Self-Care and the Working Parent

by Daisy Dowling

Do you struggle with how to balance work and family? Are you “always on” in one form or another, whether it’s logging in to work, caring for your kids, or handling one of the many other assorted things on your to-do list? How do you take care of yourself while doing so?

As an executive coach who specializes in working parent hood, I’ve counseled hundreds of men and women on effective ways to combine children and career. Just like you, my clients are all hard workers and unassailably devoted to their families. All go to extraordinary lengths to do well at work while really being there for their kids, in every sense of the term. Most of them have something else in common, too: a deep sense of uncertainty and unease about also looking after themselves.

If this sounds familiar, it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s taking a toll on your well-being. To find out, read over the statements below—all ones I commonly hear from men and women in varying careers and family structures, and at all different phases of working parenthood—and see if they strike a chord:

  • Of course I’m tired. Between work and the kids, it’s impossible to turn off or get any real rest.
  • When I do take a break, all I can think about is my to-do list. It’s a million miles long, and no matter how many items I cross off of it, it never gets any shorter.
  • I used to exercise/meditate/give back to my community/spend time with friends, but I don’t have time for that now.
  • My productivity isn’t anywhere near what it used to be. Maybe that new calendar or organizational system will help . . . or maybe I just need to push myself more.
  • Sure, I’d love a break. But I can’t skip work and ignore the kids to spend the day at the spa.
  • I worry about the wheels coming off the bus. What if I lose it on the job—or at home? I’ve got to find some way to get a grip.

Comments like these come from a place of diligence and love, of deep and genuine desire to do the right thing. What working parent worth their salt hasn’t felt as if they should be doing better at work, spending more time with their toddler, or staying more fully available for the kids during the critical teenage years? If you recognize yourself in these voices, it’s evidence that your working-parent instincts are good, conscientious ones.

Those instincts, though, can also have a downside. They can lead you to overthink things, to overwork, and eventually neglect the one most important element in making working parenthood work for the long term: you. That, of course, feels lousy, and it also makes working parenthood harder. It’s already tough to deliver your best on-the-job performance and show up as the loving parent you want to be each day, but it’s even tougher when you’re also tired and completely run down. Think about it this way: Would you ever counsel a friend and fellow parent to ignore their own needs for sleep, downtime, and human connection and urge them to “just work harder”? Would you expect that approach to yield great results? If not, why use that approach yourself?

Maybe, like many of the moms and dads I work with, you have bought into the overall idea of self-care, but you’re not quite sure how to act on it. Getting to that spa or committing to regular yoga sessions (two images that often come to mind when people think of stereotypical self-care) might feel impossible for many different reasons—or might trigger some major working-parent guilt, even if feasible. Ironically, the more committed a parent and professional you are, the more the idea of focusing on yourself feels irresponsible, even wrong.

Let’s reframe that by stepping back and clarifying what self-care really means and why it’s anything but selfish. With my clients, I define working-parent self-care very simply as any habit or practice that feels like you, that you engage with regularly, and that has the effect of increasing your working-parent resilience and satisfaction over the long term. For you personally, self-care might involve exercise, sleep, alone time, social time with friends, watching funny videos on YouTube, or any of a hundred other activities. When your personal battery is drained, that particular self-care practice charges it back up. It has the dual benefit of making you happier and allowing you to give more to your work and to your kids. Imagine having a reliable, simple, works-for-you way to be certain you can face the stresses of working parenthood—even just that one important meeting tomorrow, or time with your child this evening—with greater confidence and strength, with more energy and calm. And imagine your clients, colleagues, and your kids getting the benefit of that stronger, more centered you.

This book will help you get there. In the chapters that follow, you’ll find dozens of practical, powerful self-care techniques specifically tailored for working parents and recommended by experts and parents alike. These techniques address the concerns and needs most commonly found at the intersection of work and caregiving, including how to focus on your needs and values (and communicate them to others), check in on your emotional and mental well-being, take time for exercise and physical health, and make the most of your time off. The tips and approaches in this book don’t require any special resources or force you to make sacrifices in one area of your life to feed the others. In fact, you can fold most of them into your regular routine. And they work, immediately. Take Nick Crocker’s advice on how to “Find Exercise in Life’s Margins” in chapter 15, or use any of Elizabeth Grace Saunders’s excellent counsel on managing your time and schedule, and you’ll feel more energized and in-control today.

The ideas you’ll find here are broad. They’re applicable whether you have a newborn or school-aged kids, you work full- or part-time, you’re a sole caregiver or you have a wide support system. And they’re relevant regardless of current context. As I write these words, we’re smack in the center of a global pandemic, and like everyone else, I’m cooped up, coping with my second-grader’s math curriculum on top of cooking, cleaning, taking care of two kids, and doing my actual job. “Sheltering in place” isn’t my average week, but Monique Valcour’s piece on emotional resilience and Alice Boyes’s chapter on letting go of perfectionism are more relevant than ever—and I’ll be rereading them when we’re all back to normal and the business trips, summer camps, and piano practices that come along with it. The advice and encouragement you’ll find here are truly evergreen. Of course, given the unique contours of your personal and professional life, you’ll latch onto some of these ideas more than others. And you may even disagree with some. That’s fine: This book provides you options, and you decide which ones to follow through on.

As you read, I encourage you to skim, to jump from one essay to the next, and to do so with a pencil or note-taking app at hand. Jot down the tips and tricks that could have the most impact on keeping you happy, whole, and together both as a professional and as a parent. Then, take that big step forward and allow yourself to use them.

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