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Being a Caretaker, for Yourself

Many realizations happen in one’s life due to life altering experiences. My realization occurred after my daughter was birthed into the world. My daughter had a challenging entry into the world. She suffered from meconium aspiration (inhaling her feces during birth) and had to spend the first 8 days of her new life in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU). Luckily she healed quickly and fully. We were relieved she was healthy and relieved to finally be at home; those 8 days felt like 8 years. We didn’t anticipate the following weeks and months to be another set of challenges. Our daughter was colicky for 6 months, which meant she hardly slept and she cried ALL THE TIME.

My daughter’s challenges at birth, the NICU stay and 6 months without sleep and a constant crying baby brought me to my knees. My husband was very concerned and suggested I get “help”, and by “help” he literally meant that we hire someone to help with the baby. I felt very guilty at the thought of hiring help since I was staying at home to care for our newborn. Yet I knew I needed a break before I reached my own breaking point. I would say this was one of the few times in my life I became completely vulnerable and allowed help in my life. It would be easy to say that my first step to self-care was due to the series of events around my daughter’s birth. But let’s be honest, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. My self-care had been quietly tiptoeing out of my life because of constant low-level stress for years. And I know I am not the only one. This constant stress is like a perfume you wear every day; you may not smell it anymore but everyone else can, and it stinks.

What are we doing to cause all this stress? We rush to work, overbook our schedule, over-book our children’s schedule (which therefore overbooks our schedule even more), we don’t exercise because we are too busy, are in jobs and careers without passion or purpose, engage in relationships without passion or purpose, eat out instead of cooking all those veggies going bad in the fridge…I could do this all day people. And this becomes our normal everyday lives. We have accepted that this is just how life is. Well folks, I am over it and maybe you are too.

There is real concern over this dizzying pace of life because it is causing health issues. The American Psychological Association says that stress is linked to the top six causes of death; heart disease, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, lung disease, accidents and suicide. Yup, staying in that uninspiring career could increase your chances of getting cancer.

How do you decrease stress and begin to be a caretaker for yourself? Well, what we are talking about here is behavior change. And when changing a behavior it’s important to identify the problem and come up with ways to slowly and sustainably make changes.

In regards to aftermath of my daughter’s birth, the suggestion to hire someone to help with our baby brought up a much larger conversation. This conversation completely shifted how I make priorities in my life. The conversation revolved around what I needed to be happy, healthy and balanced (in addition to spending time with my baby). I teased out 5 elements: Exercise (yoga, running, hiking, skiing etc.), Nutrition (plant based lifestyle, cooking from scratch, gardening, etc.), time to myself (to relax, read, meditate etc.) purpose (creative projects, working on my passions, etc.) time with other adults/friends/hubby (laugh, commiserate, stimulating conversation, etc.). These 5 elements have become a compass for me. If life is getting sticky and I am getting off track (emotionally, physically, spiritually) I can reflect on my 5 elements and I know that I am neglecting 1, 2 or even all 5 of my elements.

I would recommend taking some time to think about the following questions and then writing down your answers or having a conversation with a loved one to allow yourself to get clear about your needs. If you were to take the model of refining what you need in life to be happy, healthy and balanced, what would be your 5 elements? Do you have less or more elements? Is there an element you need daily? How can you make that happen? Let’s use alone time as an example; it could be a long bath, or reading a book after everyone has gone to bed. What elements do you need weekly? How can you make that happen? Let’s use exercise as an example; waking up earlier to work out or finding a gym that offers childcare so you exercise on the days you have the kids. What element do you need monthly? Lets use adult time as an example; schedule a monthly date night or lunch with a friend. Incorporating the elements into real life does not have to be elaborate or complicated.

What I found to be most impactful was identifying what I need and to share that with my husband. He now knows what I need and is supportive of making it happen. He wants his wife to be happy and healthy too! And the execution of making these elements happen is not perfect. I meditate most days and miss some when I travel. One month I may have 2 date nights with my husband and the next month none. It’s not about nailing it 100%, that would be another stress.

Before I gave birth, I assumed the only priority in parenting was to take care of my daughter. That was the model that I grew up with and the only model I knew. Once I became a parent, and experienced parenting, I learned that taking care of my daughter is a priority right along with taking care of myself.

Some may view this as being “selfish”. Well I like to rephrase it as being “self-loving”. So get out there and be self-loving; take that yoga class you haven’t been to in months, go for a walk with friends after dinner or even treat yourself to a hot cup of tea at the local coffee shop while reading a book all by yourself. You and your loved ones will thank you for being a great caretaker, for yourself.

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