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Is Self-Improvement Possible For New Parents?

It's easy to not focus on improving yourself when you're a parent. It feels selfish. And time and energy are low commodities. But it can — and should — be done.

As director of The Brain Academy, a Manhattan-based meditation center, Gustavo Oliveira has helped hundreds of high-powered New York professionals replace anxiety with mindfulness. 

“In a very busy city like New York, it’s pretty challenging to be a good father, do good work, and still have quality of life,” Oliveira said. “Combining these three things together isn’t an easy task.”

Oliveira has a front row seat for how the fast-pace and stress of modern urban life makes our already frenetic brains squeal in frantic, perpetual motion  “Our mind is a very noisy instrument,” he said. “It’s very difficult to turn off your thoughts and turn off the things that you are worrying about at a specific moment, especially if you’re facing stress.”

But even though he dedicated his professional life to helping others rise above their stress, Oliveira never truly appreciated what his clients were going through until three months ago, when he became a first-time dad.

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“Everything I teach here for my students, I’m applying for myself,” he said.

For Oliveira, and many, many, modern moms and dads, parenthood appears as a roadblock to self-improvement. If it’s hard for him, a man who does it for a living, is there any hope for the rest of us? When I posed that question on Facebook, the answer seemed to be a hard “no,” with one dad summing up the situation succinctly: “There is no time. We’re all fucked.”

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Personal growth takes time and energy, the two commodities parents have in shortest supply. It also requires a focus on oneself that can seem unseemly and shameful. After all, we’re supposed put our kids first. But for many new parents, bettering oneself feels more urgent than ever. Kids deserve the best version of their parent, not the short-tempered, scatterbrained, out of shape, stupid, or self-indulgent parent one might worry they are. That urgency can lead to frustration, which makes bettering oneself harder. In other words, the snake continues to devour itself.

But do parents have to stop growing when they have kids? Life coaches, yoga teachers, and personal trainers, and various others in the self-improvement space say no. When one is a parent, the path to better isn’t easy but it does exist. More so, it’s a challenge worth taking both for one’s own sake and the sake of their kids.

Getting started is difficult. Bad self help advice abounds. The personal development industry is a $9.9 billion sirens’ chorus of infomercials, institutes, self-help books, motivational speakers, websites, apps, seminars, personal coaching, and weight loss programs trying to lure people from their cash. Every time we watch a television talk show, read a story online, or pass the magazine and book racks at the grocery store, someone promises easy happiness through simple purchases. Those promises almost uniformly prove to be hollow.

“You can read all the self-help books you want but unless you are practicing and doing the work, it won’t stick,” said life coach Michael Buckley. “When you watch silly shows like the Today Show in the fourth hour, you hear lots of BS about taking ‘me’ time and getting a facial and going for a walk or blah blah blah. That’s adorable but you’re just putting a bandaid on your problem.”

None of these purported solutions change how you respond to the world, Buckley said, so the problem remains. “You are the cause of your problems and you are the solution to your problems,” Buckley said.

Before one starts trying to change, they need to know why they want to change. Megan Bowles, a yoga instructor at Maryland’s Unity Woods Yoga School and a mother of two (and, full disclosure, my cousin) noted that people can want to grow for the wrong reasons. When we see our fellow parents walking around with yoga mats rolled under their arm, we feel inadequate or jealous.

“Sometimes the idea of self-improvement is built on a dissatisfaction with yourself that is toxic,” Bowles said.

Parents are especially vulnerable to that toxic dissatisfaction. We constantly compare ourselves to other parents, which makes us feel like we’re constantly failing as parents and people. “We see other parents doing educational activities with their kids or just staying calm when their kids are melting down,” Bowles said.

Many parents, then, might start on a path to self-improvement out of negativity but they’ll never finish. No one ever ran a marathon out of spite. One’s expectations of the activity and their self have to be correctly calibrated. If one expects to transform into a completely different and perfect person, the reality of the results will inevitably disappoint you.

When New Jersey mom of one Shana Cinquegrana started practicing yoga 15 years ago, it changed her life, giving her tools to deal with anxiety and depression. As she grew in the practice and and to teach it, she saw yoga become a gigantic industry and noticed that social media portrayed it with images of beautiful people doing acrobatic postures on waterfalls, creating false assumption about how yoga can change a person.

“The benefits of yoga are usually not what people expect,” Cinquegrana said. “The physical practice is not just about getting a workout despite what our western culture would have us believe. Yoga teaches us how to comfortably and peacefully inhabit our bodies. It helps to reprogram the nervous system to more efficiently handle stress.”

Yoga works when it makes you feel good. And for parents, doing something that makes them feel good comes at a price: we feel like we’re shortchanging our kids. Pursuing happiness feels frivolous and selfish.

However, it’s good for our kids to see that yoga, exercise, learning and meditation make us happy. It will likely encourage them to try to those things, too.

“We’re always teaching our kids how to behave by how they see us act,” Bowles said. “To the extent that we see a need to take care of ourselves, we’re going to be better parents and better people, we’ll also be better models of behavior for our kids.”

When we do something we enjoy and feel good about ourselves, that feeling isn’t compartmentalized. Certified personal trainer and owner of the New Jersey gym NJ Fitness Factory David Hinze said he’s seen the parents he’s trained benefit in a variety of ways, including a flush of pride in their appearance. Maybe that involves a little vanity there, but the influence on their parenting is a huge net positive nonetheless.

“They have a lot more energy to play with their kids,” Hinze said. “They feel healthier. They feel more confident when they’re around other parents. No one likes to look like the old parent when their kids are out at the park.”

Hinze said that the parents who stick it out for training programs tend to have more support. “They might have their parents around to watch the kids a little bit more or they’re able to connect with other parents so one parent brings the kids to dance on Mondays and another on Wednesdays.”

Of course, not everyone has access to a support system or other resources needed for self improvement. Self care isn’t free. Like every other service and good in a market economy, those with more money have more access. Not only can they afford individualized yoga instruction, physical training, and life coaching, but they can afford to pay for childcare during those sessions. Buying gear and clothes for a lifestyle change isn’t a problem. They’re also able to afford nutrition-rich foods and quality healthcare. They’re free from the constant gnawing anxiety of being broke. All that adds up to a huge head start on attaining health and peace of mind.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans can’t afford to get off the daily grind. As Connecticut dad of two Jorge Castro said, self improvement just seems out of reach. “I’m pretty much just dealing with shit as it comes up,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to. If I made more money, I probably would.”

But while average parents may not have access to high-ticket personal care, we can grow by consciously changing our everyday behavior. As Cinquegrana noted, the path to self-improvement can start with small steps.

“Get off your devices and be present for your kids,” Cinquegrana said. “Put [the phone] down when they talk to you. Look at them when they talk to you. See them and hear them or they’ll stop talking to you.”

So even if the all-caps self improvement that’s marketed isn’t manageable for most busy, stressed-out parents, there are ways to better oneself. It’s about changing your mindset and doing whatever you can. Small steps are better than no steps at all.