Another sort of self care

Self care is a topic that’s often dismissed – whether it’s gently mocked as ‘ladies who lunch’, all about getting massages and painting your nails, or whether it’s a simple belief that “I don’t have time for that”. I used to be one of those people – I thought self care was a nice idea, but I couldn’t see how I could fit it in to my life. I’ve written about self care quite extensively in my book, as learning to look after myself as well as Tickle was the single biggest thing that turned our adoption around from being on the verge of disruption to the relatively ’normal’ family life that we have today.

Self care is coming a bit more to the forefront of the adoption narrative now, but when we were going through approval and matching I’m not even sure if it was mentioned, and certainly not by a social worker. Even now there are parents and professionals who will shrug it off, file it under ‘nice if you can manage it’, and at best will think no more of it. At worst they might actively dismiss it.

It would be a bit pointless me hashing over the book chapter again in a blog post, so today I’m going to focus on one aspect of self care that isn’t really part of the narrative at the moment. It’s not a straightforward thing to describe in one word, but I’ve come up with a name that I’m just going to go with until someone else thinks of a better one. I’m calling it Selfish Care. (Maybe I’ll even start a hashtag.)

Selfish Care is the absolute antithesis of therapeutic parenting. (I know, bear with me…)

Selfish Care is making a decision that is entirely in your best interest, not your child’s.

You probably think I’ve gone bonkers at this point, so let me elaborate. I am totally, 100% in favour of therapeutic parenting. Our children have many and complex needs, and absolutely need and deserve to have those needs met in a calm and therapeutic way. However. We parents are not robots, we are human beings, and we also have needs, and we have feelings, and emotions, and that is all perfectly acceptable.

I see a lot of adoptive parents on Twitter who are absolutely worn down to the bone trying to meet their children’s needs. Occasionally, these parents will confess to a ’slip up’, or how they have done or said something ‘untherapeutic’ to their child, and will then proceed to beat themselves up about it for hours, days, or weeks afterwards. My heart breaks for them, for all of us, because we as adoptive parents are holding ourselves to an impossibly high standard, and then feeling like failures when we can’t meet it 100% of the time.

So this is my suggestion. We accept that we can’t be perfect 100% of the time, yes? And we accept that we will not be physically capable of meeting our children’s needs if we are completely worn out, yes? So let’s make a positive and loving decision that sometimes it is absolutely OK to put our own needs as equal to our child’s. This is the essence of Selfish Care.

I can’t tell you how much of a game-changer this has been for me. Both in terms of my own wellbeing, but also my relationship with Tickle. He has come to realise over time that I am a human being, with needs and emotions just like him. And in fact, by taking steps to manage my own needs in this way, I am actually modelling for him everything that we are trying to teach him about managing his own needs. Double whammy! ‘But hang on a minute’ you might say. ‘What about attachment! Won’t the quality of your relationship diminish because of this?’ No! If anything, I think it’s got stronger. That’s backed up by the science; psychologists have found that the best predictor of attachment relationship is not how well the parent meets the child’s needs all the time, but by the parent’s ability to repair the relationship when it breaks down. (Slap on the wrist for me because I can’t remember where I read that so can’t quote my source!)

What that means in practice, is if you have Person A, who is a perfect parent, and meets every single need their child displays in a timely and therapeutic manner, and Person B, who is a good and loving parent who occasionally yells at their child, but they always have a cuddle and make up afterwards, then science would predict that the child of Person B would have a better quality of attachment to their parent than Person A. 

That’s pretty cool, right? Not only do we not have to be perfect, but it’s actually better in the long run not to be! As long as you always repair any rupture in the relationship, then you will be fine.

So. Now I’ve (hopefully) convinced you, let me explain how this works.

Selfish Care does NOT mean you are selfish all the time.
Selfish Care does NOT mean that you’re not trying your best to be a therapeutic parent.
Selfish Care DOES mean that the moments when you are not therapeutic are handled in a safe and loving way, rather than as the result of a massive mummy meltdown.

I’m not talking about walking away from your child when they’re in distress, or deliberately neglecting them, I’m talking about valuing yourself as a person and allowing yourself to occasionally make a parenting decision that preserves your sanity, if and when it is safe to do so, and on the understanding that you spend some time with your child afterwards to repair.

Here is my quick-start guide to Selfish Care:

1) When a situation arises, notice how you are feeling. Do you feel capable of handling this in a loving and therapeutic way right now? If yes, then great! Continue being the fantastic parent that you are. If no, then that’s also great! Congratulations for noticing! Go to step 2.

2) What do you need in this moment? And what needs to happen in order for you to get what you need? Can you ask someone to come and take over with your child? Can you make sure they are safe enough for you to step away? It’s OK if it takes a while to work this out initially, understandably your child may resist you trying to pull away when they need you. Can you find a compromise? Could they be in their room with you just outside the door? Could you be sat together on the sofa but they are watching TV and you close your eyes for a minute? Accept that this will most likely not be a perfect moment of calm, and try to find a way to make it enough for now.

3) Breathe. In whatever moment you have managed to carve out, perfect or not, take some time to breathe.

4) When you feel ready, re-engage with the situation, and with your child. Sometimes you may only need a moment, other times you might need to wait until things have naturally calmed down. The first time I did this with Tickle I wasn’t ready to go back to him until he had completely calmed down and stopped throwing things. It’s absolutely OK if it needs to take that long.

5) Repair. This is essential, and this is why step 4 says ‘when you feel ready’. Repair is when you reconnect with your child, remind them that you love them, and accept them as a person, even if you don’t accept their behaviour. If you try to do this before you’re ready it won’t work – it needs to come from a place of love and sincerity. Have a cuddle, make them a snack, do a puzzle together. Whatever works for you And your child.

Giving myself permission to step away from Tickle occasionally has been a complete revelation. As parents it’s absolutely right that our children’s needs come first for the majority of the time, but that doesn’t mean that our needs come nowhere. You – yes you! – are an excellent human being and you deserve to have your needs met, just as much as your child deserves to have theirs met.

Here is my challenge to you: When you feel your parenting muscles starting to strain, don’t wait until you lose it and yell uncontrollably at your child. Notice when you need a break, and take one. Seek out those moments in which you can be safely, and lovingly untherapeutic, and embrace them! Give yourself permission to make a decision that benefits you, and recognise that for the loving act of self care that it is. 

(You can still book a massage though, if that’s your thing!)