It's hardly uncommon for New Year’s resolutions to center self care. Think: resolving to lower your stress levels, pencil me-time into your schedule, or get outside once each day. But while all of such goals are worthy and warranted, being able to actually practice them is often a different story—particularly for new parents who may feel time-strapped to care for their child or children, much less themselves. And yet, paradoxically, that’s one reason why it’s so important for new parents to actively carve out time for self care. Experts say doing so stands to make you better equipped mentally and emotionally to care for a child.
Framing self care in this way can help you see it more clearly for what it is: a necessary and supportive element of daily life, rather than a luxury reserved for people with extra time or resources. “While I think we now understand, on a logical level, that self care isn’t selfish, we have a lifetime of messaging from culture, society, and often our families of origin that told us that self care should come secondary to the needs of our children,” says therapist and parent Kaitlin Soule, LMFT, author of A Little Less of a Hot Mess: The Modern Mom's Guide to Growth and Evolution. “It takes time for the truth to travel from our heads to our hearts.”
There are also the countless mental and logistical factors of new parenthood that can draw your attention away from self care (despite even the best of intentions to practice it). “Your thoughts are likely occupied with making sure your baby survives, and every waking—and sleeping—hour is filled with feeding, burping, comforting, changing, and cleaning your newborn,” says therapist, children’s book author, and parent Christina Furnival, LPCC. The process can quickly become all-consuming, she adds.
“It can take some time to get grounding around who you are within and outside of your parental role.” —Kaitlin Soule, LMFT, therapist
The onset of parental responsibilities can also contribute to a deemphasis on your pre-parent identity, including interests and passion points. “When your child is born, you are also born anew and different,” says Furnival, of the steep transition to parenthood. And caring for yourself can fall even further by the wayside while you’re in the midst of identity limbo. “It can take some time to get grounding around who you are within and outside of your parental role and, from there, to figure out how to care for yourself with less time and more responsibility, too,” says Soule.
To that end, carving out the time for self care requires first understanding what actually constitutes effective self care for you, as both a person and a new parent, and then collaborating with those in your sphere to make practicing it possible. Below, mental-health practitioners with kids of their own share their best advice for doing just that.
4 ways new parents can make time for effective self care, according to therapists who have children
1. Expand your personal definition of self care
It’s an act of self care, in and of itself, to let go of any strict definition for what self care should or needs to be. “Rigid rules and routines don’t tend to serve new parents well in a season full of sleep deprivation and intense change,” says Soule.
If the things that come to mind when you initially picture “self care” aren’t things you actually want to do, then they certainly don’t need to be part of your personal practice. “When we no longer buy into the notion that self care is just about bubble baths, wine nights with girlfriends, or walks around the block, we’re free to take a deeper look at what it is we actually need to take care of ourselves,” says Soule.
Doing that means asking yourself the deceivingly simple but often skipped question of what makes you feel grounded, satisfied, or at peace, says therapist and parent Dayna Kurtz, LMSW. “The answer could include the same activities as before you had a child, different ones, or a combination of both.” For example, it might be something like taking a yoga class or going for a walk, but it could also be having someone else take over the laundry or being able to listen to a podcast episode start to finish, without interruption, she adds.
There are no wrong answers here—other than “nothing,” that is. And if you’re struggling to come up with something, consider using the question above as a writing prompt rather than just asking yourself in your head, adds Kurtz: “Writing can stimulate a different part of the brain and may offer access to answers of which you were not fully aware.”
Once you land on one or two things you actually look forward to doing for yourself, you’ll be far more motivated to add them to your calendar and make a point of doing them in just the same way you'd knock out any other parental to-do.
2. Find community with other parents who get it
Becoming a parent can be isolating because it distinguishes you from both who you were pre-parenthood and the non-parent people in your world. (Not to mention the literal isolation of safely existing with a newborn in these quasi-pandemic times.) In this frame of mind, former self-care practices may not carry the same soothing benefits they once did.
Connecting virtually or IRL with other new parents who can relate to your new reality—through a mommy-and-me group or similar recurring activity—can alleviate feelings of loneliness and allow you to “feel a sense of community with other parents in the thick of it,” says Furnival.
Even if you have your baby in tow, this type of socializing can also double as self care by reminding you that you’re not, in fact, alone, and by introducing you to a network of people on whom you may be able to lean for support in the future. This type of commitment also makes you accountable to others, whether it’s through a formal class or informal gathering, so you may feel more compelled to stick to it than with solo forms of self care.
3. Delegate early and often
The simple truth of combining parenting with self care is that one thing often has to give a little for the other to take. In other words, it’s not just okay, but necessary to delegate some of your parenting responsibilities to a partner, or other willing family member or friend in order to create time for yourself.
“It’s not uncommon for parents, especially first-time parents, to feel that they need to be able to handle everything, but you’re not supposed to handle it all on your own.” —Christina Furnival, therapist
“It’s not uncommon for parents, especially first-time parents, to feel that they need to be able to handle everything, but you’re not supposed to handle it all on your own,” says Furnival. After all, they don’t say, “It takes a village” for nothing.
Accepting offers of help from loved ones isn’t weak; it’s a responsible decision for your own health. And if you feel as though you’re on a parenting island, it’s essential to start the conversation about what kind of support you need from those in your sphere. “It can be hard to have these kinds of conversations with your partner or support system, but when you frame [their support] as an opportunity to better yourself and increase your own capacity for care and connection, people are likely to get on board,” says Soule.
Specifically, you can outline to a partner how they can best help you (for example, planning set times when you will get a shower, a break, or a nap, or when they will take on certain household duties), and you can arrange for understanding family or friends to visit, bring over meals, or take care of an errand, suggests Furnival. If you’re part of a community of new parents (per above), you can also look to them for support, offering to care for a fellow parent’s child on one night in exchange for them doing the same for your child on another. Remember: The more you’re able to delegate in a way that feels right to you, the more time you get back to care for yourself.
4. Tap a mental-health professional with expertise in postpartum care
Though it might feel like something you don’t have time to do, if you can financially afford it, seeking the support of a postpartum doula or a therapist or coach with expertise working with new parents can be worthwhile. Doing so can help you treat self care as something important enough to warrant a regular meeting on your calendar (because it is).
“Therapy can be a designated and reliable time and space each week to sort through many of the challenges inherent in new parenting,” says Kurtz. “In my practice, for example, sessions are sometimes the only time during the week when my clients can put the focus solely on themselves and their own needs.” That’s valuable, in and of itself. But of course, the benefits of an expert’s guidance extend beyond the time you’re devoting to yourself. A practitioner in this space can help you figure out “how to cope with the often mixed and complex feelings that come with being a parent and how to better share the parenting load,” says Soule.
If you aren’t able to hire outside support, Soule suggests seeking the support or advice of loved ones or friends in your life who have older kids, and who have stood before in your shoes. Hearing the ways they managed to create time for themselves while being a new parent can inspire similar or different ideas for how you might do the same.
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