Refilling the Empty Cup

The Importance of Self-Care as a Caregiver

This month, I asked our contributing Licensed Family Therapist Vinay Gaglani, about how we, as parents, can help ourselves and our family by prioritizing our own self-care. This is the wisdom she shared with us!

V: On a weekend where I have managed zero time for self-care, the irony of beginning to respond to questions regarding self-care is not lost on me. I can certainly feel the effects: irritability and a short fuse, feeling internally overwhelmed by thought and emotion, noticing that even simple tasks are seemingly taking super-human effort– these internal challenges become external. They get externalized with raised voices, curt tones and a well-communicated exasperation at having to meet one more need. This doesn’t feel pleasant to me. My young sons certainly notice my level of frustration, which increases their stress levels and in turn, increases their neediness. 

A: Ha! Well, thank you for making us all feel better, knowing that even a trained professional gets overwhelmed from time to time. l know (at least in theory) that self-care is an important aspect of being an effective care-giver/parent. But many of us can get lax in following through with self-care routines or breaks, or we don’t give ourselves breaks at all since there is always something to be done, a child to help, a looming “to-do” on the ever growing list. How would you advise us to start pushing back on the ever demanding schedule and help us begin to create little pauses for breathing room?

V: Yes, it happens to us all! To begin to create breathing room in a schedule that seems packed to the rafters, I would suggest the following:

  • Begin by addressing feelings about self-care: does it seem selfish, or indulgent? Why? Why does it feel indulgent to take a little time to read a book or enjoy a cup of tea or a go for a solo walk? From where do these feelings arise (looking back to explore our parents’ ideas about self-care when they were in the throes of child-raising will likely yield some useful insights). Remember that old adage: You can’t fill from an empty cup. There is no way to effectively care for others when we ourselves are depleted.
  • Schedule self-care time into each day:  Block out a half hour of reading time or a walk after dinner. Make it official. Set an alarm or put it in the calendar alongside with everything else that is already there. Doing so makes it more likely that we will carve out the time and avoid scheduling other things over it. A significant benefit to doing this step is that we are essentially preparing ourselves ahead of time to handle that uncomfortable and unpleasant sensation of being overwhelmed, knowing that it is a likely outcome of a life fully lived. When we expect the need for self-care as a normal and natural consequence, we can both rid ourselves of the notion that we are lesser than for needing it, and we can look forward to weaving it into our lives as a daily practice. Just knowing it is there each day can give us enough of an emotional boost to keep going through our tasks and caregiving responsibilities. 
  • Name that time. When we lovingly call it “Mama/Dad time” as different from “kiddo time” we are conveying the same positive and necessary attributes. Attributes such as undivided attention, fun, relaxation, and having a say in the activity chosen. This helps our children relate. 
  • Create a master to-do list, but then select only the three to four most urgent things to do off that list. Staring down the full master list of things that need to be done in various areas of our lives is enough to make even the most motivated person feel weak at the knees. Tackling it in smaller chunks keeps our energy up, and allows us to create space for self-care, relaxation, and the joy of simply completing the day’s tasks. When we decide to commit to a few things on the list each day, we are trusting ourselves that we will get those things done. Additionally, once we have completed those tasks, we can give ourselves space to simply be, whether that means curling up to read a book while the kids are reading, snuggling with our child or pet, or going for a run. 
  • Commit to asking yourself a few times each day,“What am I feeling right now? What do I need right now?” Then, give yourself that thing that you have defined as “needed.” This “need” could be a long-postponed bathroom break, a few moments outside to breathe in some fresh air, a drink of water, a snack, a break from outside stimulation, or a brief chat or text exchange with a loved one. Typically, we think of self-care as that thing we do when everything else is done, when life can momentarily be paused. But, when we infuse our day with opportunities to regain calm and focus, returning to center ourselves through becoming conscious of our breathing, we are maintaining more internal awareness of our needs and we are keeping the self-care deficit from building up too acutely. In this way, when we finally reach that hour that is ours alone, we can use it more effectively and actually feel a difference in our mood once that window of time draws to a close.

A: What kind of message does it send to our children when they witness us putting ourselves sometimes first before helping them or tending to them?

