Self-care: It’s about more than just a day at the spa

I started my family during my first year of post-doc and had to walk in to my training year announcing my pregnancy. Thankfully I had a warm and understanding environment. My supervisors worked with me on a schedule to complete my postdoc and still take off maternity time as needed. This experience taught me that when you have children, you try to plan and structure things. So I thought I carefully planned out the end of my post-doc, with time to study for licensure exam before my, second child, a daughter, was born. But she had other plans for me, and she was born on the morning I was supposed to take exam. From that moment on, I learned the need for flexibility. In my life, a tendency for flexibility has been a greater asset for success than planning and structure has been.

After my post doc and licensure, I looked for an opportunity that would provide me with the flexibility I wanted to be present in the lives of my young children. Private practice was a good fit. I received the bulk of my training in Pediatric and Pediatric Neuropsychology. As children and adolescents made up the vast majority of my patients, my hours were mainly between 3-7. That worked well when my children were young so that I could be with them during the day. But as my third child got older and headed off to elementary school, I shifted my career to meet both their needs and mine. This eventually led to my position working full time at an Academic Medical Center. I continue to be lucky here, in that despite the full time and challenging work I am still able to be flexible with my schedule. Although this can be both a good and bad thing. Yes, I can leave early to be present in my children’s lives, but I am still an adult doing homework. My kids find this funny...in some ways, I guess it is.

I am finally at a point in my career where I feel it is the right place for me. I have the “want it all” mentality – and I am finally able to start moving in that direction. I work as a pediatric neuropsychologist, participate in research, and supervise students at a number of professional levels from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows. However, choosing a career path that better suited the needs of my children rather than my true passion did mean giving up on some things. And this has been challenging for me as I have had to put off doing certain things that I enjoy (e.g. attending conferences, supervising, teaching) and other goals of mine (e.g. increasing my research activities, putting off board certification, etc.).

There are other challenges I face as well. There are days where I am emotionally exhausted as a result of “having it all.” It is a difficult balance to make sure one area of life does not impact the other. If I can’t keep a check on it, then that can leave to feeling guilty and feeling mediocre at both.

So how do I survive and keep it all in check? Again, flexibility is the biggest key. Creativity in getting my work done, creating my schedule, and other aspects of my career have also been important. I have made home visits, worked on weekends, and do a lot phone conferencing. Having perspective about the bigger picture is also important. Sometimes I get stressed if I miss something at work; I often ask myself “will I remember going to that meeting, or going to my child’s school function.” Or vice versa. Sometimes I also need to be okay that my husband is going to something, and supporting our children, instead of me. Sometimes I need to let things go. But always, when I am at work, I remember what John Linton once said. As psychologists, expectations for us our high. And if I am to have the flexibility I want, then I need to put in 150% of myself into work while I am there.

Support is also extremely important. Luckily for me, I have local family and friend support. I have learned to recognize when I need to ask for help. As much as I want to be a supermom and have it all, I can’t do it all by myself. I also work hard at establishing strong work relationships. This helps when I need to advocate for my personal needs at work as there is an increased understanding of what my life looks like.

I also try to pass on what I’ve learned to the next generation of psychologist by modeling for my students the balance we do as parents and professionals. I try to show them the importance of work, but also how important taking care of oneself and family is. Balancing these two things appropriately means not just having time for family and marriage (which research shows that that leads to greater work satisfaction) but not neglecting work either. Do not over commit, but I will also admit that this is sometimes easier said than done.

So while I have made some concessions in my career for my family, I do believe you can still “have it all.” I have it all right now. I am an Associate Professor at my institution, I am listed on grant funded research, I work with the pediatric populations I am interested in, and most importantly, I am a mother to three wonderful, happy children. I have gotten this far only with the right work-family balance and having realistic expectations. Just remember that even those who make it easy have hard days, so don’t be too hard on yourself, let things go, and look at bigger picture. Try to remember that “having it all” can happen in stages, can be modified at times, and can be redefined.

Suzanne


Psychologists preach to their clients and patients about the importance of self-care, but do they really practice it themselves?

