a better example for your kids when you are getting that care. Be unapologetic and relentless with following through on this and do not apologize for meeting your own needs.
Listen to the different ways your body and soul are telling you that you have unmet needs: maybe it's simple exhaustion, but it could also be anger and resentment; feeling emotionally shut down, unable to interact with anyone; feeling like you're losing control, going off your own rails; hopelessness; feeling completely drained and sucked dry; or others pointing out that you seem off.
2. Practice emotional boundaries, and don’t do everyone’s emotional labor.
Women are conditioned our whole lives to do others' (especially men's) emotional labor; to manage their moods, to be a receptacle for their feelings, to word things carefully so as not to upset. And this is fine for our kids, since we are trying to teach them how to do these things themselves. But it is work, and it can be tiring.
Realize how much you are doing this for others, and let go of what you can.
This requires putting up healthy emotional boundaries, which women (especially moms) are not always accustomed to doing. But it's okay to reserve your energy for yourself and your kids. Boundaries are good and healthy and keep us whole and sane.
3. Build your support network.
This has made the biggest difference in my life. First of all, having somewhere to go to just dump your feelings in the moment is crucial. Texting a friend, venting to your husband, posting in a private online group. Somewhere absolutely safe where you know you will be heard and supported, never judged.
This can help you feel held up on days when you fear you are going under. But having friends in real life is important too, and evenings out with friends where you get real and connect and support each other are absolutely essential, and leave me feeling refreshed and filled up.
4. Remember it’s okay to ask for help.
It can be hard to admit that we are struggling and to make ourselves vulnerable; but I am always more than happy to help support a friend when they need it. I value it when people let me in enough to ask for support. Don't you? Then don't be afraid to ask for it. If you are willing to have an open heart and let those close to you see the messiness inside you will find the help, support and friendship that you need.
5. Get involved in your community.
I know you're saying, I don't have time for that! But feeling connected with your community, even in the smallest way, can have huge benefits in my experience. We are sorely missing the village and this can help fill part of that hole. You don't have to do it all; just pick one thing, and contribute. It seems counter-intuitive, but there is nothing that fills us up like giving back.
6. When all else fails, just connect.
No matter what is going on, take some time each day to just connect with your kids, to set aside the parenting role and just listen to them and really see them as fellow humans. Whether it's playing a game and laughing, cuddling on the couch, or just asking about something in their lives and listening–just connect. A little connection will make you feel closer to your kids and make you feel like a better parent.
Conversely, set aside a contained time everyday to have the tough parenting conversations (NOT when you are angry!). Calmly state the problem, the exceptions and consequences. And then let it go. You've done your work for the day, lay that burden down. Don't go on about it all day, don't carry it around.
7. Remember that love is infinite; patience and energy are not.
It is completely unrealistic to expect ourselves to be patient all the time. And really, we don't want to be Stepford moms. We don't want to teach our kids that anger is a terrible thing that we should never feel. We should show them how to process it with love. But even though it's best to do that, to say we're feeling angry and why and take deep breaths and maybe give ourselves a time-out–well, we all still lose it sometimes. Because kids are crazy-making. And we are human. Forgive yourself and move on.
8. Let go of control wherever possible.
The idea that we have control over our kids is an illusion. They are people with their own minds and hearts and motivations. We can influence and guide them, we can set boundaries and consequences. We can do our level best. We cannot "fix" them and it is not our responsibility to do so.
They must experience the natural consequences of their actions in the world, and they will always learn better from their own failures than they will from us telling them the same damn thing a million times.
Finally, don't forget: Nurture yourself. Mother yourself. Speak to yourself like you would your kids, like you would a dear friend. Don't say to yourself, "What is wrong with you??!" Instead say, as you would to your kids, with love and tenderness: "What do you need, honey?"
Originally posted in The Wild Word magazine.