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Parenting can be challenging and channelise all your energy. But caring for your children doesn't mean you neglect your own well-being. That can be harmful in the long run, says Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran
Being a parent is not easy. A parent, especially a mother, has to constantly focus on her children. It is a lot of work to feed, clothe, teach and instill discipline in them all through the day and then... do it all again, the next day. It can get stressful and overwhelming. And many parents do end up feeling they are stuck in an endless cycle of caring for their children whilst having absolutely no time for self-care.
Taking these aspects into consideration, we speak with Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran, ParentCircle expert and Professor & Consultant of Clinical Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at NIMHANS, Bengaluru. Here, she shares insights on why it is important to care for yourself first, to be able to better care for your children.
Q. Due to societal expectations, it is difficult for a parent (especially a mother), to find time for herself. How can she get some 'me-time' without feeling the guilt?
A. It is very important to understand that parenting is just one aspect of our life, whereas a holistically healthy life comprises many other aspects as well. We cannot let those areas of our life suffer in order to be perfect at once. Once this is understood, every mother would also acknowledge the fact that apart from having numerous responsibilities including parenting, she also owes some responsibility towards herself. This is called 'self-responsibility'.
We, as individuals, owe the primary responsibility towards ourselves first and ideally, there should be no guilt or feelings of selfishness associated with being that way. For, if we don't take care of ourselves first, we will not be in a position to take care of others. Hence, it is vital to find some guilt-free time every day to do anything that relaxes us or, makes us feel good about ourselves. After all, parenting can really get overwhelming sometimes.
Q. What happens when parents neglect self-care?
A. When there is neglect in self-responsibility, everything else that emanates from this, suffers. When we talk of self-responsibility, it also implies the self-care that is directed towards achieving a healthy body and mind. Neglect in self-care leads to neglect in the care of others. It all starts within and then, spreads outside. How can our children view the glass as half-full when we view it as half-empty? How can we infuse optimism in our children when we ourselves are pessimistic? How can we raise happy children when we ourselves are sad?
There is always a 'mirroring effect' taking place in interactions between parents and children. If not sooner, then later; if not consciously then subconsciously, our children exhibit behavior they have picked up through a form of learning that, in psychological terms, is called 'observational learning'. Children are both smart learners and at the same time, susceptible to their early experiences in life. They subconsciously look up to their parents as role models. Knowledge of this fact should make us more mindful, as neglect in self-care will not only affect us but also, everyone associated with us, including our children.
Q. Why is self-care important in positive parenting?
A. Parents who look after themselves are more likely to be available and able to meet the needs of their children. Their capacity and commitment to physical and mental health mean they extend the same caring towards their own children.
Self-care is typically important for parents, because of the following three reasons:
First, it helps parents and especially mothers maintain positive family relationships - a key factor in reducing the risk of children developing mental health issues.
Second, self-care is important because it lets us separate ourselves a bit from our children - an essential factor in the formation of their identity. As our children grow into adolescence, they gradually become their own person. Self-care gives us those occasional opportunities to step back and see how much of our identity is tied up with that of our children. When we step back and look at our own lives, we realize how much of what we see about ourselves is defined by being a parent. Of course, this does not mean neglecting our children.
Third, self-care is critical because we need to be healthy models for our children. Self-care helps to show children that we care for ourselves so that, they in turn, learn to care for themselves. It is essential that our children learn coping and problem-solving skills to handle life's demands including restorative self-care activities.
Q. What can parents do to maintain their mental well-being?
A. Choosing activities to maintain our well-being, can get subjective. We need to be mindful of what suits us the best and also, prioritize mental health. A few things parents can do include:
1. Daily 'me-time' routine: It is very important to indulge in a few minutes of 'me-time' daily. By this, we mean a time spent at leisure doing things we like the most or sometimes, doing nothing at all! It is more a time for solitude and self-reflection. Research has shown that 'me-time' reboots our brain and helps us unwind, improves our concentration, and makes us more productive. It also aids us in problem-solving and enhances our relationships.
2. Date with spouse: Undoubtedly, the relationship with the spouse is one of the most important relationships we need to nurture. Parenting can often be a strain between spouses and deprive them of the romantic aspect of love. Hence, it is very important to find some time out of our busy schedules to relive those moments which have become dormant under the responsibilities of parenting. Going out on an occasional date, after parenting responsibilities have been delegated to others, makes the spouse feel loved. Doing so, helps us become stronger parents together, focused on raising healthy children.
3. Parent peer groups: Parenting can really get exhausting sometimes and make us question ourselves, especially in the face of adversities. It is then that we can find support from parent peer groups where we meet others going through more or less similar situations. This helps mitigate feelings of being the 'only one' and parenting issues become easier to deal with.
4. Personal retreat: Once in a while taking up a personal retreat like meditation, yoga, spa therapy, or joining singing or dancing classes, not only rejuvenates the soul but also, gives our mind a healthy break from daily parenting chores.
5. Travel: Travel is an excellent way to escape the mundane and provides opportunities for the family to bond and bring fresh perspectives to the table. Travel may not necessarily imply far-off places or extravagant resorts - any place different from home, can be equally soothing.
Q. Should parents admit that parenting can be exhausting? Should they seek help from time to time?
A. Living in a society that values self-sufficiency and takes pride in independence, the idea of asking for help can often be difficult. The ability to reach out can sometimes be life-saving and the inability to do so can leave us stressed facing unnecessary outcomes. There is a misconception that parents should naturally know how to be ideal parents and not have to depend on others. This leads to many parents feeling humiliated in asking for help.
It is important to understand that nobody is perfect. Parenting is one such area where people can and may need help. It does not imply there is a deficiency somewhere. When parenting gets difficult, one tool that comes in handy is 'delegation'. Delegating a little bit of responsibility to others like babysitters, grandparents, or a daycare, goes a long way in reducing the stress associated with modern-day parenting.
However, if the stress is too much to bear, professional help is always a call away. Professional expertise intervention can sometimes bring miraculously positive results to issues that otherwise seem insurmountable. Accept that parenting can be both exhilarating and exhausting; acknowledge the fact that we too need help sometimes. By doing so, we also become more receptive to the help that is available.
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