Self Care for Parents: Addressing Depletion

We see it often in parenting literature: in order to be as patient, kind, loving as we want to be as parents, we need to fill our cup. 

This series of articles is intended to help parents explore self-care and recognize the pitfalls faced in implementing it.  We’ll begin with a focus on the underlying depletion that often sabotages our efforts to be good parents.

Addressing Depletion

Unfortunately, due to the demands of our fast paced society and financial stresses, almost every parent I know is depleted in some way.  We simply push ourselves beyond our natural human limits, burning our candles at both ends because it is what everyone around is doing and we forget that it is not normal.

Far too often, I speak with mothers who are racked with guilt because they cannot muster the loving attention and energy that they want to give their children.  Often, mothers will ‘confess’ feeling very uncaring and angry toward their children and think that something is terribly wrong with them.

When they talk to parenting experts, they are often given great ideas on connecting, which creates more guilt because they cannot muster the energy or positive feelings  consistently. In fact, when they are focusing on connecting to their children, with an empty tank, their inner resentment and exhaustion worsens.

Imagine how your child would feel if they were exhausted, had barely eaten, had little attention paid to them, did so much for everyone else, and then had to watch you caring for someone else’s child.  The child would feel worthless, discouraged and depressed.  This is what happens to parents when we are depleted and we keep pushing through, trying to meet our children’s needs without meeting our own.

What’s more is that when we are depleted, we are hurting those we love most.  If we were in a typical workplace, we may be irritable, grumpy, impatient but we would recognize that it’s a rough day, we are out of sorts, and so on.   But as a parent, when we are acting angry and impatient with the children we love immensely and desire not to hurt, we simply feel awful, and tell ourselves we are awful.

As you can see, depletion can keep us stuck in a spiraling downward cycle. It is crucial that we recognize it and take steps to return to balance. 

If you are feeling depleted, here are a few steps to begin with so that you can reconnect to the loving parent you truly are:

  • Focus on yourself with love and compassion-  When we are feeling depleted, our inner critic/negative self-talk will kick in, in an effort to ‘whip ourselves into shape. However the only thing that works to move us out of depletion is turning love and compassion inward.  This is similar to when our children are acting ‘ugly’ and we remember to go to them with compassion and curiousity about what they need (are they hungry, tired, overwhelmed, sad, etc?). The ‘ugliness’ melts every time, hearts open and there is reconnection. When we are feeling or acting ‘ugly’ we need love.  We must mother ourselves with this same compassion; recognizing that if we are feeling awful, we are simply depleted and it is time to turn our attention to what we can do to be loving to ourselves.  It may feel counterintuitive to the mind, but shifting into your heart and setting this intention, is an important first step.
  • Get enough sleep to function well-  Sleep deprivation is often the primary cause of depletion. We tend to accept it as ‘normal working conditions’ but it is used as torture for a reason. It makes us weak and crazy.  As one mother said, “The difference between a rested me and an unrested me, is like Alice in Wonderland different!”  If you are sleep deprived for any reason (new child, child with nightmares, night pottying, etc.) recognize that this is essentially a crisis time in your life and other responsibilities and engagements must be limited. It helps to make a concrete plan for how you will get rest during the day; nap when the baby naps, rest while older children play quietly, go to bed earlier, give yourself permission to get less done, and so on. With enough sleep, everything else feels more doable.
  • Eat healthy food, regularly–  It is so tempting when we are depleted to head toward our food addictions, but junk food, sugar, caffeine and alcohol all physiologically create irritability, anxiety, and/or depressed mood.  Eat as much whole, unprocessed or unrefined food as possible. Have fruits, vegetables, nuts and other healthy snacks available for you to munch on in between meals to avoid low blood sugar meltdowns.
  • Get Help-  The nature of so many parenting tasks is never ending; there are always more dishes to clean, diapers to change, meals to prepare, children to nurture.  It can be very demoralizing day in, day out, to not enjoy the feeling of completion. As mothers we need to enforce a break, by getting help (from family,friends,mother’s helpers,housekeepers,etc.) and accepting that everything will still not get done.
  • Take time and space for yourself (and away from your children) regularly- You need time to breathe.  Depending on your needs, this may be a couple times a week, or it can be a daily practice. This can be as simple as going for a walk, taking some time in your room to journal, working out at the gym, or going on a longer date with yourself to tea, shop, write…whatever reconnects you to your soul.  You may need to focus on alone time rather than time with others. What truly refuels us is taking time to  quiet within and focus entirely on nurturing ourselves, pursuing what simply delights us.

If you are depleted, even making these few changes, may feel overwhelming. Take it easy.  Get help. You will notice that by taking any of these steps your energy will gradually increase and make it easier to continue in your self care.  You (and your children) deserve it!

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