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    Why you should make yourself, not your kids, top priority

    Parents often deny themselves the opportunity to refuel.
    Parents often deny themselves the opportunity to refuel.

    “You look tired,” my mother recently said to me as my 4-year-old daughter and I were ending a Facetime call with her. “Make sure you carve out some time for yourself to recharge.”

    Free time felt like a novel concept to me. Between juggling my work schedule with my daughter’s preschool day, my first grader’s after-school activities, weekend birthday parties and play dates, and maintaining our household I was flat out. Exercise seemed impossible to fit in, and I was always tired. I was snappy with my husband too frequently and my patience with the kids was often short.

    When I shared my experience with Genevieve Shaw Brown, an editor and reporter for ABC News who recently authored “The Happiest Mommy You Know: Why Putting Your Kids First Is the Last Thing You Should Do,” she laughed.

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    “That was me. I got to the point where my whole life was about my kids and it didn’t seem that unusual,” said Brown, who has three children under 6. After a while though, it started to take a toll. “Without meaning to,” she said, “I was feeling resentful.”

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    Gradually, Brown started making her own needs a priority, and she encourages other parents to do the same — for the good of the family. “You know the oxygen mask on the airplane that they always instruct parents to use before assisting their kids? It’s so true in all aspects of being a parent, it’s basic survival. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your kids very well.”

    A study by the University of Toronto published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2015 said that the average number of hours that mothers spend with their children each week grew from 7.3 in 1975 to 13.7 in 2010, even as the share of mothers working outside the home rose from 41 percent in 1965 to 71 percent in 2014. For fathers, the number rose from 2.4 hours in 1975 to 7.2 in 2010.

    And yet parents today often believe they aren’t spending enough time with their kids — while feeling overwhelmed as they try to balance work and family. Setting aside time to care for their own needs drops quickly off the to-do list, especially for parents with lower incomes, noted Melissa Milkie, a sociologist and co-researcher of the study.

    What difference does that make? In the study, researchers noted that mothers’ distress levels have significant impacts on the well-being of children and asserted the importance of supporting mothers in ways that improve their resources and maintain their health.

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    Newton-based clinical psychologist Deborah Offner agrees that moms and dads who take care of themselves — by finding time to exercise, unplug, pay attention to their own needs — are better able to maintain their equilibrium.

    “Think about the quality of attention you are giving your kids. . . . [I]f you’re exhausted and haven’t had a minute to yourself, you don’t have the presence of mind to really focus on your child,” said Offner. Besides physical benefits, regular exercise helps protect against depression and anxiety, she added.

    Think you don’t have time to get your blood pumping? Kristin Quinn, a South Shore mom of two, says to counter scheduling challenges by starting small. “Don’t make grand plans to do something huge because those usually fall apart: Think small.”

    If Quinn, a blogger who chronicles her experience on Misadventures in Mommyhood, finds herself awake earlier than her kids she takes the 20 or 30 minutes to use her elliptical machine or to do a quick jog around the neighborhood. “It doesn’t seem like much time, but it’s enough to help me feel more refreshed for the kids.”

    Indeed, taking 15 minutes to meditate, or to drink a cup of tea uninterrupted, or to turn off the cellphone and walk around the block, may help let off steam that can build up quickly for busy parents.

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    “Don’t throw in the towel because you lack the time or money for a gym membership or professional massage. Take a hot bath or use a meditation app in your bedroom,” says Offner. “My favorite app is Buddhify (www.buddhify.com) and it only costs 99 cents.”

    Parents also need to give themselves permission to ask other people for help. “If a sitter’s not an option and you don’t have family around, ask a parent of your child’s friend if they could take your kids off your hands for an hour,” says Offner. “You can return the favor. Some parents will plan a weekly schedule of ‘trading’ childcare with each other in order to get a break without having to spend money.”

    “It’s hard for mothers to get out without feeling like we’re doing something wrong,” said Julie Burton. “The way technology is, we can’t get away from life. We’re pulled to the kids, to work, to our spouses — we always have to be available.”

    All the more reason, says Burton, a journalist, yoga instructor, and author of “The Self Care Solution,” to find time to look after yourself.

    Burton points out that parents wouldn’t deny their children a playdate, or a chance to exercise, or some quiet time, yet they deny themselves the opportunity to refuel.

    “If you give and give and give,” she cautioned, “you’ll eventually break down, physically or emotionally.”

    With the stresses of family life and work, spouses often take each other for granted and overlook the importance of maintaining their relationship.

    “The best way to take care of your kids is to keep your family intact,” says Offner. “Lots of marriages fall apart because the couple is so focused on the kids they forget to take care of each other. Every couple weeks go out to dinner alone, or even just for a walk to decompress and remember why you are together.”

    If you can’t get a sitter, focus on each other after the kids have gone to bed. Put the phones away and sit together with a glass of wine or a cup of tea, recommends Burton.

    “It’s easy to feel like you and your spouse are just two ships passing,” she noted. “It’s so important to work on being kind to each other.”

    I recently started playing tennis on Saturday mornings. For the first couple of weeks, my kids, so used to having nearly all of my attention, whined and asked me not to go. I actually considered not going because of it, but my husband pushed me out the door. I’m grateful he did. Now, it’s a highlight of my week.

    “It’s not bad for your kids to learn they aren’t always number one,” said Offner, who has a 13-year-old daughter. “Understanding that they have to wait for your attention helps them learn tolerance.”

    Plus, children need to see their parents taking care of themselves, she adds. “Kids watch us carefully. We want to model balance and healthy habits,” she noted. “They should see you having your own life.”

    Jaci Conry can be reached at jaci@jaciconry.com