I recently participated in FORM's new Ask the Associate column in their newsletter. I'm happy to share my contribution about caring for the caregiver below. Check out Friends of RIE, Minnesota at www.theformnetwork.org
"I know intellectually that self-care is important but, it is really a struggle to find time just for me. How does the Educaring® Approach guide us with regard to self-care? Where can we begin to set some boundaries in order to care for ourselves?"
First of all, it is impossible to meet all your needs if you are the sole person meeting your child’s needs. You will simply not have enough time. I firmly believe that taking care of a baby requires multiple people working in shifts. We as a human species evolved in large family groups, with many caregivers contributing to nurturing each child. Even tasks like breastfeeding were shared between multiple adults! Taking care of a baby is not a one-person job. It’s not even a two-person job. Most families achieve a better balance with at least three regular caregivers.
These caregivers can be parents, other adults in the household, relatives, or paid caregivers. Trading child care with other parents or participating in a nanny share can be a good economical option for people who don’t have extended family nearby. Children under three years should only be cared for by people they have the opportunity to form a long-term attachment relationship with, in other words, they should have the same people taking care of them consistently.
Finding this balance will give you time to take care of many of your personal needs like exercising, being creative, working outside the home, and socializing with friends. However, you will still need to take care of yourself all day long, every day, including when you are with the baby! This is where Magda Gerber’s Educaring® Approach becomes truly essential.
A Safe Play Space
Set aside a room or part of a room in your home to be exclusively for your baby to play in during their waking hours. Crawling children need at least a ten-by-ten foot area to move around in, something bigger and sturdier than a classic hexagonal playpen. The space must be gated and completely safe and free for play. The goal is that you can leave your baby in this space while you are out of eyesight and feel completely secure that they will not come to harm. Set up this space with some interesting simple toys (but not everything the baby owns) and use it daily! Having this safe space set up means you have the option of stepping away from your baby to do luxurious things like go to the bathroom alone, make yourself a cup of tea, or cook dinner for the family.
Spend time sitting quietly in the play space with your baby every day, just being present and attentive. You do not need to “play” with your baby, in fact, it is better if you do not. If you simply observe and let your baby lead any games that they invent (and they will!), you will foster their ability to play independently and make it easier for you to step away, as you must. This quality time helps children know how appreciated and loved they are, just for being who they are now, just for doing what they are already doing. This is one of the greatest gifts we can give to children: our time.
Giving children this time is also a gift for ourselves. If we spend a few minutes each day giving the baby 100% of our attention, the baby will be more amenable to us moving away to take care of our own needs.
Nurturing Time Together
Magda Gerber described another type of time when we are attentive to our babies: during caregiving routines. If, again, we give children 100% of our attention during these tasks which we are doing with our baby anyways, for example diapering, feeding, and bathing, the baby will be more ready to engage in independent play in their safe space once these tasks are done. These routines can also be one of the most joyful parts of taking care of a child. Working together to change a diaper, talking about the day with a toddler during a meal, or washing dishes together have the potential to be truly peaceful and enjoyable routines. Involving children in their care in this way can also help get certain tasks--like washing dishes--done, as long as you don’t mind going at the toddler’s pace and getting a little water on the floor!
You should not feel guilty about taking time to meet your needs. On the contrary, it is essential to your child’s healthy development that they see other people treating themselves well. Imagine if your only caregiver, the main person you model your own behavior from, never sat down to eat a full meal, was always cranky and exhausted from low blood sugar and sleep deprivation, and perhaps struggled with a simmering resentment about having to always take care of you first. You might grow up to emulate her example without meaning to, always putting other people first and letting yourself down. Now imagine being the lucky baby whose caregiver takes time to meet her own needs, leaving herself healthy and full of energy to spend time with you once she is done. Which would you prefer? Which type of person would you like your baby to grow up to be?
Our babies deserve better than to be taken care of by someone who is always overworked, underfed and underslept. They deserve to see us at our best, so we can be more attentive caregivers and so the baby can eventually use us as a model for meeting their own needs in a healthy way.
Of course, you will always put your babies need for food, sleep, etc before your own. This is only natural. Babies need frequent, attentive care, and--unlike us competent, secure adults--they don’t have the physical or emotional ability to wait extended periods for their needs to be met. Ideally, you will find a peaceful rhythm to your days that means neither of your has to go wanting for long. However, there will certainly be times when your baby doesn’t need any of the things above, but they still are unhappy about being left to play while you do what you need to do. No one likes to see a baby crying and swinging from a gate, asking for you to return and play with them, but if the alternative is that you never eat or take care of yourself, choose to meet your needs. Naturally, you will eat very quickly under those circumstances, but you should still eat!
It is not your job to keep your baby happy all the time. That goal is both impossible and misguided. Rather, it is your job to understand it is normal for your baby to have lots of different emotions, both happy and otherwise. It is our responsibility to allow the baby to experience all of these emotional states in the context of a supportive attachment relationship, where unconditional love prevails regardless of life’s little (or big) trials. A simple acknowledgement of your baby’s feelings is often all that is necessary. “I hear, you are calling for me! I will come sit with as soon as I put our dinner in the oven.”
After every one of these stressful moments comes a little reunion, a little repair. Attachment researchers tell us that the quality of these moments of repair is more indicative of the overall quality of the relationship than whether or not the baby gets upset. Your warm arms and warm words as you return are all that is needed. “Yes, here I come. Shall we sit together? It was hard to wait for me, wasn’t it? You were so upset.”
The struggle to arrange time to take care of our needs as adults is real! Please don’t hesitate to ask your loved ones for help, and I hope that these other ideas will help you find a peaceful balance in your family as well.