By Amanda Palmer
Being a single parent is not exactly what I had envisaged when I had my children. Fundamental incompatibility led to the breakdown of the relationship, and we made the difficult but right decision to separate. My children were seven and four. As we all know being a parent can be hard work …. being a single parent more so. It can be lonely and exhausting, and the knowledge that you have full responsibility for your children can often feel overwhelming.
The Rapidly Refilling Cup
My youngest child has a disability, so my official meaty label is that of a ‘single parent carer’. Six years of flying solo, and I can honestly say it has been a rollercoaster of a journey. I have learnt a great deal about myself and my children; about what works and does not work in my life, and most importantly, I have learnt about stress, anxiety, exhaustion, overwhelm, and how to ensure continued good mental well-being. I have had to. My cup is always full and whilst I may manage to occasionally decant and prevent overflow. It is rapidly refilled.
The antidote for such stress, anxiety and overwhelm in my life is undoubtedly self-care. When I first began solo parenting, self-care wasn’t the concept it is now. Of course, practical advice and strategies about looking after oneself, physically and emotionally did exist, but the notion of self-care as a regular practice for emotional well-being was not as mainstream. Slowly but surely it has emerged, weaving itself into the fabric of cultural norms.
The current climate has propelled self-care and mental well-being onto centre stage. The spotlight being on how important it is to give equal priority to ‘wellness’ in our lives. So, what exactly is self-care? Why is it important? And how can single parents implement a realistic practice that is workable, sustainable and effective?
What Actually is Self-Care?
Type self-care into Instagram or the internet and you’ll get a plethora of choices – overwhelming (ironically) when deciding how to dive into it. The World Health Organisation defines it as ‘the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.’ But what does that actually mean?
To my mind, self-care is regularly undertaking activities that promote good mental and emotional well-being to help sustain us, in order that we can better cope with daily life and navigate the more challenging moments. I view self-care as anything that lifts flagging spirits, incorporates predominantly healthy lifestyle choices and offers an opportunity for rest and relaxation and a bit of escapism from the mundane day to day grind. In short, indulging in me.
Why Bother With Self-Care?
Life is busy and carving out time to ‘do’ self-care can seem like a luxury for parents, especially single parents when there is no tag team and no-one to point out the need to stop and have a break. A debilitating illness three years ago kept me bedbound for days and forced me to take stock. What emerged was a recognition that I needed to give myself permission to allow my needs equal priority. Nowadays my self-care practices have become sacrosanct. I recognise that it benefits me both physically and emotionally and allows me to show-up for my children, myself and my life far more successfully.
Allowing yourself moments of time, headspace and relaxation (however small) not only promotes good mental wellbeing but also brings physical benefits such as slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, reducing levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body, reducing muscle tension and possibly pain and so on. A win win.
This article outlines powerful research evidence in favour of prioritising self-care.
Action and Inaction
Having an awareness of what constitutes self-care by definition is helpful but possessing an understanding of your own individual needs and how they can be met by you, will be more so. Trying to follow a complicated routine is unrealistic, especially for single parents who have limited time and energy. Far better to cultivate something simple that resonates and makes a positive difference to your life overall.
My self-care has evolved and changed over the years. It is flexible and all about giving myself permission. There are some things that have been scientifically measured to have a positive impact on overall health which are worth considering as a starting point.
Exercise and Movement
…is always good, whatever that looks like. It raises serotonin levels, is good for heart-health and keeps spirits high. Whether I do an exercise class or just go for a walk or bike ride depends on time and energy levels. Free or low-cost online classes these days makes it accessible. Creating a realistic routine helps maintain the habit even if it’s not daily.
Spending Time in Nature
…be it walking, having a picnic, coffee on a bench, cold water swimming, (I’ll stick to my Wim Hof shower thanks!) gardening or reading outside – the possibilities are endless. Self-care you can do alone, with friends or kids and everyone’s a winner. I always feel better for it.
Rest and Sleep
This is a big one for me. Rest is radical but essential for busy single parents. Having a child with a diagnosed chronic sleep disorder has left me utterly sleep deprived for 9 years. Finding a way to claw back those precious lost hours has been vital to my staying well. I take a disco-nap when I can and refuse to feel guilty about it. I also discovered Yoga Nidra – one of the best meditation practices for me (day or night) – mainly because it can be done lying down and it doesn’t really matter if you fall asleep! Being a guided practice it’s helpful for insomnia and anxiety as it steers the mind away from worrying thoughts and there is a plethora of decent free online content.
Asking for help
… when you need it can be incredibly difficult. Whether you are asking a friend and need to practically or emotionally offload, or you need to speak to your GP about professional help. There is no shame in admitting you are finding things hard and asking for support. Always ensure you are offloading to someone you trust and who can provide a safe space for you.
Other Self-Care Ideas
Other ideas include:
- simplifying your life;
- saying no to things that don’t work for you;
- starting a meditation or simple breathwork routine;
- healthy and creative escapism – reading, singing, dancing, drawing, cooking, creating something; connecting and socialising with supportive people or just lying on the sofa and watching telly.
- Learning about self-care ideas in specific life domains in this article.
- Listening to the podcast Self-Care With The Mindful Tech Lab (ten minute episodes filled with self-care ideas).
- Checking out the Insight Timer app for lots of free meditations and talks.
- Using an app such as Nourish (highly recommended) to structure your self-care.
These suggestions are not exhaustive, and you can access a raft of information via the web. There are also many online offerings to attend low-cost or free webinars on self-care and mental and emotional wellness. Some are provided by local authorities and community organisations.
The trick is to find what works best for you in the time you have available and keep it simple. A cup of tea in bed, without children circling, feels amazing at times. In a nutshell, self-care is whatever soothes you, and in my house, much like my children’s daily dose of reading, it is non-negotiable!
Amanda Palmer is a freelance writer and copy editor.