The Big Rocks: Self-Care for Caregivers

The past month has been a vast improvement over our overwhelming December. The solutions I mentioned in the last post were a great success, especially potty training progress and toy rotation. Also, while Greg and I normally have the luxury of relaxing after the kids go to bed, last month we each committed to doing just one extra ongoing household chore (laundry, dishes, picking up) in the evening before shifting into leisure mode. That way I could pare down our list of one-time “to dos” (end-of-year, beginning-of-year, 100 little tasks displaced by holiday madness etc) during my day.  It was amazing how quickly we tackled that backlog of “to do”s with that little schedule adjustment.

Now, I’m looking ahead and envisioning our new routine. Greg and I often reference the ” big rocks” analogy of time management. If you are unfamiliar with it, one presentation of it is here:

The basic idea is, if you put the important things into your schedule first, you’ll find you can still fit many of the smaller tasks in between them naturally. But if you pile all of the small tasks and time wasters in your schedule first, it will appear as though there is not room for the big important rocks. Greg and I often discuss what we consider to be the “big rock” items in our family schedule, and whether we are treating them as such. This practice has always served us well.

Recently however, even though we use this purposeful approach, and even though we are blessed with regular help from extended family, and even though I am a seasoned and compulsive multi-tasker, and even though I am so stubborn that I often give 120% of effort/energy (more than is healthy) to finish whatever challenge I’ve decided to tackle…I’ve wondered if it’s really possible to fit all of the important rocks right now, as I’d like them to look. So it’s time to revisit my priorities to see if I truly am expecting too much (quite possible) and/or if I can distribute my limited time and energy differently to achieve a better balance.

Based on the prevalence of articles on time management/juggling things/finding balance, I think  I’m far from alone in struggling with the constraints of time and energy.  I was talking with a friend- a fellow stay-at-home/aspiring work-at-home parent of preschool children- who summarized my thoughts perfectly:

“I want to take care of the kids and the house, maintain my own health, and do some kind of career related activity. But I find that I can only ever do one-and-a-half of those things.”

That has been my experience exactly. Taking care of the family and home always seems to comprise most of the “one,” and everything non-mom-related competes for that “half.” And every time I devote energy to getting one life area up to par, I find that another area has deteriorated into an unacceptable state.

If you find yourself in this same spot, unable to fit everything you want into your days, try these steps along with me:

big rocks self-care

  • Identify the “big rocks:” those things that you will fit into your schedule purposefully because they are most important to you. Personally, in addition to caring for all aspects of the kids’ well being, maintaining a safe home, and sharing the journey with my partner in adventure, I (try to) prioritize my nutrition, health, spiritual life, social support, and some pursuits that are lot directly related to motherhood, such as hobbies (blogging!), learning, and a few (very) small business pursuits.  I truly believe that prioritizing most of these things is essential in order to care for my children well, as explained next:
  • If you are a caregiver, remember to prioritize self-care.  The analogy of the oxygen mask on the airplane (“Put your own mask on before attempting to help other passengers….”) is well-worn but still a powerful picture of how important self-care is in being an effective caretaker. Not only does proper self-care provide the energy and resources necessary to care for others, but the self-care that you model will shape how those in your care will treat themselves one day.  For these reasons, it’s useful for “helpers” of all kinds to remember: show yourself the same consideration, compassion and grace that you show those you are caring for, and let that be reflected in your “big rock” choices.
  • Identify your specific expectations for each “big rock” area. These can and will change. In seasons past, ‘taking care of my health’ meant making it to the gym 3-4 times per week.  Recently my health goal is to shower more and brush my teeth on the majority of days.
  • Identify which “big rocks” are making it into your schedule and which aren’t. For those that don’t fit, think about whether it is the expectation or your schedule that needs to be adjusted.
  • Adjust expectations as needed.  Personally, I know that while I have three kids under 5- one with complex medical needs- I will only be able to maintain minimal expectations in many of these areas.  Our family will eat fast food more than I’d like, I’ll exercise less than I’d like, and my hobbies/learning/career will progress at a seemingly glacial pace.
  • Adjust the distribution of your time, committing to your big rocks first.  First, you may want to schedule the big rocks into your week. Many, many tasks compete for the precious little time that the kids are asleep and my hands and mind are free.  It’s overwhelming to figure out what to do with those limited time periods.  So,  Greg and I have a general weekly schedule for our evenings- one night is for watching church podcast together (we can’t bring June to Sunday services with us during RSV season), we each have a designated night out with friends, one evening I study ASL, and one night we just relax and watch our shows. Somewhere in there I get the bills and blogging and my small business tasks and continuing education done. Secondly, you may find, as I did, that you have too much of a good thing– perhaps you are spending a lot of time on a specific “big rock” area at the expense of other things you want to fit into your schedule, too.  Which brings us to…..
  • Make a “to-don’t” list.  After you’ve identified what you DO want to do, it’s helpful during busy seasons to identify what you WILL NOT do, so that you’re not tempted or guilted into cramming it into your schedule.  It feels strange at first because the “to-don’t” list is populated with good, fun things that are probably related to your “big rock” values. Ironically, writing this blog post has been on my “to-don’t” list for two months!  There is a lot of value in recognizing our limits, and stating “for the record” that you aren’t going to do these things right now is a helpful way to reinforce the boundaries we are putting around our time.

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