Tag Archives: Self care

Pie of Life: Is your life in balance?

pieThis week’s theme at my class has been Work-Life balance and Self Care. As parents of young children, we juggle a lot of responsibilities: caring for children, keeping up on housework, finances, relationship with our partner, and so on.

If you’re a stay-at-home parent, it’s also easy to feel overwhelmed by the never-ending drudgery of child care tasks (time to change another diaper… wash another bottle…), to long for adult conversation, to feel like your brain is turning to mush, and to feel like your personal identity is getting lost in your role of mom.

If you work outside the home, you’re also juggling all your work commitments and responsibilities to your co-workers. It’s easy to feel like you’re not managing it all – you may feel like you’re doing a crappy job at work or at home as a parent or both.

Is balance possible for parents of young children?

Some would say yes. I do know plenty of parents who are feeling pretty balanced. Actually, I’m feeling pretty balanced most of the time.

But many parents find it impossible to feel like they’re meeting all their responsibilities and getting what they want. Some of those parents feel like maybe that’s OK. That this is a short period in their life, and it’s hard, but in the long run of their life, it will all balance out. At the top of this post is a picture of the “Pie of Life.” This is taken from an idea by Ann Keppler, one of my co-authors on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn. Imagine this pie represents your life – 80 or so years of life. It’s divided into your childhood, your time before children, your time with children in the home, and your empty nest years. See the little tiny slice that’s shaded pink? That’s your child’s life birth to age 3.

This time of life that seems all-consuming and overwhelming is just so short in the big picture of life. I’m not going to be Pollyanna on you and say “Savor these years – they’re so short, and before you know it you’ll miss them…” That’s probably true. But I also know that sometimes in the moment, it’s just HARD to parent a little one. I totally get that. But maybe it still helps to get this perspective sometimes, or to remember phrases like “This too shall pass.”

But in the moment, how do you make it feel better and more manageable now?

How do we start to find more balance?

First, get a good sense of what your life is really like now. I recommend this pie exercise where you examine where you currently spend your time and energy, and where you would ideally spend your time and energy. Divide up the two pies into all the things you need to do for yourself and others, and all the things you want to do for yourself and others. Compare them. If your current pie is pretty close to your ideal pie, you’re in good shape! If they’re very different, then you can think about what you want to do to bring them more into alignment.

If you’re noticing that you don’t make any time at all to tend to your own needs, read about Making Time for Self-Care. If you have a hard time giving yourself “permission” for self-care, check out this article on living a balanced life. If you’re feeling guilty about work taking you away from parenting, check out this article and this one.

If there are pieces in your “ideal” pie that either don’t exist on your current pie, or are smaller than they need to be, think about how you’ll make the time and space for more of that in your life. Sometimes it’s a matter of deciding it’s important to you, committing to it, and putting it on the calendar. Schedule time to relax! If there are chores that nag at you that you never quite get done, schedule them. One of the joys of scheduling chores is that instead of fretting all week about the fact that X needs to get done, you say on all the other days “I don’t need to worry about X today, because I know it will get taken care of on Tuesday.”

Prioritizing what most nurtures you

If we have limited time for self-care, we want to spend it on the things that will help the most. It’s worth taking a few minutes to figure out what those things are!

I want you to think of the things that nourish you and make you feel that you have some control over your life, and the freedom to do things you enjoy. It may be helpful to think about it this way: are there things you miss from your life before children – things you wish you could still do, but can’t figure out how to do while caring for your child’s needs? (These might be big things, or might be little things that wouldn’t seem important to others, like “I wish I could read a Sunday paper without interruption.”)

  • Make a list of four or more things they want to do (e.g. “I want to start exercising daily, I want to go on a date, I want to get 8 hours of sleep, I want to get together with my girlfriends. I want to read for 15 minutes a day.”)
  • Now compare them to each other – if you had to choose between exercise and a date, which would you choose? Whichever one you rated higher, then compare it to the next thing on the list: if you had to choose between a date and 8 hours of sleep, which would you choose? And so on, down your list, always comparing your current top choice to the next thing on the list. When you’re done, you’ll know which thing you most want to do.

Now you just need to commit to making it happen. And, if needed, committing to asking for help to make it happen.


Finding Time to Take Care of Your Own Needs

As the New Year is about to begin, let’s take a moment to look at ways to make time and space for meeting your own needs….

Giving Yourself Permission to Take Care of Your Needs

The first big step is to acknowledge that you have your own individual needs and that you have the right to sometimes be “selfish” and put your own needs first. Doing this will make you a happier, relaxed, more energized parent, which will lead to happier kids. It’s like when you’re on the airplane, and they say “if the oxygen mask drops down, first put on your own mask, and then assist small children.”

Working with Your Child’s Schedule and Needs

Sometimes you can fit in self care while caring for your child. What distracts your child enough that you can get a moment to yourself? Will they play happily in the bathtub while you sit on the floor nearby watching a movie on a laptop, or giving yourself a manicure? Can they play in a playground while you read a great book? Can you take them for a walk, while you listen to a podcast or call a friend? Can you take them to a swimming pool with floaties on and do water exercise while they splash around? Can you have a mostly uninterrupted lunch with a friend if you let your child watch a video while you do so?

