Self-care for parents in a pandemic: Finding the time when you don't have it

Prioritizing your mental and physical health before that of others' can make you a better friend, partner and parent.

(CNN)Parents know the drill: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children put on theirs.

It's so true, and yet it's become a cliched metaphor for parental self-care.
If there was ever a time that it's especially true, it's during this now months-long pandemic and our added ongoing concerns over racial inequality.
In times of crisis, self-care often goes out the window. Who talked about self-care during the 1918 flu epidemic, World War II or the fall of Saigon?
    But this pandemic is diferent. Life goes on, albeit in an altered state, with parenting duties still piling up. Self-care is necessary, not optional, for recharging one's batteries and fulfilling responsibilities.
    Parents with younger children may be more absorbed by routines, emotional highs and lows, virtual learning and more, said Vaile Wright, the senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. These adults are responsible for everything their children need, while older teens might fend for themselves more often.
    When the well-being of your children depends on you, it can be all too easy, even gut instinct, to put yourself on the back burner. But that decision may also have to do with your own internal critic or expectations, Wright said.
    "It's this internal message we have that says it's somehow selfish to prioritize myself either above my children or at the same level as my children or work," she added. "It's usually not a message we're receiving externally. More often than not, it's this internal pressure. So you really need to address and ask yourself, 'Where is this internal pressure coming from?'"
    Self-care is important for overall health always, but especially now as parents juggle multiple responsibilities on top of the emotional and mental turmoil caused by the pandemic and often painful discussions about racism.
    If you've let chronic stress build up, you're at risk of burning out, Wright said. With burnout, you start to lack empathy, she added, which is a crucial skill needed for raising children and helping them navigate the world and feel better.
    Burnout can also make it hard to tap into empathy, so you become irritable and have a shorter fuse. Things that normally wouldn't upset you bother you, then you're at a much greater risk of snapping or saying something you might regret — all this aside from the physical and emotional consequences of chronic stress.
    "Failing to take care of ourselves actually compromises and hinders our effective caretaking of others," said Robin Smith, a Maryland-based marriage and family therapist. "Our nervous systems encounter more wear and tear. We get stressed out more easily," he added. This in turn raises cortisol, leading to poorer sleep that then restricts mental and physical performance the next day, not to mention impacts your mood.
    "Preventing those things from happening, of course, is the goal because if you have a heart attack, that's putting you at risk for death," Wright said, "but also of not being able to take care of your kids."

    Unpack the guilt

    Choosing to care for yourself starts with unpacking the notion that it's somehow selfish.
    "In order to be an effective parent, to be an effective worker, you have to take care of yourself," Wright said. "We, as humans, have a finite amount of resources, like a car that runs on gas, and you have to fill the tank up or you're going to run out. People are the same way."
    Maybe you're concerned that your children will miss out on something if you choose yourself first.
    To overcome this mindset, reframe how you view the situation, Wright suggested. Know that you can't adequately help others before you help yourself. If your friend came to you with the same problem, would you hold her to the same unrealistic expectations? You'd probably tell her that it's OK to take care of herself, especially since it's critical for maintaining physical and mental health.
    "It's a choice to say to yourself, 'No, this doesn't make me selfish. No, I don't have to feel guilty about taking care of myself because I know that it's going make me a better parent,'" Wright said.

    Treat your body better

    Your current lifestyle is likely chaotic, so don't worry about making big changes all at once. You can make one little change at a time, so you don't become overwhelmed. Caring for your body starts with what Wright called the "foundational four," which include eating healthy, sleeping enough, staying active and continuing social connections. (Do one at a time.)
    "Those four things really require routine of some sort in order to be really effective," she added. "And if you can establish a routine but also these sort of four foundations for yourself, then you're also likely establishing them for your kids, too."
    If you're eating healthy, then your kids are (ideally) eating healthy. If you follow a specific bedtime, your kids have to follow suit.