You know that self-care is important, and in fact, a necessary part of a healthy and balanced life. In your role as a parent, you’re likely glaringly aware that your self-care needs are the first to drop off the priority list when life gets hectic.

Self-care is not extravagant. It’s not frilly and luxurious. It’s not even expensive—well, it doesn’t have to be. Somehow our understanding of self-care got tangled up with indulgent pampering, and right away many (or most) parents figured self-care simply couldn’t be for them.

So first of all, can we all reset our understanding of what self-care really is? Ask yourself the simple question: what do I need in order to feel cared for and comforted, and how can I do this for myself?

For parents, this often comes down to the most basic needs, like eating nutritious food, moving the body, sleeping well, stimulating the mind, processing emotions, and finding some quality interpersonal connections—that aren’t the kids!

Self-care is about tending to all parts of you, including your mind, body, spirit, and relationships. It’s about checking in with yourself on each of those levels, understanding which areas need more energy, and how to actually meet those needs.

But here’s the challenge: especially during those early years with your kids, your needs take the back seat. And honestly, I think this is natural and not necessarily a bad thing. Your life feels out of balance because it is out of balance. Never in your life will another little human need you to the extent that a new baby does! And remember—it’s temporary.

I understand this first hand and I certainly won’t tell you flippantly that you need to focus more energy on you. If a therapist told me that during those baby days, I’m not sure I would have given the advice much thought. In my mind, there was absolutely no way that was possible.

I use to view self care as another item on the to-do list that I just didn’t have time for. Somehow I had this idea that I could make self-care a central part of my life, but all this did was brought me more stress knowing how poorly I was taking care of myself. Why can’t I take these vitamins? How hard is 30 minutes of exercise a day? Why do I keep staying up so late? Why do I drink so much coffee? What’s wrong with me?

We often set the bar too high, expecting monumental change to happen almost overnight and then loathe ourselves when we fail “yet again.” And if we equate self-care to another chore on the to-do list (like I had been doing) then it’s unlikely to get done. We might even actively avoid it just like that laundry pile in the corner. Are chores motivating? Exciting? Calming and fulfilling? Do they let you recharge your energy, calm your system, and feel better? Maybe…but probably not.

So here are some suggestions to help you make self-care part of your everyday life:

Stop setting such lofty goals that make you feel badly about yourself. Now this might be strange to read and certainly counter to what you’ve learned in this society, but what if you lower your standards? Could you consider creating small and do-able goals rather than shooting so high and ultimately setting yourself up for disappointment?

Reduce coffee instead of cutting it out.

Workout twice a week rather than think somehow six days a week is realistic.

Write for just a few minutes in your journal each day.

Eat something, anything, green every day.

Ask yourself, “What is simple and doable?”

The other key to easily weave self-care into your life as a busy parents is to double dip with your time rather than add more to your plate. In other words, is there a way that you can do some self-care while you are going about your normal day?

For example, maybe you put on your favourite music when cooking dinner and give your ears a break from the kid-tunes you’ve so kindly rocked all day for your little ones.

Let’s say you’ve been wanting to start a gratitude journal. What if you got into the habit of writing a few things down every morning at the breakfast table while you sit with the kids? You could even make gratitude more of a family practice or ritual during dinner time.

What if you learned a simple visualization that you could do every day in the shower? My favourite is to imagine the water rinsing off everything that I don’t want or need to be carrying around with me that day. It might be frustration, self-judgement, worry, regret—just imagine the water taking it all away. Then, focusing on what you want to carry with you throughout the day (like ease, calm, positivity) washing over every inch of you.

And my personal favourite for moms of younger kiddos: hang on to naps or quiet time as long as you can. Teaching your kids the value of resting the body and mind for an hour in the afternoon is a beautiful lesson, and then see if you can take that time to dive into a book or do something just for you.

Self-care doesn’t have to be a huge monumental gesture of self-love, and it doesn’t have to cause stress or take up time that you certainly don’t have. Be creative and find ways that you can sneak self-care into to your daily family routine so that it doesn’t cost you even more time and energy.

Re-learning how to prioritize yourself takes practice. By becoming a parent, you shifted your focus and finite energy to your children and this inevitably leaves less for you. Your job now is to renegotiate how you fit into the equation. Start right now by thinking of just one small way to send yourself some of the love you so rightfully deserve.

Kate Borsato is a mental health counsellor on Vancouver Island. With her online counselling practice, she supports women during their transitions into motherhood and postpartum stages. Learn more at kateborsato.com