The most effective form of self-care for parents.

I used to believe that the best self-care was to have time away from my children. I was desperate for a break from their demands for attention and I felt overwhelmed and exhausted.

Getting away from my children, even if only for an hour or two was something I craved. I wanted walks in nature, relaxing baths, personal shopping, chats with friends and time with my husband. These were precious pleasures and I still very much enjoy them today.

As important as it was, this “me time” was not enough to sustain me in the long term, especially once I made the choice to home educate my two sons. We were going to be spending a LOT of time together and it was going to be a long haul. I knew that I wanted more than just coping strategies. I wanted my parenting years to be joyful. So I set my sights on discovering a life free from constant stress and emotional turmoil. I wanted inner peace – not just while I was in the bath or out of the house, but while I was with my kids in the thick of our messy family life.

These are my top 3 suggestions for self-care.

If you want self-care that’s going to bring long term transformation and joy into your life, here’s what I suggest:

1. Meditation.

You may have an image of hours spent in an uncomfortable pose trying not to think. But before you dismiss the possibility of meditation completely, know that it doesn’t have to feel like hard work and it doesn’t have to be done in isolation sitting on a mat.

Meditation can be as simple as focusing attention inwards rather than outwards. It can be done while washing the dishes, hanging out the clothes or sitting in the toilet. Closing your eyes is nice, but not essential.

When you focus on what is going on inside you, the first thing that you notice is thoughts. The most effective form of meditation is one that takes attention inwards but away from thoughts. There are various ways to shift attention away from thoughts and it’s worth exploring what works best for you. Focusing on the breath is popular. Some people use a mantra or guided meditation. What works best for me is to focus on what I call my inner energy field. This is the sense of tingling aliveness within my body. As I focus on this inner energy, while walking, sitting or even playing with my children, my thoughts calm and drop away.

As well as helping to reduce stress and making you calmer, mediation can also be a process of spiritual discovery. It can be a time to explore the deepest questions about who you really are, like “Who am I when I’m not thinking?” Perhaps you’d like to explore this question for yourself? If you let your thoughts drop away, even if just for a few seconds, what and who is there?

The answer I’ve found to this question is this: I’m Awareness or Presence. It’s always peaceful, no matter what is going on around me.

Over time it’s possible to lengthen the periods spent with an inner focus and become more familiar with the calm Awareness that is always there. This familiarity with Awareness can loosen the grip of our thoughts – which are always the primary cause of our stress and suffering - and bring us peace, even in the most challenging moments.

The ultimate self-care is actually self-realisation; when you realise that you are not your thoughts.

If you would like to learn more about how to rediscover Awareness and how it will help you care for your children, you can get the first chapter of my book “Joyful Parenting” for free when you sign up for my newsletter here.

2. Understanding fear and anxiety.

Sometimes, it’s not a practice or activity that provides the most effective self-care. Sometimes it’s understanding that makes a big difference.

Anxiety and worry are one of the main reasons that parents get exhausted and overwhelmed. If we didn’t have anxiety driving us relentlessly or simmering away behind the scenes, parenting wouldn’t be nearly as tiring. If we woke up feeling calm (even if sleep-deprived and tired), rather than immediately tense and worried, we wouldn’t need as much “me time” or crave escape.

One of the most liberating things that I have learned in my parenting journey is that there are two types of fear. Eckhart Tolle describes them in his book The Power of Now. On one hand there is fear of immediate physical danger; I don’t put my hand in the fire because I know that I will get burned. I grab my child before they run on the road. There is an instinctive response to true immediate danger. Then there is psychological fear. This kind of fear is always of something that might happen in the future, not of something that is happening now. Psychological fear arises in response to thoughts and images about a future that does not exist. It is a creation of the mind - a pattern or habit of thinking that can generate much more harm than good.

We imagine a scary future and it can completely terrify us, especially when the health and well-being of our children is involved. It’s exhausting to feel all that anxiety and it drives us into conflict with our children.

When I worry about my children it is always psychological fear; its always a scary story about the future. For example, at one time I worried that if my children kept eating bags of sweets their health would start to suffer. I also feared that if they didn’t learn to read by a certain age that they would become academic “failures” when they were older. And yet, at the time those fears arose, both my sons were healthy and learning happily at their own pace. In the present they were both just fine.

It really helps to notice when fears are about the future and to clearly understand that these thoughts are fiction and not based in reality. Reality is happening Now and only ever Now. Remembering this, again and again, helps to pull the plug on the scary stories so they don’t run my life.

Just because I don’t give attention to psychological fears doesn’t mean I don’t take action in the present to support my children. I offer healthy food, learning support, guidance and attention. The difference is, I’m not driven by anxiety and I’m not pushing myself, or my children into conflict or overwhelm.

3. Quieting self-judgement.

We all know that parenting is physically hard work. All those sleepless nights, the demands for our attention and the cleaning! But the most painful part of being a parent is the self-judgement that goes with the role.

We don’t realize that we’ve taken on a role that has already been scripted for us. Our days become ruled by a set of beliefs that appear so objectively true, but are in fact all learned when were young. I’ve come to realise that just because the beliefs that go with the parental role been passed down for generations doesn’t make them true or helpful.

Here’s a small sample of the beliefs that used to dominate my thinking. Do they sound familiar?

  • I’m responsible for my children’s health, well-being and future.
  • It’s my job to keep my child happy.
  • I must try every day to be a good mother.

What happened when I didn’t meet the vague, arbitrary standard of the “good mother”? 
What happened when I couldn’t keep up with those impossible responsibilities and my children resisted my control?

I judged myself. Ruthlessly, constantly. And it HURT. It hurt like hell.

There is nothing more exhausting and demoralising than trying to live up to the role of the “good mother.”

The only sure way to make parenting easier is to question our beliefs about the role and responsibilities. But we can’t just get rid of patterns of thinking that formed when we were children. They don’t just disappear - it’s useful to have a process that helps us unlearn and dissolve them.

That’s why I’ve dedicated a decade of my life to using, sharing and teaching a form of self-inquiry called The Work. It’s a simple practice for questioning and dissolving the beliefs that bring stress into our lives. It’s a great way to unravel the pattern of self-judgement and finally relax into our true, loving nature. It was developed by an amazing woman called Byron Katie. You can find out more about her work here.

The process of self-inquiry consists of asking yourself four questions about a thought like “I’m not a good enough mother.”

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought? How does it affect the way you relate to yourself and your child?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s like a guided mediation; you sit with yourself and test your stressful thought against these four questions. Then you wait until your deepest truth emerges.

There is a bit more you can add to this basic form of self-inquiry, but these four questions get to the heart of it. You can read an example of how I have used these questions in my parenting here.

Questioning your thinking has a powerful ability to change your perspective on an issue. You come to realise, though your own direct experience, that it’s not so much the situation that is causing your stress, but the thoughts you are thinking about it.

When I used self-inquiry to question my stressful thoughts I found that my negative self-talk was starting to dissolve. It didn’t happen overnight. It took dedication to identify what I was thinking and to ask myself the questions when I found those self-judgments wearing me down.

The best way to make parenting easier is not to change or fix our children or ourselves. It’s not to keep trying harder. Its not relying solely on the short-term fix of “me-time”. The best way is to go inwards and to question every thought that brings worry, stress and self- judgement into our lives.

It’s time to celebrate making parenting easier, with self-care  from the inside out.

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