Most of us have either given or received this advice: "you need to take care of yourself first or you are no good to anybody else!" Makes sense. It's good advice. The only problem? If someone is saying that to me, or I am saying that to someone else...it's probably obvious to everyone that there is a problem with self-care. After all, most of us tend to cycle through periods of adequate to great self care and periods of slips, relapses, indulgences, too-tired-to-care-about-much-of-anything!
Self-care is one of the greatest challenges of family break-up and family conflict. Self-care by the parents is one of the protective factors essential to the long term positive adjustment and well-being of the little ones. Children need to be cared for and protected from adult concerns to the greatest extent possible and that responsibility lies with the parents. Unfortunately, some parents care for themselves by placing the burden and responsibility for adult worries squarely on the shoulders of the children. Directly: "tell your Mom/Dad that I need the child support or I can't pay for your school pictures." Indirectly: "Oh, sweetie, I wish we could afford to do that, but your Mom/Dad isn't paying his/her child support so we just can't afford it."
We know that inter-parental hostility creates a negative home environment and results in children who experience stress, unhappiness, and feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. Research informs us that that parents who go through a high conflict family break-up are more likely to devalue the importance of the other parent in the life of the child and interfere with the other parent's relationship with the child. Research also informs us that an ongoing relationship with both parents serves a protective function and predicts a child's overall well being. In fact, several studies have found that children in joint custody situations fare better after divorce than children who are in sole custody situations.
Let's look more closely at inter-parental hostility and its affect on self-care and care for the other. It's perhaps the clearest example of a parent putting his or her own emotional needs far ahead of the needs of the child for warmth, care, nurturing, and protection. Hostile parents are stuck in an attitude of opposition, negativity, hatred and loathing toward the other parent and, therefore, toward important aspects of who his or her child is! Hostile parents are not able to love, accept and nurture ALL of who the child is, but only a part. Hostility/negativity as a stuck position for a coparent makes self-care an impossibility, which means that care for the child will be impaired long term and the child lives in a state of vulnerability and insecurity rather than stability and security.
For many parents who survive the earthquake of a family break-up, accepting personal responsibility for the quality of our life and that of our children moving forwards is the key to peace in the family and is at the core of self-care. This doesn't mean that all is forgiven but it definitely means that I take responsibility for my own choices on a daily basis and move toward my own healing and wholeness. Some parents are not able to make the changes needed to truly move forward; mental illness including trauma histories, substance abuse, poverty and other fundamental challenges interfere. The good news for the child is that a stable, loving, healthy parental relationship with just one of their parents can compensate for the impairments of the other parent.