By Tariq Ali
Parenting holds this really weird position in society. On the one hand, as a parent, you’re considered essential and the default experience (just ask people who’ve decided to not have kids or marry after a certain age). On the other, in my experience, parents are scrutinized, judged, assaulted with marketing messages and generally made to feel terrible (usually as a prelude for getting you to buy things). Self-care often feels like an afterthought, unimportant in the larger scheme of things.
What doesn’t get spoken about a lot is how parenting is, fundamentally, a lot of work, and marathon work that you (hopefully) commit to. And like most marathons, what really matters isn’t how fast you’re going at a specific time, but how long you last. In that view, self-care is literally the one thing that keeps you from flaming out in the middle of a race.
Give Yourself Permission to Self-Care
We’re often inundated with messages about how parenting must include sacrifice, and the kinds of sacrifices parents, either the ones who raised us or other parents raising their kids alongside with us, are making. And while those sacrifices are important, and not to diminish the sacrifices of others, there is a difference between putting our kids first, and doing so at the expense of your well-being.
While there are plenty of arguments about how taking the extreme of self-sacrifice is counterproductive to your kids’ well-being, here’s a really quick question: how are you going to care for others when you can’t even care for yourself?
Take a breather. Give yourself permission. Do better for yourself.
Start From The Basics
Knowing this, however, is only half of the battle. For many parents, coming to realize that self-care is important may lead you to feeling overwhelmed, because… well, where do you start? And that’s fair! The experience of parenting is often the imposition of the needs of someone else alongside yours, and for many of us, that transition from being independent adults can be tough. You’re not alone, and you can do this. And the best thing you can do at first is to take a deep breath, and start from the beginning.
For a more structured look into what you need, consider looking through online resources such as You Feel Like S*** (NSFW language), which I’ve found particularly useful to walk through during tough periods when I don’t have the ability to take the first few steps.
Be Aware of Your Needs
Following through the previous point, you’ll also come to the realisation that one of the most important skills that you may need to come to grips with is the ability to know what your needs are. This isn’t just about knowing your physical needs, only: with time, you should be able to notice things like when you’re overwhelmed (which might be a sign that you might need time for yourself), lonely or unsafe. These needs are important to attend to, because as we’ve said earlier, you can’t expect to tend to the needs of your kids when these needs of your own are unmet as well.
While the ways to gain these skills are out of the scope of this article (and honestly, I’m not a trained mental health practitioner), some things you can do to gain some facility with it include methods such as mindfulness.
Assert Some Space For Yourself
As I’ve said earlier on, parenting is the imposition of the needs of someone else alongside yours. Evidently this means your kids, but you know what? Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s the imposition of the needs of relatives who have their own ideas of what you should do. Sometimes it’s the people you work or live with. Sometimes it’s social media. Sometimes it’s literally some random person on the street who has opinions about your kids and how you should raise them. And for many of us, some of these needs aren’t something we can ignore or sidestep.
Obviously, if you’re the parent of a small baby, when the baby cries because it’s hungry or it’s filled the diaper, you might not be able to ignore that, but there’ll be other moments too, such as when a senior manager opines loudly about how parents should raise their kids to you and the rest of the office, and all you can do is smile politely while you silently #okboomer their ass, or when your mother-in-law says something that makes you cringe inside.
But honestly? Outside of circumstances you can’t control? The one who knows best about how to care for yourself and how to care for your kids will be you. And sometimes, it’s okay for you to say, “No,” and to know when too much is, well… too much.
Don't Do This Alone
“Okay,” you might say, “These tips are all fine and dandy, but you can’t expect it to be so easy that I could do this by myself!”
And you’re right. And it’s really weird that we, as a society, expect people to Figure Things Out™ themselves! Historically, our kids weren’t just raised by only their parents: I mean, there’s some truth about the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Some of us are fortunate to have our relatives to aid us, or spouses to occasionally tag-team with. Knowing this, it’s good to know that these people exist, some of them want us to succeed, and we are able to trust them to aid us.
Much like the first point, the first step is to give yourself permission to approach the people you know and trust to help you in this. Parenting shouldn’t be something you do alone, and having people that you can delegate to, team up with, and support you will be at times, literally, a lifesaver.
I’ve just spent several hours writing this, and hopefully some of this advice will be helpful to some of you. But you know what? I recognize that for some folks, this advice will seem unrealistic, because honestly, it seems like a lot to do, and what should you do if you fall short?
And that’s a completely valid point, and completely understandable. The way information is often presented these days, it often feels like you need to be #onpoint or else it’s not worth doing. And you know, like a lot of messages presented in this dystopian late capitalist hell-scape, that’s bunk.
I’ve found that one of the most useful things that I can learn, and something that I try to teach my kids, is the ability to be compassionate and forgiving to myself. This doesn’t mean not having high standards, of course: it just means acknowledging that you can have a bad day… or bad week… or heck, a bad year.
It means recognizing that you’re not always in control of all the circumstances of your life, and that’s okay, that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or a terrible parent. Things happen, and what’s important is how you pick yourself up from setbacks.
I think, in many ways, it’s okay if you can’t follow all of this advice at once. Here’s a little secret: I don’t know anyone, myself included, who can. And that’s okay.
What do you think? Are there any other points that I’ve missed out in talking about this? Let us know in the comments.