Forget Self-Care, Try Self-Parenting

Truth is, when left to my own devices, I tend to go off-the-charts feral. 

My sleep schedule becomes erratic (or non-existent), my screen time skyrockets, my meals become… well, odd (read: leftover Pad Thai and stale Lorna Doone cookies for breakfast).

Long story short, I am the oldest of 6 kids, and growing up there was always always something to be done for someone else. If a meal was being made, it was for at least 4+ people. If laundry was being done, chances are it wasn’t just for one person’s clothes. I think this way of growing up lent itself to living with others beautifully, helping out and working in a group- but honestly it can leave you in a bit of a weird space when you find yourself… by yourself.

My usual strategy for breaking out of unhealthy patterns (cookies for breakfast and staying up til 4:00am watching The Crown) is usually by inviting a friend over so that I’m forced to change out of my sweats (in which I have been living) and move the collection of bras from the back of my couch to the back of my closet.

However, since moving half-way across the country a few months ago during these *uNpReCeDeNtEd TiMeS* my self-care choices have plummeted hard, along with my social engagements.

Anyway, I digress.

A few weeks ago, on a Zoom call with a friend (since life has been basically relegated to those, these days) we started talking about the fantasy of self-care, and my constant desire to be better about how I treat myself. She started describing a new approach she’s taking; she thinks of it more as “self-parenting” rather than “self-care.” I chuckled at her initially, but then realized she was actually on to something.

“It’s all about your mentality when you have to do adult stuff for yourself,” she explained. “My self-parenting persona is like a Cool Single Dad. He cleans the sheets and stocks up on food on Wednesday so he can hang out and play video games with the kids all weekend. Cool Single Dad would keep a box of granola bars by the door so the kids don’t go hungry. But, the family is all me: I’m the dad and the kids.”

I think she was half-kidding, but I was totally taken by the notion:

I loved the idea of self-care as self-parenting.

Maybe I needed to embrace that way of thinking, too. Truth is, I find it easier to take care of others than it is to take care of myself. Especially when it comes to the nitty-gritty business of caregiving.

As much as I try to take care of myself in a loving way- to set up My Future Self for success- if I’m being honest, most of my self-care strategies end up feeling pretty adversarial- like I’m just trying to trick my future self into making good decisions.

Sometimes I succeed, like when I make extra chili and freeze it for a dinner down the road. And sometimes I fail hard, like every time I say: “I’ll get up early and finish this assignment in the morning.” (This has ~never~ worked. Not even once.)

So it got me thinking; what if instead of casting myself in the role of Permanently Failing Adult, I could think of myself more as a kind, responsible parent to my own inner child?

Berating myself for skills that I simply don’t possess, not giving my body the proper fuel it needs, and not giving myself enough time to complete a project… these things don’t make for a good dose of self-parenting.

A good self-parent would have a dope playlist ready for when her inner child feels panicky and stressed. She would stash some healthy(ish) meals in the freezer for when her inner child gets hungry or forgets to pack a lunch. She might even monitor how long screen time is being consumed to help say no to the just-one-more-episode trap. (Or maybe that’s one of those things I should just chalk up to a “self parenting fail”…)

In other words, I’m trying to making it a priority to have more compassion for myself in cases of my adult failings, like forgotten produce rotten in the fridge, late credit-card payments, or procrastination on a job application.

Doing a friend’s dishes feels like a gift I get to happily bestow, whereas doing my own dishes like feels just another chore. Here’s the thing though, If I shift my perspective to think of doing things for myself as taking care of my inner child (who is doing her dang best, I think) then maybe I can be less resentful towards my work of self-care, and find ways to turn self-care into self-parenting- joyfully.

Instead of tricking or manipulating myself into taking care of myself, I’m trying to shift my focus to learning from my mistakes, and treating myself with kindness when I do inevitably goof-up.

I have wonderful parents, both of whom are still alive and well and actively a part of my life, so it’s easy to imagine WWMDD (What Would Mom and Dad Do?). But if you need a refresher course, here are a few ways to self-parent yourself as a more approachable alternative to self-care:

Be Empathetic

You wouldn’t tell an adorable, little toddler that she’s failing at something- would you?

A good rule of thumb is to tell yourself, “If I wouldn’t say this to my 5-year-old self, I shouldn’t think/say it now.”

Try to be as empathetic with your current self as you would be with a young child, and then act accordingly!

Validate Your Emotions

It’s so incredibly important to remind yourself that it’s just as OK for us to feel and express the full spectrum of emotions as it is our children. 

I will likely never achieve the mythical state of ready-for-the-week-ness that I so often dream of (meals prepped, apartment tidied, self chilled) but I’m starting to view this practice of self-care as more of a privilege than a chore. The better I take care of myself and the more I parent my inner child, the more I understand the importance of it all.

And sometimes, like a parent would her child, I can even love myself enough to put the clean sheets on my bed before I fall asleep on it. It’s the little things.

Take Good Care of Yourself

Never underestimate the healing powers of a decent night’s sleep, a good long nap, exercise, drinking lots and lots of water, healthy food… and quality chocolate. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, name exactly what it is that you need, and give yourself adequate time to take care of you.

I have come to accept the fact that I’ll never achieve that perfect state of read-for-the-week-ness that I hear about from my colleagues, or always have my clothes neatly cleaned and folded in my drawers, but I also am accepting that if I look at doing little acts of self-care for myself in the alternative name of self-parenting, I’m a lot more likely to get things done.


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