As a parent living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), this past fall felt like the beginning of a new chapter for me. Two of my children were enrolled in third and first grade, and my youngest was preparing to attend preschool three days a week.
After years of having my children at home most of the time, I was looking forward to having dedicated hours to myself each day. I was eager to dig into my patient advocacy work and start developing new projects for Mamas Facing Forward, my Facebook support group and website for moms and moms-to-be with chronic illness. I had even joined the local YMCA so I could begin swimming and practicing yoga again.
Needless to say, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Since the onset of the pandemic, nearly everything about my family’s daily routine has changed. My husband is now working from home. Given my higher risk for complications related to COVID-19, all three of our children are now home schooling too. We don’t interact with anyone outside of our “quarantine bubble” or spend time anywhere other than outdoors. And it wasn’t long before we had to cancel that YMCA membership.
“Remember, self-care isn’t just massages and bubble baths; it’s important to your emotional well-being as an individual and as an adult.”
My experience managing my RA has taught me that taking care of myself is an essential part of caring for my family. I’ve written before about the importance of “filling your cup” so you’ll have more to share with the people around you. Still, as my family and I navigated the challenges of this year, I learned new lessons about self-care—and myself—that I know I will carry with me for years to come.
When It’s Hard to Prioritize, Get Creative
Prioritizing self-care is more difficult since the pandemic began because almost all of the resources I depended on to help care for my children and myself—school, preschool, babysitters, places to exercise, massage therapy—are currently not an option for me within the boundaries we’ve set for our quarantine bubble. When there is virtually no break from being “on” as a parent, making my own needs a priority can be extremely difficult.
I’ve had to get creative in carving out small amounts of time for myself throughout the day. My favorite “hack” so far has been to continue packing lunchboxes and snacks for my children every day, just as if they were going to school. Taking a few minutes to do this prep work at night makes my daily routine so much easier. There’s no argument about what they’ll eat, and I get to sit down and eat my own lunch instead of running around prepping food for everyone else. Sometimes, I even let the children pack their boxes the night before, which is a treat for them and an extra break for me!
Take the Time to Talk Things Out
Life with RA can be unpredictable. While I’ve been fortunate to be doing very well physically right now, the added stress of the pandemic and household demands have taken a toll.
My husband and I have explained to our children why having RA means we have to be more careful in quarantine than some of our friends and neighbors. I’ll admit that it has been challenging to find the line between being honest about my risk and scaring them, but we always try to give them facts (at an age-appropriate level) and be as reassuring as possible.
I always remind myself that this isn’t a “Talk” with a capital “T” or a serious sit-down meeting. Instead, it’s an ongoing dialogue that we have as a family whenever the opportunity arises, where I encourage them to ask questions and tell me how they feel.
Flag What’s Not Working—and Find a Better Way
For a while, I was struggling with the fact that my new role as a home-school teacher had taken away my identity as a writer and patient advocate. I simply didn’t have time or energy to spare for anything else. Although my professional work is more flexible than my husband’s, it’s still just as important. And though we both agreed it was safer for our children to learn from home, that didn’t mean the added responsibility of home-school should fall squarely on one parent.
After being frustrated with the situation for a while, my husband and I had a heart-to-heart talk, and I told him how I felt. The next day, he talked to his boss, and we came up with a schedule that would allow both of us to prioritize our work. On Fridays, my husband now works a half shift so he can supervise the children’s schoolwork, which gives me uninterrupted hours to write, work and spend a bit of time alone. Then, we usually order pizza and watch a movie to give everyone a break.
Remember, self-care isn’t just massages and bubble baths; it’s important to your emotional well-being as an individual and as an adult. If it wasn’t for the constant pressure of parenting during the pandemic, I don’t think we ever would have advocated for this important change that has allowed our family to prioritize both of our careers.
While this year has presented new challenges for all of us, it’s also given me the chance to strengthen bonds with my children and improve communication with my husband. It’s a reminder to focus on the many things I have to be grateful for—even if some of those things are different than they were a few months ago.
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