Self Care is Sustaining – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Another quiet night on the zoom call, but that’s always okay: I appreciate the opportunity to dedicate some time and attention to thinking about child development and RIE. I consider it a bit of self-care, honestly, because it is something that fills me up…and that’s the theme of this summary: self-care.

As some of you may be doing, too, I’ve been listening to some of the webinars from the Play First Summit Conference this week (I haven’t been able to get to the Defending the Early Years webinars yet, but they’ve promised to send links…I’ll keep you posted). If you’ve been listening, I think you’d agree that it’s a lot of ‘preaching to the choir’ which is quite validating, honestly. There are calls for getting back to the heart of best practice, to allow and trust children to be children, to think about the language we use with them and the time we allow them to explore outdoors and in nature…sound familiar? (Hope so!!!) But the theme that struck a chord in my heart was in Janet Lansbury’s talk yesterday when she said (and I’m paraphrasing) that prioritizing self-care is not only protecting your own mental health and safety…it is also protecting the mental health and safety of your children.

I loved the simplicity, but also the urgency, in that statement. The Educaring Approach has always been a strong advocate for promoting parental self-care. The whole idea behind the Approach is to give you a framework to make your relationship with your children more comfortable; guidelines to help you think through your interactions and your responses. It invites you to relax, instead of worry, about gross motor and cognitive development, manners, sharing, and empathy. It gives you permission to slow down and observe instead of always having to leap into action and be the one with all of the answers. It even encourages you to take a little time for yourself:

I remember one of the first classes I taught. I remember explaining the concept of the safe space for children…one that you can feel secure leaving your child in while you have to step away to answer the door, run to the bathroom, or even take a shower…I remember one Mom coming back to class the next week with the biggest smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She told me that she’d been bringing her baby with her everywhere: to the kitchen, to her office, and even to the bathroom (in a bouncy chair on the floor), but the conversation about the safe space really opened her eyes. She’d had a week’s worth of peaceful showers, and her son had had a week’s worth of time to play and explore during her showers. Yes!!! Healthy attachment is both time together, and time apart. It’s okay for babies and toddlers to spend some time, in a safe space, without you…while you are doing something to take care of yourself.

I think we’re all missing some self-care these days. Hopefully, you’ve found some substitutes for what you used to do, or even some new avenues, but more importantly, I hope you can shed any feelings of guilt that you may experience while engaging in them. You’re with your children all day long and you may feel like a time thief anytime you do something for ‘just’ yourself. But, if you’re shortchanging your self-care, you’re short-changing your child. The better you take care of YOU, the better you can take care of your child.

This includes letting go of your “should” list: should you pull out the messy painting activity if you dread the clean up? Nope. Should you skip that second cup of coffee because your child ‘needs’ you to keep playing cars with him? Nope. Should you Facetime Grandma again this afternoon even though your toddler melts down when you have to end the call? Nope.  

Janet talked about the difference between children’s (and let’s face it, Grandma’s) wants and needs. Your child may want and enjoy playing with messy paint, but doesn’t need to…and Grandma wants to see your child regularly, but doesn’t need to…especially if these things are going to make your life harder. She goes back to Magda’s message of DO LESS…making your life easier makes your child’s life easier.

Wait, you might be saying…you skipped over the whole “getting another cup of coffee when my child is happily playing with me…”…won’t that make my life harder? Maybe in the short term, but if you are constantly forgoing your own wishes and desires (and bathroom breaks) ultimately, you’re going to be making your life harder, right? That’s how resentment starts, and your children will feel it. It’s okay to step away from your child, even if they protest: it’s important for them to see that you are a person with needs and you know how to take care of yourself…that’s how they’ll learn to take care of themselves, too.

I loved Janet’s description of how to do this, too…she calls it confident momentum. Say you know your child will lose it when you say you need a break from playing and you’re going to the kitchen. That’s okay: own it…just like we do in RIE class when you have to go to the bathroom. You find a moment when they are doing their own thing. Stand up, maybe go over to them, but definitely make eye contact. Simply tell them what you’re going to do…wait for the penny to drop…and then go. Sure, you can stop for one more quick hug before you go, but confidently assure them you’ll be back…and go. By responding to their upset with confident assurance, you’re sending the message that it’s okay for them to be upset, but you’re going to continue with what you’re doing…you’re certain they can handle those upset feelings, and you’ll be back. This works with getting in and out of the car, putting shoes on, washing hands, going upstairs to go to bed…You know your child will be upset…the goal is not to do whatever possible to avoid the upset: embrace that they will protest, acknowledge it peacefully, and move on. The calm and confidence you bring to the table will carry you through the upset.

Speaking of weekly RIE classes (which WILL come back!), those 90 minutes were a chance for you to let go of all of your worries and anxieties, your day-to-day life, and simply be present. I KNOW that is hard to do at home; I feel it, too: our homes used to be the place we went to get away from it all…now it’s all here with us! Keep reminding yourself: self-care is not selfish, it’s sustaining: Do less, observe more, enjoy most.