I’ve always felt uneasy about the popular concepts of ‘me time’ and ‘self-care’—the idea that a mum will go and do something indulgent and then return to her family refreshed, beautiful and ready to continue mothering with renewed joy. Hmmm.
As a mum of a large family, the logistical and financial cost of this type of ‘me time’ has rarely felt worth it, particularly during the many years when I’ve been pregnant, breastfeeding or mothering toddlers. ‘Me time’ and ‘self-care’ events seem like a lot of hassle and expense for a short-lived benefit.
The main problem is this: however much ‘me time’ I take, and however relaxing and enjoyable it is, it always ends. My ‘me time’ is never refreshing enough to sustain me for long once I return to ‘family time’. I cannot store up its benefits the way camels do water!
And yet—I often feel overwhelmed, cranky, resentful and weary. What do I need, if not some ‘me time’?
A new approach to ‘self-care’
As Christian parents, the aim of ‘self-care’ must be to help us glorify God. Spending time enjoying God’s creation, investing in friendships or getting a relaxing massage are all good ways to enjoy God’s generous gifts. But if our ‘self-care’ is also going to help us honour God in our family relationships, we need to find ways of practising it every day.
Recently, I was introduced to a different idea of ‘self-care’ by parenting author Janet Lansbury, who says:
‘Self-care’ means considering our own emotional and mental health needs, then setting and enforcing our personal boundaries with our children.
I’ve started practising this kind of ‘self-care’ daily. It helps me to feel calm, and that helps me to be kind—it helps me to glorify God by loving my family better.
Daily ‘self-care’ looks different for different people. For instance, a friend of mine has a high tolerance for noise. Our children can be having a conversation next to us, the TV can be blaring and the dog barking, and she will carry on calmly making coffee and chatting. I, on the other hand, will feel my body growing tense and my blood pressure rising. For my friend, enforcing a boundary around noise in the home isn’t necessary. But for me, it is.
In the past, especially when my children were younger, I was much less aware of what triggered anxious and irritable feelings in me, and much less practised at setting boundaries to care for my emotional and mental health. The chaos of the before school rush and the dinner hours would routinely find me so irritated and angry that I would shout at my children; I would become so anxious and overwhelmed that I would have debilitating attacks of vertigo. What I needed wasn’t a trip to the day spa, but some better boundaries that would help me to feel calm and be kind.
Nowadays, my daily ‘self-care’ boundaries look like:
- asking my children to give me some space for ten minutes while I drink my tea
- snatching time to watch the sunset from our deck
- making my youngest child sit next to me rather than on me when I’m feeling ‘touched out’
- simplifying meals and cooking in bulk so I can spend less time in the kitchen
- saying ‘no’ to some extracurricular activities so we have a couple of afternoons at home each week
- having my children fold their own washing
- spending time in the garden on weekends
- saying ‘no’ to requests for help with homework after 10pm
- listening to soothing music in the car, even if my kids don’t really like it
- insisting that ‘Mum’ be pronounced as a one syllable word (we’re still working on that one!).
Of course, there will always be some irritating aspects of life with children that we simply can’t avoid. In these situations, we can pray for God to sustain us and give us patience, and to help us find creative ways to ease our stress. It will also be much harder to set and enforce boundaries with babies and toddlers, because they are so reliant on us. But in many situations, we can still find small ways to care for our own emotional needs by thinking through the following questions.
When do you struggle to be calm and kind?
Ask God to help you see your own anger, impatience and bitterness. Our anger does not please the Lord, but we know he loves to see us grow in patience, gentleness, and self-control.
If you’re feeling brave, you could also ask your spouse or a close friend if they’ve noticed the situations or times of the day when you struggle to be kind.
Why do you struggle to be calm and kind?
Ask God for wisdom. What is it about certain times or situations that make you struggle? Is it tiredness? Noise? Information overload (those school notes!)? Needing to rush? Is pride or guilt making you worry about what other families are doing? Are you afraid of something?
As sinners, the answer to ‘why?’ is always (at least in part) ‘sin’. We lash out at our children in anger because we fear being late for a meeting and looking irresponsible—but also because we are proud sinners who lack self-control. Thankfully, Jesus has paid for our sin on the cross! With God’s help, we can also take better care of our emotional state, so that our sinful behaviours happen less often.
What boundaries can you set to help yourself be calm and kind?
Can you take a short coffee break or play some music you love? Can you simplify your schedule? Can you do something to prepare practically or emotionally for high-stress times? Ask God to help you think of solutions. A creative friend could be a great resource here too—sometimes we get stuck in a rut and it’s hard to see different ways of doing things.
Ask God to help you enact your ‘self-care’ practices with grace and patience. Explain to your children why you are making these changes, and prepare to be firm and kind as you enforce them. If you’re asking something of your child they don’t like—perhaps insisting they don’t come and sleep in your bed—they will likely resist. But if getting a good night’s sleep is necessary for you to feel calm and be kind, then it’s OK to enforce that boundary.
I know from experience that this kind of daily ‘self-care’ is refreshing and sustaining. It’s ‘me time’, but it also blesses your family and those around you. With wisdom, this kind of ‘self-care’ can help you be a calmer, kinder parent, for the good of your family and the glory of God.
Kat Israel is mum to five kids, aged from preschool through to high school, and a preschool educator. She is married to Toby and they live in suburban Sydney.
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