Make a list of “5 minute self care ideas” – little things you can do for yourself when you have a moment.


Is there something you would love to do, but just can’t figure out how to make it happen? If so, start making a plan. First, it’s good to figure out why you want it, and what part of it is most important to you (e.g. if you find yourself longing for a movie, figure out: is it getting caught up in a story that matters – if so, watch videos at home after you child is in bed. Is it being out in a theater that matters – if so, take your toddler to a daytime matinee of a kids’ movie, or find a sitter so you can see a grown-up movie. Is it really just important to have two hours of uninterrupted time where you’re responsible for nothing? Well, then the goal is to be child-free, and it doesn’t matter much what you do!)

Contingency Planning

Once you’ve made a plan, then have a plan for contingencies: if X happens, what will I do? If Y happens, who will deal with it? Think: what’s the worst thing that could happen? When would I know it was time to give up, and try again some other day? Have alternatives planned. Even if the plan fails, you will have accomplished one very important thing. You will have demonstrated that your own needs are important, and placed a priority on nurturing you. Celebrate that!!  And have a plan to try again.

Asking for Help

Ask other people (friends, families, or paid professionals) to help out. In addition to asking for help with taking care of your child(ren), ask them to help you take care of yourself! Often parents will get their partner to take care of the child, or hire babysitters so they can do the things they have to do, like grocery shopping or doctor’s appointments, but they feel guilty asking for help so they can do something “selfish” that they want to do, like meeting a friend for coffee, or just taking a morning off. It’s OK to ask for help getting your desires met as well as your needs. And if the first person you ask says no, find someone else to ask!

Parent Educators: here’s a free printable handout on self care for parents, which includes all these tips.

Stress and Parenting

Stress in America

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “a great deal of stress”: Americans, on average, believe 3.6 would be a healthy level of stress. However, Americans rate themselves as 5.2 on average. 72% say their stress level has increased or stayed the same over the past 5 years. 70% have symptoms related to stress, such as irritability, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, changes in sleeping habits, or unhealthy eating habits.

Parents of toddlers certainly feel stress such as recent changes in financial status and relationships, disrupted sleep schedules, and the challenges of constantly supervising energetic, emotionally volatile children.

Types of stress

  • Positive stress comes from short-term challenges, such as getting a shot, having a toy taken away, falling and hurting themselves. If children are given support in managing and overcoming the challenge, these offer good learning experiences, and teach skills for managing future stressors.
  • Tolerable stress is from adverse experiences that are intense but fairly short-lived, like the death of a loved one, moving to a new home, a frightening accident. With support, these can also be managed.
  • Toxic stress results from intense adverse experiences over a long period of time – weeks to years. Our stress response system was designed for short-term threats, like running away from a saber-tooth tiger. If we are in stress response for a long time, the cortisol can damage the brain. The more out of control someone feels about a situation, the more likely they are to experience harm from the stress.

How stress affects children

Research and experience have shown that

  • In the short-term, stress may lead a parent to be less patient, and to get more annoyed more quickly, thus leading to sometimes over-reacting to small things. (For example, a parent who is over-burdened with tasks may get very upset at the everyday messes that a toddler creates.)
  • Children of stressed parents may have more headaches, insomnia, irritability, and behavior issues.
  • Long-term chronic stress can affect brain development and disrupt functioning of the immune system. On-going stress in childhood can increase the risk of obesity, mental health issues, learning disabilities, heart disease, and allergies.
  • If the parent models unhealthy coping mechanisms, it can also increase the risk of the child experiencing substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harming behaviors.

HOWEVER…. If parents work to reduce stress, model healthy coping behaviors, seek support when needed, and offer their children support with coping, the chance of their children suffering these ill effects decreases.

Reducing stress and managing stress

Reducing your stress level

Make a list of the things that stress you out. Then put a check by the ones you feel out of control of. Those are the ones that create the most toxic stress. Can you eliminate them? Reduce them? What do you need to do to manage them? Can you ask someone for help?

Handling a bad day

We’re all going to have “bad days” now and then, where we’re sad all day, or cranky all day, sometimes for no reason at all, sometimes for many very good reasons. What we can do:

  • Talk to our kids about how we’re feeling and why (even if the why is “I don’t know why I feel like this”). Even young children can see our anger or sadness, and if we don’t explain, they assume it’s their fault.
  • Ask your child for ideas for what helps them when they’re feeling grumpy or sad. This helps reinforce for them that we all need to develop coping skills, and when we’re not coping, we can all ask for help.
  • If you are doing an activity to reduce your stress, like deep breathing, exercise, or dancing to music, ask your child to join you. That will help them release the stress they’ve absorbed from you.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you did something wrong. Apologize to them if you yelled or hurt them.

Model healthy coping behaviors

Children learn a lot from what we say to them when we are meaning to “teach” them. They learn even more from observing us as we go through our days. Sometimes they learn positive things – like when we model healthy coping strategies and self-care. Sometimes they see the less positive ways we respond to stressful situations. John Medina, in Brain Rules, recommends this exercise.

