Staying afloat

Do you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed-out, and frustrated? Are you sinking under the weight of your perceived parental responsibilities and duties, and drowning in a sea of unrealistic expectations and self-imposed guilt? Worst of all, do you feel like you're starting to lose yourself at the same time as you lose the plot?


"Mum! Muuuuuuum!" How many times a day do you hear that word? When I was growing up, I clearly remember my own mother, in an occasional fit of irritation, swearing that she had hanged her name for the day and wasn't answering to "Mum" any more. My younger brothers and I would get so frustrated when she did this, because we were children and we didn't know that she had a "real name" - and if we couldn't call her "Mum", what else could we call her to get her attention?

When your child first starts to speak, all that you want to hear them say is the word "Mama". Many women are quite happy to become "Mum", "Mummy", or another of the other endless variations of "Mother", but at some point, you may start to feel like you don't have another name, like that single three-letter word "Mum" is the sum total of your life. That can be pretty sobering, especially when, before you were pregnant, you probably saw yourself and your identity in terms of other things: your education, your job, your hobbies, your personality traits. So when did you become "just a mum"?

Modern mothers face a unique challenge our own mothers may not have fully experienced. Choices are seemingly limitless, yet the expectations placed on mothers are still not realistic enough to make these choices any easier. "Yes, go for the highpowered career," says society. "But when you have children, you have to be an absolutely amazing mother. And if you want the career and the baby, you'd better excel at both!" There's no room for compromise or a relaxation of the rules. If you want it all, you have to do it all, and you have to do it well. There's no such thing as a "good-enough" mother - and if there is, it's not something that we talk about, because we're all too busy trying to be Supermums and stealing sideways glances at our peers, wondering if we're the only ones thinking, "Is this really how it's supposed to be?"

Is it any wonder mothers are overwhelmed, exhausted, and stretched beyond their limits? We're struggling to keep our heads above the water as we sink under the weight of those unrealistic expectations and the guilt at not being able to meet them. In order to have it all, we sacrifice ourselves. I recently read a quote by Tenneva Jordan: "A mother is someone who, when seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces that she never did care for pie." Mothers, it's time to reclaim your piece of the pie. Here's how to stay afloat in a sea of self-doubt and overwhelming responsibilities, and to learn to value your own identity once more.

Stop blaming yourself
Do you ever catch yourself moaning, "Oh, I'm such a bad mum!" Maybe you snapped at your toddler a bit too harshly this morning. Or you accidentally pinched her fingers in the car seat buckle. Or you rushed him through a busy day, ignoring his complaints of a sore tummy, only to watch him spew all over himself as you were going into the bank. Or your newborn has a bad case of nappy rash that's turned into thrush. All of these cringe-worthy moments make mums feel bad - but, all too often, instead of putting the event into context and looking rationally at what happened, we are too quick to heap undeserved blame upon our own shoulders. If you hear a friend saying, "I'm such a bad mummy!" there's no way you'd reply, "Yes, you're terrible, and you should be ashamed of your parenting skills." More than likely, you'd be quick to reassure her that of course she's a good mum, and that one negative incident does not define her parenting style. So why are you an exception?  Modern mothers face a unique challenge our own mothers may not have fully experienced. Choices are seemingly limitless, yet the expectations placed on mothers are still not realistic enough to make these choices easier "I should have known!" you cry. "Why didn't I realise what was going on?" Why, indeed? First of all, you're not a mind-reader, as much as some parenting manuals may tell you that you should be in touch with your little one's thoughts and feelings.

If your toddler isn't talking yet or is talking, but not clearly, he can't tell you what's going on, whether it's a pinched finger or an itchy mosquito bite. All you can do is respond to what you see and pick up on. There is absolutely nothing that you can do about that, unless you want to stress yourself out further by overreacting and compulsively checking your child for any little symptom, sign or little thing that you might have missed - which complicates the situation further, as a hyper-vigilant parent makes for a stressed-out, high-maintenance child. On the bright side, once you've experienced a "bad mum" moment, you're not likely to let it happen again. If you look at your moments of mummy guilt as learning opportunities rather than mistakes, you'll be less inclined to get into situations where you might end up feeling guilty and upset - and you'll be less inclined to beat yourself up for things that you can't control.

Second of all, you're operating on a deficit of sleep, which automatically lessens your cognitive abilities and impairs your judgement. The more sleep you miss out on, the less able you are to focus on everyday tasks, handle stress, and fight off illness. Think about what happens when your baby misses out on a nap. He gets cranky and irritable, cries at the drop of a hat, and is unable to be easily soothed. Toddlers behave irrationally, throw tantrums, and frustratedly bounce from activity to activity without being able to concentrate on anything for very long. You're an adult, yet your body is going through the same thing, inside - but instead of throwing a tantrum, you forge on ahead, expecting yourself to be able to function at your normal level of organisation and rationale. When your toddler is overtired, you put him down for a nap. But when you're overtired, you put on another load of washing and berate yourself for not being able to get all of the housework done in a day.

