• There’s a difference between self-soothing and self-care. The former offers short-term relief while the latter can contribute to greater wellbeing that lasts.
  • Self-care for parents isn’t the same as me-time or self-improvement. It’s sustainable, nourishing, and compassionate.
  • Checking in with yourself doesn’t have to feel like another chore, and you can do it in 12 seconds.
  • Moms and dads can practice mindful self-compassion as a truly replenishing form of self-care.

This is not a parenting advice column. Most parents don’t need more parenting tips. They just need a break from taking care of their kids. I took an informal poll over the weekend, asking my parent-friends how they practice self-care. Their answers: They drink, they smoke weed, they play video games on their phones, they watch addictive TV. In no instance did anyone say, “I do XYZ to nourish my soul.” 

People mean well when they tell parents to take care of themselves. “You need to take time for you,” they say. But we’re usually too bogged down in emotional labor and an infinite assembly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to add one more thing to our to-do lists. Great, now we have to take care of ourselves in addition to the screaming children? Did we really need another dependent? 

So instead of truly caring for ourselves, we self-soothe when we can. We’re like babies who learn to suck their thumbs to cope with stress. But our thumbs are alcohol, trashy novels, and online poker. These behaviors might give us short-term stress relief, but they probably won’t lead to enduring well-being. We’re burnt out, jaded, and angry. Sometimes doomscrolling with a box of wine is as close as we get to self-care. But we know it’s a distraction, not a real support. 

If you truly want to activate your body’s caregiving system, you’ve got to face yourself. Not your kids, not the pandemic, not the systemic outrages that surround you. Yourself. That means you place both feet on the ground right now, wiggle your toes, and fill your lungs with air. Feel your own weight. Now check in with yourself by asking the following questions. 

Are You Tired?

Of course you’re tired. Burnout is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion. You wake up feeling already drained from the day that hasn’t started yet. Our bodies weren’t made to thrive under 24/7 stressful conditions. One alarming study showed that the mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had cortisol responses similar to combat soldiers and people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

These days more children are experiencing mental health conditions that impact their executive functioning. And hey—so are their parents. Caregiver burnout can lead to unhealthy fluctuations in our body’s stress hormones, compromised immune systems, and a host of other adverse outcomes. Sleep is for people who aren’t so busy. 

Are You Lonely?

You’d think that a family’s finances or the number of kids in a household would contribute the most to parental exhaustion, but the biggest factor driving burnout conditions is actually cultural. A recent study showed that individualistic cultures like we have in the United States drive higher levels of parental stress. It seems that humans weren’t meant to raise kids alone. We’re meant to raise our offspring in a community of friends and family. Thus we might spend every waking moment with our little people, but we’re still lonely. We simply don’t have adequate social support.

Are You Angry?

Irritability is another symptom of burnout. The kids get on your nerves. Your spouse gets on your nerves. You’re resentful that you’re doing more than anyone else in the family. You feel erased as an individual, which makes you annoyed at your children who only identify you as “Parent A”. And you’re mad at yourself for being irritable. Good parents aren’t so irritable, you think. 

Do You Feel Like You’re Doing a Bad Job?

You’re not meeting your own expectations. You blame yourself, which leads to more parental fatigue. Stress triggers your self-criticism mode, making you more stressed, more tired, more disengaged. Now you feel like a worse parent, and your kids are going to fall irreversibly behind before they’re out of diapers. 

Time to Stop

  1. S. Stop.
  2. T. Take a deep breath, then an even more extended exhale. There you are, in your body.
  3. O. Observe what you’re sensing, feeling, and thinking. Where is your mind?
  4. P. Proceed with intention.

This is a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) technique designed to draw you back to the present moment. The STOP exercise can help you recognize when you’re hungry, thirsty, tired, cranky. This is how you re-engage with yourself. It takes about 12 seconds. Slightly more if you combine it with drinking a glass of water. Because you’re definitely dehydrated.

What Is Self-Care Really?

Those 12 seconds above? That was self-care. Self-care doesn’t equate to “me-time” or self-soothing behaviors. Self-care isn’t an attempt to make the pain go away or to become a better person. Self-care is experiencing and enacting compassion for yourself, which activates primal feelings of safety and security. Self-care can be a state of mind or a practice as mundane as brushing your teeth. It’s asking yourself in a loving way, “What do I need right now?” Your need might touch on: 

  1. Self-maintenance (physical needs like personal hygiene)
  2. Self-regulation (thoughts and feelings that drive action)
  3. Self-compassion (love and acceptance of self)

You might not be able to meet your specific need in the moment (for example, I often need a nanny in the moment), but at least you’re no longer silent and invisible, parenting on autopilot. 

Is there a way you can take a tiny step to address your present need? My conscious mind might say that I need a nanny and a margarita, but if I probe a little deeper I might discover that I actually require a 3-foot perimeter of personal space and an accomplishment, so I park my daughter in front of her dollhouse and go organize the bookshelf. Within minutes I’m in a much better mood. 

Toward Mindful Self-compassion for Moms and Dads

Parental self-care doesn’t have to bankrupt the household or lead to a knock on the door from Child Protective Services. It can be as simple as tweaking your perception. For example, mindful self-compassion has three components:

  1. Self-kindness. You relate to yourself as you’d relate to a close friend. 
  2. Humanity. You recognize your common humanity. All of us imperfect parents are in this together, making mistakes, feeling pain, coming undone from time to time. 
  3. Mindfulness. You’re present and open to the world around you. Maybe you notice how the soap feels on your skin as you wash your millionth dish. Maybe you take a second to appreciate your kid’s hair shining in the sun as she demands that you watch her go down the slide again. And again. And again.

The thing I like about mindful self-compassion is that it’s not another parental chore. It’s just a slight shift in being that you can enact at various points throughout the day, when you remember. And maybe those moments will eventually become routine. But if they don’t, that’s okay too. 

If you don’t know where to begin and you have five minutes, UC Berkeley has a website called Greater Good in Action that provides short, free, and powerful practices to help people build self-compassion, meaning, and resilience in daily life. It’s a self-care hub, like a day spa for your mind, but without the pricey massages. 

Do Self-Care That Works for You

When I’m overwhelmed with family caregiving, I sometimes lie down on my bed in all my clothes in the middle of the afternoon. I close my eyes but I don’t sleep. I just daydream. If anybody asks, I’m dead. Twenty minutes later, after letting my creative mind run amok, I’m basically reborn. 

Granted, this isn’t the equivalent of a full time nanny or free universal pre-k or a timely lockdown of Wuhan, China; but it’s what nourishes me. So I’m going to stop thinking of it as self-indulgent. I’m going to daydream as a preventative measure, and not just do it when I’m in extremis. It’s restorative for my brain and it makes me more kindly-disposed towards my family—and myself.