Self-Care and Parents of Small Children: The Good, the Bad, and the Sleep Deprived

“How long can this wait?” I ask.  Before answering, she turns off the glaring, operatory light hanging over my face.  Mint rinse lingers on my tongue.

“It can’t. If the infection spreads in your jaw, it can create an abscess,” she responds. Her furrowed brows and stern eyes leave no room for negotiation.

I tighten my grip on the plastic covers of the chair arms, muscles still tense from the metal probes banging against my teeth.  Later, I Google “abscessed tooth.”  I don’t encourage you to do the same, unless you enjoy dental nightmares.

IMG_0320“What are my options?”

“You need a root canal to clean out the infection.  It’s grown for the last six to nine months in your tooth.”  She shows me the x-ray image of my mouth to pinpoint the exact location of the infection.  My untrained eye notices nothing unusual, but she assures me the unfriendly bacteria
exists.

I sigh and agree to come back the next week.

Why did I wait over a year to go to the dentist? Considering my history of dental problems it was a poor decision, and the infection in my tooth could have been disastrous.  I cannot play the lack of dental insurance card,  because we have adequate coverage. There is no valid excuse for my lack of self-care.  Actually, there is one excuse.

“You know how it’s easy to ignore your self to focus on caring for your child,” a friend recently said over coffee.  I nodded in solidarity with her struggle.   Yes, I have the root canal to prove it, I thought.

The more I thought about her comment, the more I reflected on the wide gap between the care I provide for Henry, my eighteen-month-old son, and my own standards of self-care.  I approach his daily routine with an intensity I would never focus on myself.  My kid eats well, yet I eat like an animal.  My kid sleeps like a champion, yet I walk the earth like a zombie. My idea of self-care involves the Wendy’s drive-thru on the way home from the playground, or retreating to the bathtub to watch Netflix in the dark.  Please don’t ask me the last time I entered the doors of a gym.

For parents of small children, self-care proves elusive.   We struggle to shower and finish meals, much less find time to care for our own needs.  We relinquished the hope of regular sleep a long time ago.  Friendly warning:  if you mention the topic of self-care to a parent of a small child, you will probably receive an annoyed facial expression.  We are too sleep-deprived for your lectures.

Henry is my best excuse for avoiding the dentist.  The year I ignored my dental issues I was consumed with changing diapers, filling bottles, and begging him to sleep at 3a.m.  Caring for him justifies my neglect, right?  Actually, it doesn’t.  Deep down inside I know using him as an excuse is a cop out.  As much as I want to believe it was noble to neglect myself to meet his needs, my conscious tells me I am not doing anyone a favor with this approach.

IMG_0328I find myself asking what is more beneficial:  a parent who intensely focuses on their child’s routine, habits, and actions, while neglecting themselves, or a parent who gives adequate care and offers a model of self-care for their child to observe.  I believe the latter is the wise investment.

The way we model self-care will teach our children how to care for themselves.  When they are young we can focus intensely on their diets and behavior while neglecting self-care, but eventually they will grow aware of how we care for ourselves and take their cues from our habits.  Putting all of my energy into maintaining unreasonable standards, while neglecting my self, is modeling behavior I don’t want my child to see.  I want him to witness someone who values themselves enough to care for themselves, especially in the most vital ways.

What will my child see?  This is the question bouncing around in my head.

The scary part is how closely our children are watching. Henry is eighteen months old and already in tune with how much time – too much time – I spend using technology.  The way I see him mimicking me using a smartphone amuses and terrifies me.  He watches me down enough coffee to float a battleship, then pretends to make his own coffee and drink it.

I hope to spend my time around Henry with more mindfulness.  Parenting perfection is not my goal and my words are not intended to promote guilt; rather, my aim is at remaining conscious that parenting is a relationship, not a one way street.  My child is a mirror reflecting back to me the areas of my self in need of improvement.  I do my part by not ignoring the mirror’s reflection.