After our baby was born, one question that I still remember (almost five years later) was whether my husband and I had gone on a solo date yet. I couldn’t imagine leaving the baby out of sight, as I was blissfully consumed in protecting, nurturing, feeding, and loving my newborn. Honestly, I was just getting to know our pediatrician, who asked the question, and at the time, I may have thought in my head that she was a little intrusive and out of her mind for asking such.
Why would it be so important to her, anyway? I figured she should only be concerned with the baby’s health and not my personal life.
The truth is, stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more common than we may realize. Stress affects parents, particularly parents of children with special needs, more than we often know. If you’re raising a special needs child, you are probably dealing with your own trauma, too. It may be harder for you to realize, but it’s important to tend to your mental health by practicing self-care.
Know that you are not alone. It’s okay to feel drained, exhausted and even guilty for wanting an hour to yourself. When you feel overwhelmed and crazy busy, it can be a challenge to fit in some quality self-care. But taking better care of yourself doesn’t have to be complicated or all-consuming.
Here are 12 ways to take better care of yourself as a parent to a special needs child.
Make Time Off a Priority
Date night is not a luxury, it’s an essential. It shows your commitment, makes you stronger as a couple and it’s cheaper than therapy, much cheaper than divorce, and a whole lot more fun.
Spend an Hour Alone
Going to the grocery store alone doesn’t count. Take an hour and push yourself out the door to grab a cup of coffee. Don’t use the time to do “really important things” at home, instead do what you used to do outside of the house before baby arrived. You will find that taking that hour will make you a better parent, spouse and generally a calmer person.
Celebrate Your Child
Let yourself cherish your baby the same way any new parent would — by cuddling and playing, watching for developmental milestones (even if they’re different from those in children without a birth defect), and sharing your joy with friends and family.
Be Kind to Yourself
Give yourself the same compassion, respect, and kindness that you’d give a close friend or family member. It’s easier for us to be harder on ourselves than on others. Guilt and self-blame can fuel depression, stress and other negative emotions.
Do One Lovely Thing for Yourself Each Day
It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something lovely. It seriously can be as simple as a special cup of tea or smoothie at your favorite shop. When you reward yourself, you re-charge and re-focus on what’s important.
Never Say No to Help
When someone offers to help you, don’t feel guilty. Your answer should be, “Yes, please,” and explain exactly what would benefit you or your child best. There are also support groups for special needs parents that provide information, support, community, and a perspective that few other parents understand. There are also resources available for parents who would like respite care (assistance in caring for a child for a short duration of time), assistance in creating intervention or management plans, and other forms of help.
Schedule Your Self-Care
When you leave your hair, manicure, or massage appointment, schedule the next one so it’s sure to happen. Don’t use money an excuse; there are plenty of ways to find discounts or bargains on ways to pamper yourself.
Talk to Someone (Other Than Your Spouse)
Talking to a sympathetic friend can be a lifeline, especially if the person understands what you are going through. When you care for a special needs child, you spend a lot of time thinking and planning to stay ahead, so it’s important to have extra support, other than your spouse. Don’t isolate yourself and avoid going bonkers by only discussing the issues with the same individual over and over again.
If your child is receiving mental health care, ask the therapist if it would be possible for you to attend some of the sessions or to set up a separate appointment just for you. It’s important you address your mental health and what’s bothering you. If attending a therapy session with your child or setting a separate appoint is not possible, don’t hesitate asking your child’s therapist for recommendations. And when all else fails, do your own research.
Nurture Good Babysitters
When your child may not be receptive to new people and situations, finding a babysitter can be particularly hard. Once you do find a good babysitter, woo her. Go above and beyond to make her feel honored and pay her well. Do what’s reasonable to ensure she’s eager to babysit again.
Listen to Soothing Music
The Mozart Effect recordings and Nourishing the Caregiver (available through SensoryWorld) are specifically meant to relieve stress.
Create Your Own Routine
When you suddenly become a stay home parent, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t matter what time you go to bed and wake up in the morning. Setting a reliable routine, will make you feel better physically and more productive.
I now understand why our pediatrician asked the question, and I love her for being concerned. Our lives seem to be hectic and busier than before, if we don’t make the time for ourselves and for dates, feelings of being taken for granted can easily come up and that is the death knell for relationships. Stronger relationships make for better parenting. You are worth the effort, and so is your child.