V: I believe that the phrase, “We teach the world how to treat us,” is particularly relevant here. When we, as parents, grandparents, and other loving caregivers take time to listen to, and meet our own needs, even if it means delaying meeting our little ones’ needs, we are teaching our little ones, as well as those parenting alongside us, that we are important enough to deserve breaks for self-care. In doing so, we give our children some rich life lessons:

  • We share that we are human and have needs that must be met, just as our children do. Typically, the younger our children, the more they believe us to be extensions of themselves. As such, it can be challenging but very necessary to develop the awareness that they will not perish if their non-urgent needs are not immediately met. There are times where our humanity demands a more urgent response, and we must therefore tend to ourselves first. As we do this in a loving way, this lesson is learned over time. Alongside this lesson comes the ability for our children to learn patience and learn to delay gratification. We show that while, most of the time, we put their needs before ours, on the occasions when we simply cannot put their non-urgent needs first, nothing is lost, there is nothing to fear. Their needs will still be met in good time, with greater attention, and patience.
  • We show our children that when everyone in the family can share the available resources of time, energy, food, love and compassion, the whole family functions at a more optimal level. Conversely, if we continue to meet our children’s needs until we are depleted. We become short-tempered, easily irritated, edgy and not nearly as loving and patient as we, and they, would like.
  • We model what it means to listen to our bodies and pay attention to our hearts and our inner wisdom. In this way, our children can learn to do the same. We are indirectly teaching them that despite the pulls of our environment, when we get an overwhelming message from inside ourselves such as, “Oh I simply must take a bathroom break,” or, “I need a break from this noise,” we help ourselves feel better by taking actions that resolve the negative sensation in that moment.

A: What do you think is the most important thing to get out of our self-care practices or mini-breaks?

V: I believe there are a few concepts for us to consider to get the most benefit from our self-care practices:

  • Understanding that we are not being selfish or self-indulgent when we take care of ourselves. This transforms our self-care practices into something truly positive, affirming and beneficial. If we consider that, before children, we may have slept in ’til eleven, or visited with friends on a Friday night, or gone for a run most days of the week, and in doing so, we felt healthy, we can also acknowledge that the addition of children hasn’t made those healthy practices all of a sudden obsolete. We haven’t stopped needing self-care because we brought children into the world. In fact, we need it even more because so much of our time, our energy, and the space in our brains and in our hearts is taken up by these wonderful beings.
  • If we do not take time for ourselves, we find, before too long, that we react poorly in our interactions with others. We feel physically and emotionally overwhelmed, and worst of all, we find that we do not enjoy parenting. That seems like an awful shame given the energy we give to this incredibly important role. We can regain our parental enjoyment when we tend to ourselves as we tend to our children. 
  • Self-care works best when it contains both expressive and receptive components. Expressive components include those things we create or do ourselves, whether it is writing creatively, journaling, painting, drawing, engaging in crafts, playing a musical instrument, cooking a favorite recipe, or tending to a garden. In these activities, we are expressing our hearts’ message, putting a piece of ourselves out into the world, on our own terms, and in our own way. There is an inimitable satisfaction in this act that can be deeply fulfilling. Receptive components would include reading a book, listening to music, watching a favorite show or going to a movie, anything where you might be benefitting from receiving another’s creative expression. Creating balance in these two components as much as possible can enrich our self-care practices.
  • With either component of self-care, expressive or receptive, it is ideal to achieve a fully immersive state. Especially with the expressive component, engaging in an activity which engages your heart, mind, body and spirit in such a way that your focus is singular and you are entirely captivated, is the ultimate experience of self-care.
  • As we discover how we like to spend our self-care time, we find clues to what might be most fulfilling to us when we look back to the dreams we had before we inhabited our many roles of parent, partner, earner and the like. What did we dream of doing? Can we tap into those dreams in some small way to return to a carefree state that is free of roles, if only for an hour or two? This might involve taking a class in an area that used to fascinate us, even though that fascination has been long-buried under more immediate demands of parenting and partnership. 
  • We will benefit immensely from our self care practices when we choose to spend them in such a way that pulls us away from our logical thinking brain and towards a connection with our physical bodies. Feeling our hearts beating, or the rise and fall of our chest when we breathe or sit to meditate, the way our feet feel firmly planted on the earth– all of these physical sesnations are very grounding and centering. Taking up a meditation practice to focus on our here-and-now can infuse our bodies with calm and wellbeing in a way that is rarely accessible in other practices. There are many meditation apps such as Insight Timer that can be used as effective and helpful ways to begin a meditation practice. Here, Ravi Mishra describes self-care as the practice of re-embodying.
  • Using our self-care time to fully feel our feelings rather than distracting from them through self-soothing, especially during times of high stress, is a truly effective use of that time. Typically the feelings we do not allow ourselves to fully experience and/or process will reveal themselves in other less helpful ways such as irritability, snapping at others, and feeling dissatisfied with life. Sitting with any unsettled feelings, accepting them, breathing through them, writing them out, or sharing them with a loved one, can help these feelings be heard so that they no longer hold power over us.
  • We benefit immensely when we allow the release of cleansing tears or anger to the surface and keep self-judgement at bay. After such an emotional practice, we may find ourselves feeling rather raw, so a sensory self-care practice would be an ideal way to bring ourselves back together towards feeling whole and strong. A sensory self-care practice begins by identifying those things that soothe each of our five senses. This could be written in a list or perhaps in a visual collage form– for me, things that are soothing to my senses are: the smell of freshly cut grass, the sound of rain, the feel and sound of the dirt path under my feet while hiking, the feel of a warm shower, the taste of sweet, spicy chai, and the sight of a verdant green landscape. Once we identify those sensory soothers for ourselves, the next step is to seek out one of these experiences either in reality or through visualization. This allows us to benefit from the soothing our favorite sensory moments offer. 

