Anxious Parenting Practicalities Part 8: How to Recharge as a Parent with a Mental Health Disorder
I had no idea how to rest and recharge when I first became a father. I imagine many new parents have felt the same. It's easy enough to understand - for one thing, your 'down time' isn't down time anymore. As a friend with young kids once told me, 'your down time is for all the things you couldn't get done while your kids were awake'. Truth well-told, sir.
In my experience, the demands of early parenthood can also make you forget an important fact about your mood and energy; one that you may not have even been consciously aware of before kids:
There's a difference between rest and recharging.
Simple, yet confusing, isn't it? Here's how I differentiate between the two: rest is what you do to recover back to your energy baseline, which is the fuel you need to get through your essential daily functions (work, chores, hygiene, staying alert while driving, etc.). Recharging is what you do to bank some happiness, excitement and relaxation. It's the stuff that makes you feel happy, not just rested; energized, not just awake.
For a long time, I struggled with bringing my energy back above a state of 'semi-rested'. Granted, that's not entirely surprising or noteworthy for a new parent, but there's no denying that returning to some state of balance and energy is essential for all parents (mental health diagnosis or otherwise). As a parent with OCD, I find that pushing myself into a state of happiness rather than baseline functioning makes me a better version of myself, and a better father and husband. That said, I struggled for a long time to figure out how to make that happen, and I've only recently found a balance that works. So, having made this discovery for myself, I'd like to share a quick and simple equation that made all the difference for figuring out how to intentionally recharge:
Recharge = something that made you feel good pre-kids - the demands of family life
That equation might seem silly or redundant, but it needs to be put to use for its magic to truly show. Here's a real example of how I used it in my life:
I love lifting heavy things; have done since I was eighteen years old. There's just something about strength training that makes me feel focused and alive. Before I had kids, I strength-trained a lot. At my peak, I was doing high-intensity workouts with a coach anywhere from three to five times per week, depending on the demands of the workout. When my boys came along, I naturally had to scale that habit back, but I couldn't figure out a balanced way to do it, and the result was the utter disappearance of any fitness training at all. That wasn't my intention, but, as any person with OCD will tell you, rigid thinking seeps into decisions in the weirdest ways, and in my mind, heavy lifting was an all-or-nothing deal: either I could train the way I envisioned, or I couldn't.
Eventually, as my boys got a bit older and I spent a bit more time contemplating my routines, I came to a realization: it's ok to choose something that makes you feel good, and to take the time to do it. The catch is, you have to consciously modify your old habits to fit your new lifestyle. It's a waste of time and energy trying to recreate the schedule you had for your hobbies and habits pre-kids. Your time is a pie chart. It can't be expanded, only re-arranged. Here's what that looked like for me:
Strength Training Pre-Kids
Strength Training Post-Kids
4 - 5 times per week, usually in the evening
1 - 2 hours of rest and recovery post-workout
High-intensity training with frequent max-out attempts
$50 - 70 per month spent on supplements and equipment
3 times per week, almost always in the early morning
10 - 15 minutes of stretching and recovery
Moderate-intensity training, with occasional max-out attempts and high-intensity sessions
Training supplemented through nutrition and reasonable bed times
As you can see, I've kept most of what I enjoyed about my strength training pre-kids, and adjusted it so that I have a balance between my family and my need to recharge. It would be dishonest to say that I don't occasionally miss having all the time in the world to train, but I also know, beyond any doubt, that I would rather have my boys and less intense training than any other situation. That said, I also know that no training at all would lead to a less healthier version of me in many ways, so it's not as if I want to drop my training altogether, but the time I've spent consciously sorting out what my training can look like in my new lifestyle has paid dividends for me, and for my loved ones.
So, to you, good reader, I offer the following thought: OCD and rigid thinking may make you think that your old lifestyle is gone forever, but that doesn't have to be the case. It's OK to struggle with new and significant changes, but remember that creating a modified version of something you previously enjoyed is possible with conscious time and effort. It took me the better part of three years to figure that out. With any luck, this post and my personal wishes and encouragement for your health and happiness will speed you through that process a little faster. Without trying to sound presumptuous, I would venture that everyone in your life - including you - will be better for it.