Like most mums, I wear a bunch of different hats. I’m daughter to one amazing mother and sister to one super sister. Wife, so happily, to my wonderful man. Friend and colleague, gratefully, to lots of lovely people. And I’m mummy to two little girls. But now that I’m a mum, who am I to me?
My previous life was defined by my own choices, my own responsibilities, and my own freedoms. Around work and home commitments, I was in charge of when and how I got things done. Like most people, I had reasonably efficient feedback loops in place (you know: appraisals at work, exercise and nutrition in my body, communication in relationships, that sort of thing), which allowed me to do more of the stuff that was working, and less of the stuff that wasn’t.
Then I had a baby. And my instincts got all tangled up in a web of contradictory advice, growth charts and unrealistic feeding schedules, and it was suddenly impossible to know, day to day, if I was doing an ok job. I spent a lot of the first year of motherhood trying to figure out what defined me now. The milk? The ninja wiping skills? The zombie brain fog? Feeling spun out by the dozens of different emotions in the space of ten minutes? Or just the terrifying truth of not having a bloody clue what I was doing?!
So for a while, I clung to the wiping as the one achievable constant I could be sure was making a difference. I had lost control of so much else, but wiping was mine to own. I wiped tiny noses, squidgy bottoms, sticky hands and every kitchen surface I could reach. I was wiping to clean up the mess, and really, there is very little that a baby wipe and a bit of determination cannot handle. Except that I was missing the point, because the real mess was on the inside:
I had no idea who I was anymore.
All the things that previously made up ‘me’ no longer really fitted. My responsibilities now felt suffocating, my choices were at once infinite and so confined, my freedom was non-existent and there was next to no direct feedback. Clothes didn’t fit, thoughts were all scrambled, music was weirdly filtered and food frustratingly unsatisfying (a convenient excuse for the third packet of biscuits?). There was so much internal dialogue and so much external checking going on, and it terrified me that I didn’t know when anything might ever ‘fit’ again. So I just kept wiping!
Instead of work deadlines, relationships and current affairs, my head was now full of routines and safety and nutritional goals. Not to mention all the guilt and worry and contingencies. I had nothing to talk about but boobs and buggy attachments and all the colours of poo, and it made me feel really dumb and oh so lonely. On and on I wiped…
I felt guilty for feeling that my favourite times of day were when the baby was finally asleep and I could just sit in silence for a few moments to reconnect with my own existence. I craved more time to just breathe and be a person again. To remember that I was capable of something more than just surviving (and wiping). I needed the other parts of me to still matter.
Fast forward a few years and I’m now back at work as a Happiness Coach for mums, helping other mums tackle some of these questions. I have two preschoolers so I still do plenty of wiping. But my internal world is much cleaner now so it’s less of an existential necessity. Here are 10 ways I cleaned up on the inside that might help you too:
1. Do something for yourself every single day. It might be as simple as a deep breath, a quick stretch or a walk in fresh air. If you can also manage a hot drink, a shower, or a solo trip to the loo, you are winning.
2. Be your own friend, cut yourself some slack. Worry and guilt are exhausting and futile. You do enough. You are enough. You don’t have to have all of tomorrow’s answers today.
3. Connect with people in real life. Social media is great for lots of stuff, but generally terrible for self-esteem. Early parenting can be really lonely, so reach out and you’ll find that you are not alone. Because we were never supposed to do this alone, it’s just that modern culture has stolen and warped our village.
4. Define each of your roles and put up boundaries. Wear mum clothes to be a mum, and change to do work or social stuff. Uniforms really help to shape and ground your mindset. Find other things that define those roles for you too. And remember that trying to juggle everything simultaneously usually makes for a rubbish job all round.
5. Make time for things that bring you joy, peace, fulfilment, energy, or whatever it is that you are seeking. And if you don’t know what those things are anymore, talk about it with someone who cares about your happiness. You deserve it, and so does your family.
6. Give and receive appreciation in all its forms. Young children don’t really understand the meaning of ‘thank you’ beyond us nagging them to say it, so allow them to find their own ways to show you that they are grateful for everything you do. Gestures, hugs and just being present, are all powerful ways to say ‘I love you’.
7. Say the scary things out loud. It’s ok to resent your partner or not really like the kids sometimes, to long for a break, or to ask for help. Naming these thoughts and emotions makes them easier to manage, and chances are someone else feels exactly the same.
8. Trust your own instincts and make choices that work for you and your family, regardless of what anyone else is saying or doing. ‘Should’ is not your friend, and neither are other people’s rules.
9. Put your inhibitions (and your phone!) away for half an hour with the kids and just get silly. Be curious, present, and try seeing and being with them as if it were for the first time.
10. Perfect parenting does not exist – get your head around this. You can have lots of magic moments, and plenty of good days. But we’re living on a spectrum, and it’s constantly changing, so if want something to be ‘better’, stop looking for ‘best’: just finding something that’s a bit better than what you’ve got now, is a great result.