“There’s this perception that if you worry a lot and if you look really busy and stressed out then you’ll be more successful.”

~Nancy Mayer

I’m not sure how parents make it through that first year with a newborn. Even in homes where the new babies sleep well, they don’t sleep much. Even in families where outside support is plentiful, there’s still a great deal that only parents are around to do. Even if bank accounts have no limits, money can only go so far when it comes to giving our newest humans what they need to thrive. Thus for most of us, that first year is about survival — simply making it through as best we can for the well-being of all concerned. The challenge — especially for conscious parents — is that the sacrifices of the first twelve months can morph into the habits of the next twelve years.

Caring for yourself is not a luxury

Sure, you’ve heard people jokingly say “If mama’s not happy, ain’t nobody happy!” But many parents talk a better game than they play when it comes to self-care. Whether we’re up too late, sleeping too little, or ignoring that recurrent pain in our back, parents are too accustomed to putting our own well-being on the back burner. We eat crap instead of food because it’s “fast,” and we relegate exercise to the month prior to swimsuit time. We say “yes” to volunteering for a school fundraiser even when our schedule is already full. While many call this “normal” or “modern life,” it comes at a great cost to both us and our children. When we don’t keep our own tanks filled up, we’re likely to meltdown at precisely the wrong time.

As I wrote in my first post of this series, self-care means doing those things that nourish you by rejuvenating your body and replenishing your spirit. Besides the obvious benefits of being well taken care of, attending to your own needs helps keeps you at your most capable, flexible, creative, resourceful, and patient self. What this means is that you are more responsive and ready for the rocky moments that will come your way. And when you are fully fueled, you’re better able to handle the rough and tumble in a way in which no one gets hurt.

The difference between parenting with a full tank versus running on fumes

Below are three scenarios and how they might be handled. First after each scenario are examples of parents who’ve been taking good care of themselves and have a sense of running with a full personal fuel tank. Following these are examples of how the same scenarios might get handled by parents who’ve been neglecting their own well-being.

    • Scenario 1: As it’s time to depart for her daughter’s swim lesson, she starts complaining about her teacher, saying that she’s not going today.
      • Fully-fueled parent: Feeling a bit irritated that these issues didn’t surface earlier, mom takes a breath and sits down next to her daughter on the couch to listen. “Wow, it sounds like you’re really bothered about your teacher babying you. I know some of the other kids aren’t that comfortable in the water and maybe she forgot to notice how confidently you jumped in last week. Can you think of a way to help your teacher know that you want her to treat you more like the big girl you are?”
      • Parent running on fumes: Annoyed that these issues didn’t surface earlier, mom looks at her watch and says, “It’s time to leave now or we’ll be late.” When daughter stays on the couch, mom raises her voice a notch: “We’re not skipping lessons. They cost a lot of money and you’ve enjoyed it every time so there’s no real reason to miss today. Get up. We’re going.” Daughter crosses her arms and says “No!” and begins to yell, “I hate my teacher. I don’t want to go!” Mom is now even more upset and shouts, “Fine. We won’t go and you won’t get to go to the pool this weekend since you can’t be bothered to finish your lessons!”
    • Scenario 2: Dad has reminded his son to pick his toys up from the hallway so they can head to the park to meet some friends. The toys are still there and dad finds his son sitting on the front steps of the house ready to go to the park.
      • Fully-fueled parent: Hey bud, did you forget something?,” dad asks lightly. When the boy responds with a quizzical look, dad mentions the toys and hallway. “But I want to go play. I’ll clean up later,” says the boy. Even though dad wants to get to the park so they won’t be rushed, he also wants the hallway clear before bedtime when it’s harder to get tasks done. “Sorry, Charlie,” replies dad, “It’s to do before we go. Let’s set a timer and see how long it takes us to clean up the toys and get back down here to the car.” [Looks at his watch and switches to timer mode.] “Ready. Set. Go!”
      • Parent running on fumes: Dad has reminded his son to pick his toys up from the hallway so they can head to the park to meet some friends. The toys are still there and dad finds his son sitting on the front steps of the house ready to go to the park. Dad says, “We’re not going until you pick up your toys, remember?” “But I want to go play now. I’ll clean up later,” says the boy. Dad feels harried after numerous negotiations during the day and is tired of his son going back on his word after the fact. “No deal. Go clean up now or we’re not going at all! I shouldn’t even need to remind you,” says dad, turning back into the house letting the door bang shut behind him.
    • Scenario 3: During preschooler playtime at the local gymnastics club, a girl loudly refuses to give up her space on a balance beam to a younger girl.
      • Fully-fueled parent: Mom feels embarrassed and wants her daughter to share the space with the younger child. Taking a deep breath mom moves closer to her daughter: “You love being up there. It is fun. Let’s use it for two more minutes and then jump off and find something else fun to explore. I’ll even get in the foam pit with you this time. Deal?”
      • Parent running on fumes: Mom feels embarrassed and ashamed at her daughter’s vocal refusal to share. Mom raises her voice to her daughter, “It’s not your balance beam. Make room for that girl right now or you’ll have to sit out until you can share nicely.”

While being a fully-fueled parent doesn’t mean that compromises will happen easily or mutually-satisfactory solutions will be found to all issues, it makes such outcomes more likely. Similarly, when our self-care has been neglected, it’s easy for molehills to become mountains and even minor parenting speed bumps can become full-blown wrecks.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if you want to minimize the damage of life’s rough patches, you can’t keep playing the parenting game with a low fuel tank. It’s not a luxury to take care of yourself. Making your well-being a priority is an essential step of being there for your children — in the short and long run.


Like many of my clients you too may struggle with making self-care a priority. Look for the third post in this series for ideas on how to become a self-care master.

Also in Fundamentals of self-care

This series covers the topic of self-care for parents.

  1. Self-care for parents
  2. What difference does parental self-care make?
  3. Prioritizing your own self-care

View the entire series