A: This is a question that is tangentially related to our discussion around self-care. It has to do with“task dynamics,” how household chores are divided up within the family. Kids are really observant, do you think they internalize the “task dynamics” they see play out on a daily basis? 

V: Kids truly are observant, and they tend to know just the parent or caregiver to go to for meeting a specific need. This tends to put undue responsibility and weight on the shoulders of that person. When parents have specific roles and responsibilities within a family, and there is little cross-over, the children in that family will also learn these roles well and seek out the parent they have observed doing the specific task. Usually this tends to fall on the parent who is home the most, with whom the child has the most contact, and with whom the child feels the closest emotional bond, regardless of gender. There is a concept called the “default parent.” 

If we are not the so-called “default parent” we can certainly bring about a shift in our child’s perception, thereby alleviating the burdens placed on the “default parent,” by demonstrating repeatedly, our willingness and ability to complete tasks and offer support outside of our typical comfort zone. This might look like lovingly and gently cleaning and sealing a wound with Band-Aids and kisses, or becoming a pro at the bedtime routine, or offering up a self-deprecating story about an embarrassing memory from school so your child feels comfortable sharing with you instead of always going to the “default parent.”

This also helps bring more space into the family dynamic and, in turn, allows all the loving caregivers involved to be less acutely in the hot spot. This gives more possibility to establishing the ever-important self-care routines.

A: What motivation can we use as parents and caregivers to keep up our self-care at the same pace as the rest of our lives? How do we keep from falling off the wagon?

V: Our self-care practice is an integral part of our emotional health and wellbeing as parents and caregivers. When we neglect it, we neglect ourselves in ways that become very noticeable and persistent. Ensuring adequate time to engage in regular, intentional self-care is one gift we can give ourselves every day, even if this means a thorough re-examination of how we are spending our days, actively alleviating ourselves of unnecessary commitments and expectations. How we make peace with this as our schedules are filled to the brim with work commitments, our kids’ school and sports commitments and other calls on our time and energy is by realizing that without our self-care practices, we will not be able to give over our best efforts to any of these tasks, and especially not to our most heart-centered task of parenting our children. We can use any of a series of mantras to motivate ourselves to keep our self-care game strong and consistent such as:

“I replenish myself to replenish my child.”

“I am the emotional heart of this family.”

“My child learns what she lives; if I care for myself, she too will care for herself.”

“I cannot care for my family well if I feel depleted.”

“I am worthy of my own care and attention.”

A: Okay! Now that we just have to “walk the walk” to benefit from our talk! As always, thank you Vinay for taking the time to share your insights with us.


Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!

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