  1. Make a list of all the behaviors you usually demonstrate to the world: do you laugh a lot? Swear a lot? Express joy? Express frustration? Eat healthy? Spend a lot of time looking at screens?
  2. Circle the ones you are most proud of, and/or the ones you want your child to copy. If there are things you’re not proud of, and you would be ashamed to see your child doing them, cross those out.
  3. Commit to doing something about it. Do more of the good, and less of the bad.

Stress reducers to try

  • Take a few deep breaths. Imagine breathing in calm, and releasing tension with the exhale.
  • Visualization. Imagine yourself in a calm, safe environment. Visualize what you would see, smell, hear, feel, and taste there. The more vivid the image, the more it will calm you.
  • Muscle relaxation. When you catch yourself worrying, instead, focus on this exercise. Notice where you are tense, take a deep breath, and let that muscle relax and soften.
  • Social support. Reach out to a friend. Ideally, you talk about what’s stressing you and get support with that. But sometimes even a chat about the weather can reduce your stress level.
  • Re-define success. If you think you must be a perfect parent every day, you’re going to fail at that. But, if you think: I hope to have more good-parent days than crappy-parent days, your stress level will drop.
  • Eat well: Eat whole, non-processed foods, especially those high in potassium, magnesium, calcium, and omega-3s. Caffeine in moderation.
  • Be physically active. Exercise is one of the best stress relievers. This doesn’t mean you should get stressed out that you failed to go to the gym! Just be active in whatever way works for you.
  • Relax with music. Listen to music, dance, or make music.
  • If you’re angry at someone (like the person who just cut  you off in traffic), try thinking positive thoughts about that person, and empathize with why they might be having a bad day too.
  • Make more space in your life for self-care: doing the little things that make you happy, whether that’s reading, playing piano, visiting friends, or whatever! You deserve some special time!


When Mama has a Bad Day: http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/when-mama-has-a-bad-day/#sthash.rpefX6YN.dpuf
How parental stress can affect your children: http://ezinearticles.com/?How-Parental-Stress-Can-Affect-Your-Children&id=6598316
Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/1/e224.long
The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan. CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/pub-res/pdf/Childhood_Stress.pdf
Stress-Busting Secrets http://www.spu.edu/depts/uc/response/summer2k9/features/stress-busting.asp
Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress: http://www.spu.edu/depts/uc/response/summer2k9/features/cope-with-stress.asp
The biological threat of stress. http://brainrules.blogspot.com/search?q=stress
Impact of stress. APA. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2012/impact.aspx#

Self Care for Parents

Any time you travel on an airplane, the flight attendants announce that if the oxygen masks drop down, you should first put on your own mask, and ‘then assist small children.’ This is good advice for parenting in general. Yes, our children have many needs that have to be met, and many more desires they would like fulfilled. But in order to have the energy to care for them, you need to make sure that you’re also taking care of yourself! Take a few whiffs of parenting “oxygen” now and then to rejuvenate yourself.

Here are some tips for what to do when you’re running on empty.

Ideas for meeting your physical needs:

  • Exercise, on your own and as a family
  • Sleep (as much as  you can), and nap when your child naps
  • Eat right: food affects mood, so try to cut down on sugars and processed foods
  • Get or give a massage. Cuddle, kiss, or make love with your partner
  • Take a hot shower, or a long bath (add a little lavender oil to increase relaxation)
  • Have a cup of chamomile tea or warm milk (or hot chocolate with marshmallows!)
  • Go for a long walk outdoors – on your own, or with your child

Ideas for meeting your emotional and social needs:

  • Spend time with friends each week. Spend time alone each day
  • Prioritize the activities that make you happy
  • Be creative / flexible about social activities you can work around your child’s needs
  • Schedule time each day to talk to another adult
  • Allow yourself to cry. Find things that make you laugh
  • Find a way to have a weekly date with your partner
  • Say no to extra responsibilities

Ideas for meeting intellectual needs:

  • Take your child to the library, but pick up a book or video for yourself while  you’re there
  • Listen to radio shows, audio books, or podcasts while you drive or work around the house
  • If your child is doing an art project, sit down and create your own art!
  • Write – stories, a blog, a journal – get your thoughts out on paper or screen
  • Watch documentaries on TV, or on DVD from the library or Netflix
  • Return to old hobbies you may not have pursued since your child’s birth

Ideas for meeting spiritual needs:

  • Go to religious services (or listen / view online)
  • Meditate or pray each morning, or each evening
  • Do volunteer work or help out others spontaneously
  • Contribute to causes you believe in
  • Spend time outdoors
  • Write in a journal – reflect on your new life
  • Be open to inspiration and awe

Every morning when your alarm goes off, or shortly after your child wakes you, spend one minute in bed deciding what you are going to do for yourself that day. Start small – promise yourself just 15 minutes a day. You’ll soon see the rewards (for yourself, and your family) of a little bit of “me time.”