Suzanne mentions that she has “days where I am emotionally exhausted as a result of ‘having it all’” because she’s so busy trying to master the difficult balance of making sure one area of life does not impact the other. It’s an impossible goal, and her exhaustion isn’t surprising, especially given new research suggesting that employees who bring work home to finish during non-work hours are more exhausted than those who don’t, because they haven’t had time to relax and recover from the day’s career demands.

Suzanne also says she feels like she’s been able to find a work-life balance that is fulfilling for both her family and her career, but acknowledges that on stressful days, she still feels guilty and mediocre in both her roles as an employee and mother. Like many parents, Suzanne sometimes gets caught feeling like she’s not doing anything well, but the reality is at those times, she’s trying to do too much, too well.

Taking the time to take care of ourselves when we’re often taking care of others all day can be a huge challenge. In fact, 75% of working mothers say self-care is a struggle for them, according to a survey conducted by author Jessica Turner, for her 2018 book Stretched Too Thin: How Working Moms Can Lose the Guilt, Work Smarter, and Thrive.

As parents, often our own needs as individuals get pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. We see self-care as “frivolous” or something we’ll get to “when things calm down a bit.” We view our roles as that of a parent, partner, son or daughter and employee, and our own identity—and with it, our self-care—can get lost.

But as Turner writes in her book: “By intentionally investing in ourselves, we are simply declaring our self-worth and proclaiming that who we are as individuals matters.”

In addition, the reality is that self-care is imperative – both for your own well-being and for the health of your career and your clients. During times of stress and burnout, psychology researchers may be more likely to make errors, and practitioners may be more likely to fall prey to ethical violations such as inaccurate or careless charting and billing, inappropriate or excessive self-disclosure with a client, or confidentiality breaches, such as leaving client documentation in a public place.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money to invest in our own care—and the benefits can be huge.

public.jpeg

Exercise: It can be very difficult to prioritize this, but so much evidence shows exercise – even just 30 minutes a day – provides so many benefits to our health and mood. Plus some research even suggests regular exercise can help us manage that whole work-life balance thing a lot better. According to the study’s authors: "Individuals who exercised regularly were more confident they could handle the interaction of their work and home life and were less likely to be stressed at work."

Sleep: Sleep is often the first thing to suffer when life gets busy with heavy workloads, school and parenting responsibilities, but it’s critical to overall health. We do our best to ensure our children get enough sleep so they’re not irritable, but as adults, we often let our to-do lists crowd out the time and peace of mind needed for healthy sleep. Just like our kids, not getting enough sleep makes us irritable and less productive during our daytime hours as well!

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults ages 26 to 64 get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep daily. If you’re not, it will be harder to be the productive and happy employee, partner, parent, daughter/son and friend you’d like to be. In fact, one study has even found that consistently not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep can negatively affect your ability to parent effectively. To pave the way for better sleep, experts recommend keeping to s sleep schedule, even on weekends and turning off electronics at least an hour before bedtime.

public.jpeg

Make time for a hobby: I have loved reading since I was a little kid, but after college when so much of my time was spent on required reading, I didn’t make the time to read books I did enjoy. I’ve recently made it a priority to read more – often choosing to do that on free weekends or evenings instead of binging on Netflix when my brain and body need a break. I’ve also joined a local book club and become friends with others in person and through social media who share my love of reading and are happy to bond over our thoughts on the latest best-seller. Find what you love and make time for it – be it gardening, knitting, cooking or playing in an adult sports league. In fact, some evidence even suggests that whenever we spend time doing things we enjoy, it leads to more creative thinking. It appears that when your brain is able to take a break from work, it helps you relax and perhaps even come up with more innovative ideas on how to solve a work-related problem.

Get some alone time with your partner: Turns out when you’re happy in your relationship with your partner, you’re more likely to be happier at work as well. In fact, a study of the work and sex habits of married employees found that those who prioritized sex at home unknowingly gave themselves a next-day advantage at work, where they were more likely to immerse themselves in their tasks and enjoy their work lives. Talk about having it all!

By Amy Novotney

What I’ve learned in becoming a single mother by choice

What I’ve learned in becoming a single mother by choice