I've been thinking about this topic so much, that I've decided to write a series on it. This week's posts will be dedicated exclusively to the subject of self-care.
Before I get into some of the particulars of self-care, it's probably worth discussing exactly why it is so important. I know a lot of parents who give and give and give to their children, and they end up exhausting themselves and having nothing left. Even though they might agree that their living situation isn't really comfortable, livable or sustainable, they keep doing it because they feel they must. They feel that it's unreasonably selfish to meet their own needs first, because their children's needs are more important.
I disagree. Although taking care of one's children is important, taking care of yourself first is more important.
It boils down to one important fact:
If you are too exhausted, too stressed out, and too burned out to function decently, you aren't going to be able to do a decent job of meeting your children's needs.
If you are parenting a special-needs child, taking care of yourself is even more important, because you can't give what you don't have.
When you ride on an airplane, the flight attendant will always give you the same instructions:
In the event of cabin depressurization, oxygen masks will pop out of the ceiling. Put your own mask on first before assisting others.
Put your own mask on first. That's an important analogy for living life with special needs kids. If you are taking good care of yourself -- eating right, sleeping enough, getting exercise, and taking time to meet your own needs -- you'll have much more physical and emotional energy to do the things your child needs. If you are taking care of yourself, you'll have the ability to also meet the needs of everyone else who relies on you, including your spouse, employer, extended family and other children.
Take care of yourself first. You are the only you that you have. If you destroy yourself in the process of taking care of everyone else, eventually you will find yourself in the position of not being able to take care of them either.
Although there are folks out there in the world who will tell you otherwise, there really is no glory in martyrdom. This is especially true with some of our more damaged special-needs kids, because what we do might not make a long-term difference. For some children, prenatal exposure to alcohol and drugs, a familial history of mental illness or intellectual disability, or the weight of abuse and neglect that they received during their most crucial formative years, will forever alter the course of their lives. What we do might not make a long-term difference in their adulthood. Even with the best parenting, some of these children aren't going to do well.
So we have to do all that we can to help them, but we need to take care of ourselves so that we can.
Because the reality is, at least for the majority of parents who are caring for special-needs children, that these kids will eventually leave. Some kids may end up blowing up and ending up in residential treatment centers or jail, while others will navigate the tumultuous waters of adolescence and move out when they reach the age of majority.
So, with few exceptions, those kids are going to leave, and we parents will still have to live what's left of our lives.
If we've neglected our emotional, physical and spiritual health, we've not only shortchanged our children, but we've also created lasting health and emotional consequences for ourselves.
So we must, no matter how difficult or unreasonable it seems, find a way to carve out a space for self-care.