Having self-compassion and practising self-care is the same as needing to put on your oxygen mask first when on a plane prior to helping your children,” says Jo White, social worker and support counsellor for The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. “You need to look after yourself in order to look after them.”
Self-compassion is an art and, like any skill, it needs to be mindfully practised. For some, it’s a lifelong lesson. Whether it’s guilt over the smaller things like letting the kids have excess screen time, or frustration over the bigger challenges like managing behavioural issues, if you’ve ever felt like you’re not doing a good job as a parent, you’re not alone.
IDENTIFY THE FEELING
But what do we really mean by self-compassion? Christie Arbuckle is a Melbourne-based psychologist. Inspired to help support parents to access low-cost mental health support, Christie also created The Compassionate Parent app which provides self-kindness reminders, guided meditations, and mindfulness strategies. Christie says, “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself as you would to a loved one when you’re having a difficult time or noticing something that you don’t like about yourself. Allowing yourself to pause and acknowledge it, remind yourself that it’s difficult, and explore how you can comfort yourself in that moment.”
And it’s never been a more important skill to learn. Research consistently suggests that self-compassion strengthens our psychological profile, as it helps build resilience against depression and anxiety and increases life satisfaction, optimism, and happiness.
But not all feelings are created equal, and Christie thinks it’s important to identify them first. Christie says, “Pause, take a deep breath, and label that feeling; is it frustration? Is it exhaustion? We can’t solve a problem unless we can define it and identify it, so being able to label it is the first step. There are challenges that come up in parenting, and we want to make sure that we’re able to be responsive in what we’re doing rather than reactive.”
Rhiannah Pohlman, 27, from Brisbane, wishes she’d learned self-kindness earlier. Rhiannah says, “With my first son, I got really depleted, physically and emotionally. I would put expectations on both myself and my baby. He was a really bad sleeper and I thought, ‘he should be sleeping, and I should be able to do this’. I also wanted to keep doing what I was doing before and hadn’t grasped that my life had changed. So, there was guilt if I got angry or, if I had to go to work or uni, there was guilt about being apart from him.”
Recognising that she was struggling, Rhiannah sought help from a psychologist who guided her with personalised mental health strategies, and also recommended mindfulness practices. Rhiannah now schedules time for meditation practice every evening. “I feel like a different person; I’m happier, not angry, I can respond to my sons with love. I’ll be honest, I still have days where these feelings come up, however, I have the tools now to help myself through them.”
Any type of self-care practice can be a key tool for becoming more attuned with self-compassion, according to Jo White. Jo has been a social worker for over 20 years, and she’s counselled many new and expectant parents. Jo says, “Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting are known to be associated with an increased risk of the onset or relapse of mental health conditions. Stats show that one in five mums and one in 10 dads experience perinatal anxiety and depression (PANDA). And that’s just in the early stages of parenthood, so if we can start to learn how to look after ourselves and have some self-compassion, self-care, and self-kindness, and implement strategies in that early stage, that’s going to help as we move through the journey of parenthood. That might be nurturing yourself with a relaxing bath or having a few moments of quiet time to tune in to yourself. And also connecting with social networks, friends or family.”
ROLE MODEL SELF-KINDNESS
According to Jo, self-kindness doesn’t just impact you as a parent, it sets a good example to your children, too. Jo says, “I think all parents, at some point, feel a sense of guilt over not doing enough or being enough. But self-compassion is also about role modelling to your children how to look after themselves.”
One mother who’s determined to set a good example of this to her children is Susan Bibby, 46, from Queensland’s Glass House Mountains. Susan explains, “I choose to role model self-care and self-forgiveness for my girls so that they learn to value themselves and allow themselves permission to learn and fail.”
In 2019, Susan, her husband and their three daughters moved from their farm in rural Victoria to Queensland for better access to health services that would support them with their daughter’s autism. Six-year-old Bridget’s condition went undiagnosed for years, which left Susan feeling exhausted, confused and as though she was failing as a parent.
A heart attack only confirmed Susan’s realisation that it was time to start prioritising self-care. “I’ve slowed down. Focused on being present. Forgiven myself for what I didn’t know how to do better, and I make different choices now about ensuring we rest and have ‘still’ time rather than just running on a treadmill of busy. It has to be conscious in every moment and every decision.”
If you haven’t already, then perhaps it’s time to start treating your own mistakes with the same patience and understanding you’d show your children. Because perfection is not a destination, it’s an unattainable mountain top that we can aspire to climb but never quite reach. Instead of being hard on yourself, be gentle, be kind, be compassionate. Put the oxygen mask on, so both you and your family can breathe a little easier.
Words by Jo Jukes