Give Yourself Permission to Recharge
by Elizabeth Grace Saunders
The arrival of your first child transforms you. All of a sudden, life isn’t just about you—or you and your partner. Suddenly a new little life that’s 100% dependent on you for absolutely everything has emerged into the world. And you now have the joyous and at times incredibly weighty responsibility to ensure that he or she survives—and hopefully thrives. Over time, this dedication to others around you becomes the norm.
Whether you’re a parent to a newborn or a teenager, it’s natural, normal, and healthy for your attention to be on your children and to many times put their needs ahead of your own. But many well-meaning parents can shift their focus so much that they completely lose sight of what they need to be happy, healthy people—especially if work is also in the mix. This lack of self-care can lead to parental burnout, which in turn can lead to exceptionally poor parenting, ranging from aggressive to neglectful, and can cause individuals to mentally “check out” at home and potentially at work.
To love and care for your children well, you need to love and care for yourself well. As a time management coach who works with many parents, here are some steps that I’ve found can lead you in the right direction.
How much time you spend with your children does matter. And it makes sense that if you have limited time with your children that you would want to maximize it.
But spending all of your time with your kids when you’re not working or sleeping can lead to you being physically present, but mentally and emotionally distant. It’s better for you to take some time on your own to be introverted, exercise, or talk with your spouse or a friend, and then come back to your children fully ready to engage than it is to be with your kids longer with your eyes glued to the phone, TV, or laptop, or simply glazed over because you’re mentally checked out.
One of the biggest gifts you can give your children is to know that they’re a joy to you—that you see them, know them, and are happy to be with them. That happens when you light up when they enter the room, emphasize eye contact, and notice and appreciate what they’re doing. Whether they’re building with blocks, running around the park, playing sports, or participating in a debate competition, your kids are always glancing back at you and their eyes are asking the questions, “Do you see me? Did you notice me? Do you care? Are you proud of me?”
You can’t give them this wholehearted affirmation if you’re burned out and trying to take a break from them while they’re still there. Allow yourself to take some time for yourself, so you can be fully present.
Define What You Need
Once you’ve come to some level of acceptance that it’s OK to take care of yourself, it’s important to define what exactly would help you recharge. Here are a few common self-care areas I’ve seen for parents:
Identify simple day-to-day activities that help you feel refreshed so that you’re ready to be present for your children when you are with them. Ideally, some of these items can become a regular part of your lifestyle so that you consistently refill your energy tank before it gets too low.
Start with Small Shifts—and Then Go Longer
If you feel exceptionally strapped for time, begin with micro-changes to carve out regular time for yourself. That could be even 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning of the day to stretch, pray, meditate, or do anything else that centers you. It could mean taking 10 minutes at lunch to read a book. Or taking a quick walk in the afternoon to refresh physically and mentally. When I have a tight schedule, I’ll take a 5-minute walk where I just go up and down the block. Even that small bit of physical activity outside can make a measurable difference in mental health.
Challenge yourself to find bits of time throughout your day for small activities that nourish you. That email can wait—and so can the dishes. By taking truly satisfying breaks throughout your day, you’ll reduce the need to zone out in the evening.
As you take more and more micro-breaks, you may discover that you can carve out longer periods of time to devote to self-care. To ensure commitment, you may need to incorporate some outside accountability. That could be working out with a trainer, signing up for an exercise class, joining a team, planning to meet up with a friend, or participating in a book club. Committing to activities with others that reinforce the positive investments you want to make in yourself can help you to follow through when you’re tempted to put your needs aside.
Look for Special Opportunities
Most of the time, you’ll be investing in smaller bits of self-care throughout your days. But on occasion, you may have the opportunity for larger blocks of time to recharge. If possible, take them. If you have family that is able and willing to care for your children, consider a weekend getaway every once in a while. Or add an extra day on to your business travel so you can get some refresh time. Look for Parents Night Out events at places like the YMCA or churches where for a small fee (or sometimes for free), your children can have a fun time with other kids and you can get a break. Or even arrange to work at home some days to have time alone in your home.
Support Your Spouse or Partner
If you have a spouse or partner, work together to support one another in having time to recharge. When you work together to give one another time off, you can avoid either one of you burning out on your parenting duties. This will not only help you parent better, but also help you have a happier, healthier relationship. (Chapter 8 will help you conduct these conversations.)
I’ve seen coaching clients work together with their spouses or partners in many different ways to take care of the kids so they each could have some extra time away. In one case, my coaching client had Monday night to practice with his band, and his wife had Wednesday night for horseback-riding lessons. Another couple had different nights that they spent with their friend groups: The wife had a girls’ night once a week, and the husband had a night with the guys once a week. Another couple switched off when they took responsibility for morning duty so that they each had some mornings where they could go into the office or work out early. Finally, another had a babysitter come for a few hours on the weekend, so they could have time as a couple or accomplish personal tasks without having full responsibility for the kids.
Could you spend more time with your kids? Definitely. But will you look back and regret it if you went through your kids’ childhood being grumpy and surviving on fumes? For sure. Your children want and need you to be joyful and connected with yourself so that you can connect with them in joyful ways. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself, so you can better take care of your kids.
Adapted from “Working Parents, Give Yourself Permission to Recharge,” on hbr.org, February 24, 2020 (product #H05FYR).