Dana Udall, Ph.D.
Becoming a parent changes everything about a person’s life. Daily routines go out the window, restful sleep seems to vanish, and vacations become a thing of the past. And when you throw work into the mix, the stress can be crippling.
Fifty-six percent of parents say it’s difficult or impossible to balance work and family responsibilities, so what’s a parent to do? Succumb to the pressure and constantly feel tired, rushed, and stressed?
Thankfully, there are other options. Being a parent means caring for your family, but it doesn’t have to mean neglecting yourself. In fact, when parents take good care of themselves, the better equipped they are to care for their loved ones. Here are some strategies to help even the most overwhelmed parent to become more resilient and resourced.
The first thing any parent will admit is that free time becomes a scarce commodity when a child needs attention all day, every day. Hobbies start to feel trivial when there’s someone relying on you for everything from food and shelter to potty training and play dates.
But it’s important to remember that hobbies are not trivial; they’re essential for cultivating the type of emotional health that makes parents thrive.
When you have a limited supply of free time, the name of the game is being intentional about how you spend it. Every parent should ask themselves guiding questions like these to determine what matters most, and how to spend their precious time:
How can I be mindful of the things that are important to me?
What’s bringing me the most joy, and what’s no longer serving me?
Are there any activities that I miss and wish I had more time for?
By prioritizing the activities that make you — playing in a softball league, doing the Sunday crossword puzzle, watching The Bachelorette with friends — you’ll be better able to maintain your own identity, which is essential for recharging your batteries and staying sane. In essence, making good use of time away from the kiddos will help you weather the storms that inevitably come with being with them, whether that’s dealing with the fifth temper tantrum of the day or the angst of your moody teen.
Some parents consider sleep deprivation to be a badge of honor, but over time it can lead to deficits in cognitive and emotional functioning, and, as any parent will tell you, make it nearly impossible to be the patient parent you aspire to be. Here are some tips on how to improve the quality of your sleep:
Wake up at the same time every morning. Most people think going to bed at the same time each night is the secret to sleeping well. But studies show that waking up around the same time every morning is what really counts. This consistency will help regulate your circadian rhythm and promote alertness during the day and fatigue when you should experience it — at night.
Limit naps. There’s no debating how wonderful naps feel. But when we get into the habit of sneaking naps during the day on a regular basis, it can throw off nighttime sleep and make it less restful and restorative.
Build a routine. Research tells us that routines teach our bodies when to get tired and when to sleep. It’s very common for parents to rush home from work, put the kids to bed, maybe watch a little TV, then pass out, without much of a routine beyond that. I always recommend that parents do the same set of activities after putting the kids to bed each night, whether that’s taking a bath, reading a great book, or having down time with a partner. And it’s all about doing those activities every day.
A lot of parenting is about prioritizing. At work, most of us rank our tasks all day long without a second thought, knowing that we won’t get to everything. But when it comes to parenting, we may worry about cutting corners. It’s our kids, after all!
But just like the best employees, the most successful parents tend to see tasks in terms of what’s indispensable and what we can let slide. It’s something I call the 80% rule. It’s all about identifying the things that require 100% attention to detail, and not sweating the things that turn out fine with just 80% effort.
For example, my husband travels a lot for work, and when he’s gone, the house becomes chaos. These are nights on end of frozen pizza and bean burritos, with an occasional side of baby carrots for good measure. I cook at 80% effort. That’s what allows me to make time for the things that really matter, like spending time each evening connecting with my kids and ensuring I get enough sleep and exercise to function well.
Most of us are innovative at work, but we don’t necessarily look at our home life in the same inventive way. We forget that the skills that help us lead a team at the office can help us coach little league, get our kiddos to set the table or project manage the school carnival. Or we slog through parenting duties because we feel we have to, without evaluating whether there is a better or smarter way to get things done. Thinking strategically about what resources you have at your disposal, and how to use your current skill set, can help you be more effective and creative at home.
Here are some questions I recommend parents ask themselves:
What existing resources, such as neighborhood play groups or grocery delivery services, can I quickly leverage to make my life easier?
What help can I get from family, friends, or my partner?
What can I change about my work routine, such as working from home more often, to better make use of my time?
By asking these questions and applying your existing skillset to parenting, you’re more likely to come up with creative, effective, and efficient solutions. Efficiency for the win!
Many Americans find themselves living far from family and friends, in a culture that values autonomy and independence over intergenerational connection. But as the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
Most effective parents tend to think about their communities as a network which can be accessed for support, connection, and fun. In addition, being integrated into a community has a host of benefits for mental and physical health, and can make life much more enjoyable.
But being part of a community entails asking for help and relying on others. For those who struggle to do this, I often recommend volunteering to help other families as a way to build relationships. Call someone up and offer to drive carpool or host a playdate. After all, they’re probably going through the same challenges that you are experiencing and would welcome the opportunity to help you in return.
It’s no secret that prioritizing family is a big part of parenting, but self-care is a necessary ingredient as well. And just as parenting requires practice, so does learning to care for yourself in the midst of competing demands. But with some discipline and awareness, self-care can become second nature — and help you become the best parent you can be.