Third, your child is a human being, not a robot. This means that free will is involved. Even your infant, who is so dependent on you and so focused on eating, sleeping, and pooping, has free will. You can't expect to read a manual and have everything work out perfectly, just because you followed the directions to the letter. Humans aren't like that, and, deep down, you wouldn't want your child to be "textbook", because that would be boring. Children are challenging, and part of that challenge is born out of their unique personalities and desires. If you teach your toddler not to play with the electrical outlets and he does so anyway, that is not because you are a bad parent - it's because he is curious, interested, and motivated more by his own desire to find out what the big deal is than he is by your best efforts at warning him away.

How many hats do you wear?Ditch the negative self-talk
It's time to sternly tell that negative voice in your head to pack up and leave. This isn't easy, especially if negative thinking has become a habit for you. Here's a simple task to help you focus on what's really important. Get a piece of paper and a pen, and sit down somewhere quiet. Make a list of descriptive adjectives or short phrases that describe how you want people to see you. Don't spend heaps of time on it, just write down 10 or 15 words. Your list might include words like independent, friendly, kind, interesting, funny, open-minded, accepting, no-nonsense, committed, able to move forward, worthy, intelligent, thoughtful. This is your Me List. Next, make another list, focusing on how you want people to see you as a parent. This list might include words like laidback, humorous, caring, spontaneous, involved, responsible, fun, capable, confident, and loving. This is your Mum List. Now take a hard look at those lists. They are probably pretty similar - the way that you want people to see you as a person and as a mum are likely to be highly congruent. As you're reading over the words you've written, recognise that not only is this how you want others to see you, it's actually how you want to see yourself. And your everyday actions may be at odds with the ideal you've got written down on paper. If you're addicted to guilt, blame, and negative self-talk, you need these two lists, and you need to internalise them. Stick them up on your bathroom mirror, keep them in your handbag, make them into a bookmark. Whatever it takes, just find a place where you will be able to read and reread the words you've written until you've memorised the list enough that it starts to sink in. These words are all characteristics of your authentic self, one you need to start to recognise. When you hear the negative self-talk starting - when the guilt starts to take hold, or you find yourself accepting blame for something that was completely out of your control, take out those lists and ask yourself: "How is this way of thinking serving the way that I want to be seen, and see myself? How am I being authentic by bringing myself down with negativity and self-doubt?"

You need to change your thinking - a gradual process, sure, but one that's highly achievable. If you're beating yourself up because you snapped at your toddler, you're not being authentic and seeing yourself as capable, laid-back, intelligent, and loving. Instead, you're going to the opposite extreme and telling yourself that you're useless, irresponsible, incapable, and unworthy. Focusing on those positive words, that definition of your authentic self, will help you to distinguish between what's real - how you want to see yourself and be seen - and what's futile, ineffectual, negative self-talk that has no value, serves no purpose, and inhibits authentic growth and change. Maintain your identity and self-respect.

From the moment you get pregnant, you have a new "title" to add to your life's CV - that of Mother. It might feel like every other role in your life has been relegated to the background as you prepare for motherhood and the new responsibilities you'll be taking on after your baby's birth. Everyone around you may also focus exclusively on your imminent motherhood and for a long while after the baby is born, their only topic of conversation will be your precious bundle of joy and how things are going for you as a mother. It's very easy to see how you can lose or neglect the other aspects of your identity as you pour yourself into this exciting new role. Every ounce of concentration is necessarily focused on learning how to care for a baby, and how to be a parent. But over time, the other aspects of your life can drift away without you noticing. After a while, you might feel like you don't know who you are any more. Reclaiming and maintaining your identity is so important - and having self-respect is an integral part of this. In the early days, you're often so busy learning and doing new things that you can spend whole days in your pyjamas. When I first had my daughter, I used to jokingly say to friends, "If I've brushed my teeth before noon, it's a good day." I'd get up in the morning, wear my pyjamas until my daughter's mid-morning nap, then grab a shower and put on clean pyjamas rather than "real clothes". Looking back, I now feel immense pity for my husband, coming home from work to a wife in her pyjamas day after day! But having respect for yourself means taking the time to do things that make you feel better about yourself. If you take 20 minutes every day to get a shower and put on clean clothes, soon it will get easier to find the time to put on some lippy, do your hair, and swap the bedroom slippers for shoes when you go to the letterbox. You might think that you don't have time for yourself, but you need to find that time. You did it before you had a child, and you can do it again. Once you start adding simple little "extras" back into your routine, it gets easier and easier to fit them in - and after a while, they become second nature again. It's all about taking things one step at a time, and being determined to give yourself that time and respect that you deserve, especially when the track pants are calling for you!

Take time out for yourself. Hard work is part of being a parent, but it's equally important for you to recognise you do need balance, and you also need to maintain the other aspects of your identity, to seek happiness and fulfi llment from other interests, as well as being a mother. So what does make you happy? You may have become so focused on your child that you've simply forgotten the old things you used to enjoy doing, or you've relegated them to "the good old days", to be looked back upon with nostalgia but not likely to be repeated. You may feel that by focusing on yourself, you're being selfish, neglecting your parental responsibilities, and acting like a bad parent. We're not saying this has to take up as much time as being a parent. It's really about balancing your time enough to have some time out to yourself once in a while for your own sanity and balancing your roles as mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, employee, etc. You need to decide to make your needs a priority as well as doing your best as a parent.

