“Time for self-care? In my life? Are you kidding me? Yeah, that would be nice. And it’s not happening.”
Sometimes, when I hear sentiments like these from parents or caregivers I work with, those words are followed by sarcastic laughter.
Clear annoyance they don’t even attempt to hide.
And I get it.
Believe me, I do.
The parents I work with all have children with challenging behaviors that stem from brain differences of one kind or another. I have the privilege of hearing their stories, and the daily impact of this unique and often trying parenting experience on their sense of self-worth and well-being. Parents are overwhelmed from all of the stress that this parenting experience brings. The uncertainty. The predictable chaos. The phone calls from school asking them to come pick up their child early. Again. They are exhausted from the continuous battles with the insurance companies or the medical systems to receive the therapy and care their child desperately needs.
They are constantly swimming in strong emotions, trying to manage the shame and embarrassment they might feel when their child is having a difficult time, accompanied by the judgmental Why can’t you control your child? look from complete strangers. They often feel on the verge of tears, due to a lingering sadness and frustration that they are STILL working to help build understanding of their child with extended family who continue to see the out-of-control behavior as willful and defiant, instead of a symptom of something deeper, something more fraught and complicated and serious.
I actually do understand all of it, intimately.
I live it.
And that’s why, on occasion, I gently bring the conversation with these parents back to self-care, stressing its importance, not only for their own well-being, but for that of their child and the wider family. The impact of caregiver trauma on our emotional, spiritual and physical health has serious consequences if not taken seriously. But how do you find more time when you can’t even imagine having a moment to yourself with everything on your plate?
You begin by taking a critical look at that plate, and prioritizing. You treat your energy and time as the precious commodities they are, and spend them more wisely. You allow yourself to be vulnerable and seek support when and where you can. And you write all of this down, coming back to this plan and this promise to yourself, over and over again. You share it with others for accountability.
And because your time is a precious commodity, we shouldn't waste any of it.
So, let’s get started.
Start by taking a blank piece of paper and dividing into four quadrants. At the top of each quadrant, write one of the following titles: (1) Urgent and Important, (2) Non-Urgent and Important, (3) Urgent and Not Important, (4) Non-Urgent and Not Important. After this is done, take some time to reflect on each category using the prompting questions below. Write down your ideas. This is the beginning of you finding more time for yourself and developing a self-care plan that will prioritize you and your well-being.
URGENT & IMPORTANT
These are things that you personally need to be the one to take care of, and these tasks need to get done immediately.
They are things you’ve been putting off (maybe even dreading), either because you know they will be uncomfortable or because you feel slightly guilty about taking the time for yourself. Examples of this could be scheduling your own medical or mental health appointments that are long overdue. It could be meeting with your financial advisor. These tasks are the “get your ducks in a row and life in order” tasks that need to be done and should not be delayed any longer.
NOT-URGENT & IMPORTANT
These are things that you personally need to do, but that aren’t as time-sensitive.
It’s not critical if you don’t complete these “to-dos” more immediately, but they could become critical if you ignore them for too long. These are the things you need to be doing more of, but that you put off because you put the needs of others ahead of your own. Examples include committing to an exercise routine, nurturing friendships and making time for hobbies and activities that “fill your bucket” (because, please remember, if it renews your energy, it is not a luxury, it is a necessary part of our time management and self-care plan).
URGENT & NOT-IMPORTANT
These are things that need to get done, but that you don’t personally need to do. This is where you get to practice DELEGATING.
This is a tough one for many of us. It is not easy to ask for help and to hand over control of something that you’ve been taking care of (and perfectly, no less!) for a long time. It can be difficult to watch someone else struggle to learn to do something that comes naturally to you. It doesn’t mean it should not be delegated. Everyone needs time to get up-to-speed with new tasks, and so why would this be different?
Examples of this include tasks that our children can really be doing for themselves. As parents we have this way of taking on a task for our child and then it becomes automatic and routine and before we know it, they’ve gotten older (chronologically or developmentally) and we’ve never reassessed to ask the question, “do they NEED me to do this for them any longer?” It is a wonderful opportunity to support them in growing their skills and moving towards more independence to shift these tasks off your plate and lovingly put the task on theirs.
