It’s a typical weeknight, and I’m pulling a midnight mom; everyone in my house is asleep except me, who’s still working and e-mailing. An incoming message from a colleague catches my eye:
“This clip is very interesting, it's about ten minutes.....I think he's definitely onto something..... re: stress/immune system and women/people.....”
I settle back against the pillows on the sofa, click and watch Gabor Maté talk about his book, “When the Body Says No, Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection” (John Wiley, & Sons, 2003).
Speaking quickly and earnestly for the radio program “Democracy Now,” Maté, a physician, says that certain types of chronic disease, such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, can be triggered by a kind of stress that we may not realize we’re under. We harbor this stress when we repress intense feelings such as anger and sadness.
Maté says the majority of his patients have cheery dispositions, exhibit no observable anger, put everyone’s needs before their own and are usually extremely self-critical. These patients also have difficulty setting personal boundaries with others; it is very hard for them to say “no.”
As I watch this interview, my own anxiety shoots up. I think about myself and many of the parents I know. We all work hard and many of us put pressure on ourselves to be a “good mother” or a “good father.” When I suggest removing the value judgment of “good” and replacing it with “good enough,” I am often met with resistance. In fact, when I suggest to a mom or dad that they put their own needs first or even second or third, it can often be a tough sell.
Maté speaks poignantly about childhood experiences and the connection between how we grow up, adapt in our family and with our parents, and conduct ourselves in the present. He tells the story of Lou Gehrig, who “set a record for consecutive games played that stood for nearly sixty years. Now, Gehrig wasn’t just a great athlete. He was also dutiful.” He never missed a game because of this sense of duty. Gehrig grew up as the child of an alcoholic and he learned early on to take care of others, as the children of alcoholics often do. Ultimately, he developed ALS which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Maté is not the only professional speaking out about this phenomenon of pushing through the pain without noticing or taking care of oneself. Researchers at the Center for Disease Control are conducting an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study to assess the connection between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.
Have you ever noticed that you can push through on a deadline but then once it’s over you come down with a cold or flu? I view any illness as an important message that our immune system is under siege. Developing awareness around how we feel (angry, sad, stressed) and what we need (sleep, quiet, exercise, friendships) to take good care of ourselves is essential.
Talking with parents about self-compassion has never felt so important. Because this isn’t just about managing expectations; it is about guarding our own good health and longevity. Taking care of yourself, even if it means being just a “good enough” parent, is essential so you can then be available to take great care of your kids.
Here are four ways to be a "good enough" parent:
1. Erase the word "should" from your vocabulary if you’re using it to blame yourself. For example: “I should have stayed up until 2 a.m. baking brownies for the school luncheon.”
2. Consider what you can let go of. Are the dishes still in the sink? Is there a pile of laundry in the hall? Yes, these are problems to be solved but they shouldn't get in the way of relaxing and enjoying your life the way it is.
3. Try to notice what you are feeling (sad, happy, mad, stressed) and where you are feeling it (in your chest, your shoulders, your jaw, your head). Inhale and then exhale into whatever area is feeling tense. You can do this as often as you'd like. It is a form of mindfulness which is a great way to take care of you.
4. Sleep, nutritious food, exercise, loving relationships, creativity, play and a sense of purpose are all important factors that contribute to your mental and physical health. Adding in self-care is not indulgent. Rather, it is an effective way to ensure that you will be around for a long time to come.
Have a fifth suggestion? Let me know in the comments section.
Guest blogger Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest D.C. who works with parents.