Two years ago, I went through one of the worst periods of burnout in my life. It was so bad that I dubbed it The Great Burnout. Everything took enormous effort. I was doing everything badly, I was noticeably overweight, my health was going downhill, and I felt defeated. I sincerely believed I wasn’t strong enough to be a parent anymore.
My sister’s family kept the kids for a week while Mary and I went to a remote cabin to sleep and regroup. I did almost nothing except sleep for four straight days. I finally woke up enough to realize I couldn’t live like this anymore. If I wanted to be the parent our kids needed, it was up to me to get it together.
￼￼￼￼I came to understand one essential truth: Your child’s success is inextricably linked to your ability to take care of yourself and become a strong enough parent for what you’ll encounter.
We can write-up and follow the advice of “8 Steps To Doing This” and “7 Tips for Success at That” type posts every day and still not take care of a fundamental part of the equation – us.
Going from Burnout to a Better Life
We frantically run ourselves into the ground, calling it ‘sacrifice’. Sacrifice is laudable, but that’s not what we’re actually doing. Sacrificing is about selectively and carefully giving up something important to help someone else gain or succeed. Therein lies the key. It’s done thoughtfully, carefully, and to achieve a certain goal. Burning ourselves out isn’t thoughtful, careful, or anything else, and it certainly doesn’t help our children.
Ideally, we’d sleep eight hours a day, exercise 30 minutes most days, eat well-balanced meals, take time for ourselves, and all that, but we all know how hard that is. What I decided to do to change my life was much simpler.
I resolved to make small changes over time and let that build up toward a healthier lifestyle. I knew I was not helping my kids, my marriage, or myself with my old habits. I had to start changing a little at a time until I got to a better place.
I believed that in time I would create enough momentum to make lasting changes in my life, and these changes would then make me a better, more present, more engaged, and generally more capable parent. And I believe it has.
Small Steps to Get Started
Since I made this decision, I’ve run over 1,700 miles, completed two marathons, lost about 30 pounds, improved my health tremendously, gotten off most medications, and, most importantly, most days I feel more able to manage the ongoing needs of our children. I did all this by starting small, keeping at it little by little, and not quitting.
But here’s the hard truth that has become so apparently to me lately. The decision to take better care of yourself is one you have to make daily.
It has been very hard around here lately. This summer has been a real struggle. I’ve slipped in several of my habits, and it shows. I’ve put a few pounds back on, I’m not in quite the shape I was in, I haven’t been exercising much, and my diet leaves something to be desired. I’m slipping because I lost focus on why it’s important to take care of myself. So I’m posting this now as much to remind myself of why I need to do this and the approach of taking small steps to get there.
So here are some small steps I’ve tried over the past two years. Let’s all pick a couple and get started today.
- Do whatever you can to add 15-30 minutes of sleep to your night. Give up anything in your schedule that isn’t essential. Sleep makes everything else possible.
- Meditate, pray, or just breathe quietly and sit still for five minutes a day. It’s challenging at first, but as an ongoing practice it does wonders for your mood.
- Add some sort of physical exercise. Start with a few minutes a day. Keep it simple. Go up and down stairs, dance around your home to good music, lift gallon milk jugs or laundry detergent bottles, whatever works. I know you’re exhausted, but trust me. It won’t take much to start really improving your life.
- Gradually ditch one unhealthy item in your life. I gave up soft drinks over a period of three months, lost a bunch of weight, and felt way better.
- Turn off your TV, at least the news and advertisements. Ads exist solely to tell you how unworthy you are, a message we do not need, and news is full of things you honestly can’t do anything about. Focus on what you can change – your life.
- Do something for yourself each day. Read a book for a few minutes, drink your coffee slowly, listen to some music you like. Little acts of self-care can do wonders.
- Practice affirmations. We often think we’re clueless idiots. Affirmations counter that. Pick a few and commit them to memory. “I am a superhero parent”, “I kick ass”, whatever works for you. Read inspirational quotes each day. Keep a list of ones you love.
- Learn to say ‘no’, ruthlessly if you have to. Your job is to take care of your children and yourself. That’s it. The rest can be ditched. Start clearing anything out of your life that isn’t essential.
As parents of special needs children, we have numerous demands and responsibilities to manage. To help your child overcome their challenges, start overcoming your own and become the best parent you can. When you can be more present and engaged in your child’s daily needs, great things can happen.