Raising a family can be exhausting both mentally and physically, so how do you make time to look after your own health when all the hours of your day are already fully booked?
Parents neglecting their wellbeing do so at their peril, as numerous studies have shown there are real-world implications: for one thing, mums with larger families are more likely to have a heart attack and Cambridge University researchers believe this is due in part to the stress of looking after children.
“Mums and dads are busy people and it’s understandable that it can be hard to fit in looking after themselves with so many other commitments, but looking after children can be stressful, so it’s important not to neglect yourself,” says Julie Ward, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation [BHF].
HuffPost UK spoke to parents who are trying to strike the balance, and the experts working to help you to do so too.
Kellie Bath, who has two children aged eight and 11, says: “I used to work in London and like many others I’d get up at the crack of dawn in the dark, travel on a packed train straight to a desk where I worked solidly for ten hours before returning home in the dark. That was no way to live.”
When Kellie first started her own business in 2015 she “ran herself ragged” trying to strike a work-life balance. “I don’t believe you will ever have enough time in the day to get everything done, so the key is to accept that and stop stressing about it,” she says. “Stop trying to be superwoman. Grant yourself some ‘me’ time and don’t feel guilty about it.”
Now she schedules an hour into her day - at least 30 minutes as soon as she gets home from the school run and the rest when she can fit it in, often in the morning before work - to focus on something that clears her mind, be that exercise, meditation, reading or walking the dog.
“If your instant reaction to that is - ‘I can’t, it’s not realistic for me to fit that in’, then you are the only one stopping that from happening,” she says. “I now prioritise ‘me’ time at the beginning of my day just before work. I get as much done as I did before, but feel calmer, happier and clearer minded.”
“I get as much done as I did before but feel calmer, happier and clearer minded.'”
Similarly to Kellie, Sophie Bawa, who has two children aged five and seven, makes time during her day to have an hour and a half to herself, (which she admits sounds like a long time when you’ve got children vying for your attention). For Sophie this means she chooses to get up at 5.30am on weekdays.
“This is before the children wake up. I try to do some exercise (nothing hard core) to help me to focus and to breathe. I also try to not look at my phone for a couple of hours in the morning,” she says.
And this isn’t just for one half of a couple. Hannah Goldstone and her husband Jonathan, who have two children under 10 and a dog, both make time in their schedules for exercise and help the other fit it in. She says: “He does karate three times a week, training and teaching. I meditate everyday, at home and do yoga. It was very difficult initially but we persisted.”
Committing to an exercise programme can seem like a lot to take on. But Julie Ward from BHF says just 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day will make a big difference: this can be anything that increases your heart rate and makes you breathe a little faster, so you don’t need to join a gym or run 5k every day of the week.
“You can break it down into 10 minute sessions throughout the day and build up from there,” says Ward. “You can do it from the comfort of your own living room. Be realistic about your goals.”
Remember, everyday activities count, so look for opportunities to be active. For example, use the stairs instead of the escalators, walk the kids to school or get off the bus a stop early - even do some stretches when watching television.
Although taking time to do sport is beneficial, there are other small changes you can make to your daily life that will also be beneficial to your mental health.
Nicola Rae-Wickham, from London, who has a four-year-old, says that she doesn’t have to find time in the day to do something additional to look after herself, instead she just takes something simple like a cup of coffee as a moment for self-care.
“I reframe the everyday by adding mindfulness and gratitude to it,” says Nicola. “So instead of just a coffee, I’ll use my favourite cup and really enjoy the process of making it. Even if its just a few moments. Similarly a bath at the end of the day is made better by really appreciating it. For me it is about making an occasion out of the small things.”
And Kiera O’Mara, a single mum of an eight-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, agrees the simple act of making a drink can be done in a way to make it feel like a breather in an otherwise hectic day.
“Every morning I make sure I wake before my children, sit and have a coffee in bed and meditate for five to 10 minutes, then exercise for 20 minutes. It is the perfect start to the day,” she says.
Kat Cohen, who has two daughters, aged seven and 14, says that even taking a shower can be a chance for self-care: “I always use a body wash with citrus notes in it to further boost my energy and focus me— this ritual makes me feel like I am taking really good care of myself and relaxes me.”
Amanda Overend who has three young boys, aged three, five and seven, says that being part of a book group is her way of getting self-care. “It means I make time for reading in the day and I read every night before bed. Plus I get a night out every four to six weeks at group meetings,” she says.
And Zoe Hiljemark, who has three children all under five years old, recommends listening to podcasts, or sitting in complete silence (a rarity for parents).
Whatever works for you, Sanjima DeZoysa, parent content manager at NCT, says that it is important that both you and your partner find a way to prioritise your mental health. “Try to take some time on your own by maintaining involvement in hobbies, exercise, or social activities,” she advises.
Sophie Sabbage, 52, who has been living with terminal cancer for four years, and has an eight-year-old child, Gabriella says that for her, just talking about her mental health is the crux of self-care.
“We don’t just need to take care of ourselves. We need to model self-care instead of self-sacrifice to our children,” she says.