By Jessica Balestrin
Hey you. Yes you, with a 3-day-old hair-do and last night’s formula on your shirt.
When was the last time you took care of yourself? When was the last time you were able to pause between breaths, feel your feet on the ground and truly relax?
As special needs parents, we often push ourselves to our physical and emotional limits. Caring for a child with complex needs means our own needs come second. Always.
We’re fighting battles everyday: arguing with funding and insurance agencies, seeking out the best treatments for an increasing list of diagnoses, juggling appointments, all while trying to let our kids be kids.
Oh, and let’s assume you have a house to manage, maybe a job and an extended family to care for. Who has time for self-care, right?
But there comes a time when we have to question: is it okay to put myself second? No one said special needs parenting was easy, but no one said you had to jeopardize your mental and physical health doing it, either.
All too common is the mother (or father) who spends so much time nurturing others, and forgets to nurture herself.
The role of caregiver is draining on the mind, body and spirit. It can seem overwhelming.
Some days it can seem like you have no more to give, like your cup is empty. Just remember, it is not selfish to refill your own cup so you can pour into others.
Once you are burnt out, you are burnt out … and what then?
Taking care of yourself is not a luxury, but an essential part of your role as a caregiver.
But let’s be real. It’s fine to say self-care is essential, but how do you find the time when you’re providing 24/7 care for your child?
For many parents, calling a sitter, or even have a long shower without having to duck out frequently (can anyone say feeding pump alarm?) isn’t an option.
I know that I’m not alone in using respite hours to catch up on washing, emails and dishes.
At times the prospect of carving out time for you is just as overwhelming as the rest of life. Perhaps it seems unrealistic, or logistically impossible. Many of us have even forgotten how!
So my advice is to start small. Start by meeting your basic needs, and allow your self-care abilities to grow from there.
What’s most important is that no matter the activity, you acknowledge that it is for you.
Take a shower. I mean really take a shower -- even if you only have five minutes. Block out the chaos in your mind and allow yourself to focus on each muscle relaxing under the water, each steamy breath. Use that nice soap you have in the cupboard. If you can spare the time, spend an extra few moments lathering your hair, or just letting the hot water run over your back.
Eat a meal. Okay, I know. Duh. What I really mean is cook and eat something nutritious. Something that fuels your body, and gives you the energy to do what you do best. The act of touching something real, and transforming it into something delicious is so grounding. Hate cooking? Order in from your favorite place, and eat it hot and fresh. Not cold and soggy, after having taken care of everyone else!
Multitask. Want a break, but have a mound of laundry to do? Earphones are your friend. It’s easier to relax and forget the dreaded task ahead of you when you’re listening to something interesting. Fascinating podcasts and audiobooks can transport you to a world outside your own. Blasting some music can give you a burst of energy, and a new outlook on the day. I’ll even admit to putting them in during some of my infant daughter’s choice meltdowns, in order to meet her needs without the anxiety that comes along with hearing her cry.
Find your thing. Find something you love, and carve out some time for it when you can. Hobbies feed the soul. I love to cook, so I spend whatever spare moments I have flicking through cookbooks and trying to make new things. Hopefully one day I’ll drop in on a class, but I too am still learning how to take time for myself without the guilt. It’s a process.
If you have time, use it. Often I’ll spend my spare time aimlessly browsing the internet. For me, Facebook is like the junk food of self care. It’s cheap, easy, and feels good at the time, but afterwards I’m left unsatisfied. An hour has gone by and I’ve gained nothing, except the knowledge that Carol down the road has a new hamster. This is not to say that you need to unplug, more so that it is easy to let an opportunity for self care slip by without feeling anymore recharged. If you have a break, really think about what you need to re-fill your cup.
Know when you come first. Sometimes, regardless of what your children or your family need, you need to put yourself first. I’m talking about your health, both physically and mentally. Don’t put off your check-ups with the doctor, let your prescriptions run out or suffer through physical and mental illness just because life gets in the way. You deserve to be healthy. You deserve to be happy. You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.
I hope at least once today you are able to breathe and think “this moment is mine, and mine alone,” because you don’t always need to come second. Treat yourself with all the love and respect you treat your family with.
They will thank you for it, and your body and mind will too.