Seeking your own happiness and fulfillment is not a betrayal of your child. Have you heard the phrase, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy?" A happy, satisfied, fulfilled parent is a good parent, for two reasons: 1. If you're happy and fulfilled, you'll be more relaxed, more cheerful, more optimistic, and more able to cope with stress and pressure. A happy, relaxed mother equals a low-key style of parenting that teaches your child to be happy and relaxed rather than mirroring stress, anxiety, and discontentment. 2. A happy mother is a good role model for her children. While you're encouraging your little ones to grow and thrive, you want to send them positive messages about life - that it's good to believe in yourself, to follow your dreams, and to be independent. You need to actually live those things in order to teach them to your children. It's not enough just to tell your children to believe in themselves and follow their dreams. You need to do this, too. And the first step toward self-actualisation is taking time out for yourself, to do what we at OHbaby! call "finding me-time". Taking time out for yourself should be something that you work into every single day, whether it's as simple as sitting down with a magazine and a cup of tea, or as well-planned as going on a weekend spa escape with a girlfriend. Me-time is worth its weight in gold, because it can have magical effects on the whole family.  If you make regular time to give yourself a break from the rigours of parenting, you'll lessen the likelihood of a burnout and keep your stress levels manageable manageable. You'll also be better able to put things into perspective, so that little incidents won't get blown out of proportion. You'll start to use your me-time rituals as ways of coping, and look forward to that time as refreshing, rejuvenating, and relaxing. If you make time for me-time, you will notice a difference, and we've even got more than 100 suggestions for finding me-time, in the mum section of the site also, to get you started.

Children need me-time, too. It's unrealistic to expect yourself to spend every moment by their side, looking into their eyes and reciting vocabulary words while you change their nappies, stimulating them and responding to their every movement. Of course babies need attention - they can't do for themselves - but there is such as thing as overstimulation. You need to teach your little one to look beyond his immediate sphere and be interested in the world around him, and you also need to give him time to process what he's learning and rest. Being a baby is hard work. There are so many things being learned and experienced every day that it is quite overwhelming for them. Give them some time-out too, so that they can have a break from the endless stimulation of the world around them. It's okay to put your baby in his cot with some toys for some quiet time, even if it's not naptime. The time apart will do you both good, and will help them to see that it's okay if you go away for a little while. They might be quite delighted to discover they can entertain themselves, and be secure in the knowledge that yes, you're coming back.

Ask for help
Asking for help is one of the most difficult things for mothers to do. For some it's a matter of pride, for others it's embarrassment that she might be seen as "not coping". The reality is, having a baby is life-changing, and it's not easy for women who were formerly "in control" of their lives to admit that they need a bit of assistance in order to bring life to a manageable state. Here are three ways to get the help that

1. Ask for it.
This is hard for many women to do, as it feels like an admission that they're not coping. But other people, even those who don't have their own little ones, understand that having a baby is extremely difficult and that the schedule changes and sleep deprivation means that you'll be unable to do everything that you used to do. People want to help you; it makes them feel needed. Start with family members and close friends. Ring up your best friend and say, "This is really hard for me to admit, but I need some help." Chances are excellent your friend will say, "I'll come over right after work!"

2. Accept it.
If a friend rings up asking what you need, don't say, "Oh, nothing. We're fine!" Instead, swallow any misgivings you might have and reply, "Hey, that's so kind! To be honest, I'm really struggling with the housework." You don't have to come right out and say "Do my dishes!" Your friend should be savvy enough to pick up on what you're NOT saying and say, "Well, why don't I come over and tidy for you?" And your response to that should be: "Thanks heaps - it would help me a lot. How about Thursday?" Similarly, people who ask what you need for the baby or what gift they can bring can be told, honestly and with a grin, "A voucher for a cleaning company!" And any friend who says they'll bring you dinner should be thanked and told how much you're looking forward to it.

3. Hire it.
If you are really uncomfortable with the idea of your friends and family seeing your house a mess, your laundry piled up to the ceiling, and you and your baby in the same pyjamas you were wearing two days ago, you need to hire some help. There are a couple of paths you can go down. In the immediate weeks following the baby's birth, a doula is wonderful choice. Doulas are trained to help pregnant women and new mothers, and most have a service available where they'll come to your house and "mother" you and your little one in the early days. Besides a doula, you could hire a housekeeper or cleaner in the short-term. Commercial cleaning companies can arrange this for you, and you can get one-off housecleanings. Also, there are maternity nurses who will come stay with you for a few days to get you and your baby into a routine, meal delivery services, online grocery shopping, and other forms of home help that you'll find useful. Staying afloat as a mother isn't easy, especially when you feel overwhelmed with the responsibilities of new parenthood. But you do have options and strategies to try and help lighten your burden and keep you from sinking. It might be difficult at first, but with a bit of practice, you'll soon find you're not simply surviving, you're actually thriving, and enjoying being a mother so much more.

by Katherine Granich


As seen in OHbaby! magazine Issue 1: 2008

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