These are also things that it would be easier for a professional to do. If you have the means to hire out tasks that add a lot to your plate, please prioritize yourself and your precious time by hiring someone to do them for you. There is no shame in having a house cleaner come once a month or a landscaper to mow the lawn or blow the leaves. Does your local grocery store have online grocery store ordering? Consider taking advantage of this service. Delegating by hiring it out when you are able is a great way to practice self-care and reduce your load.
And please consider adding to this list things that a spouse or partner can do. Are there things that you’ve always done, but that your spouse or partner is able to do instead? Examples such as attend IEP meetings and children’s doctor/dentist appointments? If it’s always been on your plate to prepare meals, manage the budgeting or paying bills, certain household tasks, or doing the bedtime routine, maybe it is time — with loving intentionality — to revisit what can be divided up or moved off your plate completely. It is normal to fall into a routine of who-does-what and not revisit it again for years…or maybe even ever. It’s much more likely to transition toward a better place of balance (if that’s needed) if you begin a conversation about these tasks and how you can work together to manage them. It probably won’t ever change if you never say anything.
And finally, who in your support network have you thought of asking for help, but just never have? What is stopping you? Who are the “do-ers” in your life that, if only they knew exactly what you needed, they’d jump in to help? This could be picking your child up from school once per week to give you an extra hour in your day. It could be them cooking you a meal once per month, maybe after a recurring medical appointment that you know always drains you and leaves you completely depleted. We can’t assume people know exactly what we need without being concrete and telling them. Often, people desperately want to help, but just need to know how.
NOT-URGENT & NOT-IMPORTANT
These are the things that it’s not important that you personally do, and it’s actually not important if anyone does them. It is valuing yourself enough to set healthy boundaries and move things off your plate that don’t renew your energy. It’s about letting go of what exhausts you, and inviting more of what invigorates you into your life.
One example of this is toxic friendships. This may be a friendship where you have a shared history, leaving you feeling obligated to continue with the relationship. It may be friendships that take, take, take…but never give in return. It’s a friendship where the friend’s happiness relies on you in a way that is not only unrealistic to sustain, but also unhealthy.
This category also includes what I refer to as time wasters. How much time would you have back if you eliminated certain social media apps from your phone to help you contain how much you use them? Or what would happen if you set a timer for yourself and stuck to that time-limit? You would likely enjoy the experience more and would also find yourself with some additional time and mental energy to do something related to self-care.
In this category, you should also be taking a critical look at volunteer obligations that are no longer in-line with your values (or where more time is spent arguing or debating than being of actual service). There is nothing wrong with saying no to these types of commitments.
And finally, taking a look at social and recreational activities that your children or family are involved in that no longer bring your child or your family joy. Feel empowered to politely discontinue involvement in these activities and groups — your time and energy is too precious to do otherwise.
Taking the Next Step Toward Self Care
So, what’s it going to be?
What changes are you going to make to put this plan into action today, and then next week, and then over the course of the next month?
Who are you going to share this plan with, to establish accountability?
Caregiver burnout and compassion fatigue that comes with the constant care of a child with extraordinary needs WILL take its toll in serious ways over time if not managed and counteracted with intentional self-care practices. The good news is that we can do things to change that course. Each of us does contain the capacity to build resilience one small step at a time. The hard news is that no one is going to do it for us, it depends on us taking that first step and then the next and the next.
Choosing yourself doesn’t mean you’re not choosing your child, or that you’re placing your needs in front of your child’s. It means that you’re prioritizing your health so that you can manage your child’s care and challenges in a much healthier and more sustainable way.
Choose yourself first, today.
Interested in learning more about how to identify the brain tasks your child has difficulty with or about the work Eileen does with parents and parenting with a neurobehavioral approach? Visit fasdnorthwest.com and reach out to her directly. She’d love to hear from you.
Eileen Devine, LCSW works in Portland, OR as a therapist supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, FASD Northwest, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit fasdnorthwest.com.