I remember how often I lied when people kindly said, “You’re taking care of yourself, right? You know Jason depends on you and you have to take care of yourself for him!” My answer was always, “Sure!” but under my breath it was, “Yeah, right!” My son was a micro-preemie and, after many ups and downs, was coming home after almost 6 months in the hospital. I was pumping breast milk every 2 hours (or, at least, was supposed to be), I was contracting out our dream home, and my husband and I were the finish contractors. Taking care of myself? In whose dreams?
Unfortunately, I found out the hard way what happens when I do not take care of myself: bouts of depression that can last 4 to 6 months and loss of myself – who I am, what I need, and what I want. Those kind people were right – I could not be there for Jason when I was not there for myself.
Caring for and about yourself is a daily task. It was finally when I no longer had the desire or energy to play with him, my sweet little boy who had worked so hard all those years to learn to walk and talk, and now, Mom could no longer have fun with him. I went for help.
Our families cannot operate if we are not rested and cared for. But, taking that time is something that’s hard for all of us to practice.
So, if you’re like us and need some help knowing where to start, here are some suggestions:
- Start with 5 minutes. Sometimes, the only break I could get was taking 5 minutes with a magazine in the bathroom. But, sometimes just 5 minutes doing something as simple as taking your vitamins, styling your hair, or shutting the world out in the shower is the practice we need to work our way to taking 30 minutes for a workout.
- Do something for yourself every day. Maybe it’s working in the garden. Maybe it’s going for a run or doing yoga. But doing a small amount daily builds up your internal bank account faster than large, infrequent deposits.
- Give yourself the power of choice. Think about the times you say, “I should…” or, “I ought to…” Take a minute to see if these are really things that will give you energy, or if they will take it away. This gives you the chance to say, “I won’t” rather than, “I can’t.”
- Say no when you need to. You don’t need to cook for every bake sale, serve on every committee, or even go to every party when you’re asked. Sometimes, you even can say no on things for your child. The long-term debt on your soul for ignoring the care of yourself is larger than any deficit your child might have physically, intellectually, or socially. And, if you never say no, what is your yes worth?
- Say yes to your friends. If your friends offer to help you, take them up on it! Bring them with you to the doctor’s visits that are hard. Or let them watch your child for a few minutes so you can be alone. Or have a cup of coffee with them when they want to listen and let you vent about your feelings.
- Allow yourself to laugh, cry, or do both. Sometimes our lives are really hard. Sometimes we need to grieve. And sometimes, we need to make little jokes to help us move forward. All of these things are natural, and it’s important to let yourself feel your emotions.
- Talk to someone. Maybe it’s a friend. Maybe it’s your doctor. Maybe it’s a counselor. But when you are having trouble caring for yourself, talking to anyone is a good step towards building that pattern.
- Remember that your child’s growth doesn’t happen in a straight line, and neither will yours. Sometimes, we might find ourselves getting out of the habit of caring for ourselves. It’s okay to backslide a little bit. Just recognize it. Think about it. And start again from where you are.
Our children with disabilities, their siblings, our spouses, parents, co-workers, and significant others are all affected by our emotional health.
We need to give ourselves permission for those 5 minutes (or longer, but start with just 5 minutes) in the bathroom by ourselves with our magazine. Because then, we will have a lot more strength and reserves to help our children.