Becoming a mother is the best thing that has ever happened to me. My daughter brings me a joy and satisfaction that I’ve never experienced before. Being her mum has made me want to be a better person. But as much as parenting is immensely fulfilling, it is also overwhelming and all consuming. There are times when I simply need to take a break from it to refocus, catch my breath and centre myself. However, like so many other mum’s, when I finally take the break I so desperately need, there’s an annoying voice in the back of my head poking at my conscience. After all, why would I want to be away from my sweet girl? Does it mean I am selfish or lazy? Am I a bad mum for needing some ‘me’ time?
Why is it so important for mums to have guilt free “me time”?
From the instant your baby is placed in your arms, you yourself are reborn. You are now a mother, and your precious baby becomes the centre of your world. There is an expectation that from that moment you will sacrifice your own needs and wants for that of your child’s. You’ve already sacrificed your body, and now, during the newborn weeks, even your most basic needs are compromised. Sleeping, showering, sometimes even eating. I lost count of the amount of times I sat and stared longingly at a plate of delicious food whilst instead tending to my baby’s immediate needs. Perhaps even more so now she is a toddler with opinions.
As they grow older their needs change but as a parent you are still in high demand. Your social life takes a hit and suddenly your life revolves around your child’s social schedule instead. When you really want to put your feet up and read a book, there is a never-ending list of mundane chores that have to be done instead. Life as you know it changes, the focus is no longer on you. Not by a long way. And as a besotted mother you fulfil the role naturally and willingly. It is what you signed up for, it’s the reality of being given the gift of motherhood. You wouldn’t swap it for the world and the brightness of your contented smile masks the ever evolving bags under your eyes.
But often, inevitably, it comes at a price.
The weight of the “motherload”.
Never before in history have fathers been as involved in childcare as they are now. In many families both parents work to contribute financially, and so it is only fair of course that they should also divide childcare responsibilities. This is idealistic in theory, but does it really work in practice?
I, along with the majority of mum’s that I know, will vouch for the fact in reality that is not always how things are. Many of us have amazing, hands on partners who are without a doubt great dads. They will get up in the night, change nappies, play with the kids, cook and help out around the house. But there is still an awful lot that still ultimately falls to mum. Remembering and making appointments for example. Making sure everyone has the new clothes/shoes/equipment they need and that they are clean and ready to go when required. Providing a nutritious diet, arranging childcare, packing for trips, ensuring the children are getting the right balance of mental, physical and emotional stimulation. The list goes on.
This is probably pretty un PC but I’m going to say it anyway, there are some things that we as women are just better at in that respect. Many dads are now seeing this hidden labour in light of being home more often, and are stepping up to lighten the load. But they are still evolving and learning within their new role. As women we have a more natural ability to juggle and think about many different things at once. It’s our superpower.
So the fact is in a lot of cases we mum’s are still running the child rearing show. The list of “hidden labour” is exhaustive, and unfortunately that is the effect it can have on us as well. The problem is that when combined with our other responsibilities -work, household chores, cooking, maintaining relationships- there is often no room left to consider ourselves. Our children are happy and have their needs met, whilst our own get neglected. When you also factor in that many people are now living geographically far away from their families and the support they provide (see my article on parenting without a village) , and the increasing isolation we feel thanks to the COVID19 pandemic, it becomes a recipe for total mental burnout.
Signs of mental exhaustion include;
- Feeling detached and apathetic.
- Feelings of failure and self doubt.
- Negativity and hopelessness.
- Low mood or depression.
- Lack of energy and motivation.
- Sleeping too much or not enough.
- Anger and short temper.
When Mum is burnt out, everyone in the family suffers. As the old saying goes “you can’t pour from an empty cup” and I couldn’t agree more. When your mind is clouded and heavy, it becomes impossible to see through it. You can’t be the best parent you can be when you simply have nothing left to give.
The danger comes when we carry on regardless because we feel we have to. This can swamp us with even more symptoms of mental exhaustion, and so the cycle continues. It’s so important that we learn to recognise when we are feeling this way instead of withdrawing further into ourselves as is so easy to do. For me personally I know that when I become short tempered and lose the motivation to write, cook or play with my daughter that I am close to the point of burnout. Losing my passion for the things I usually love is my sign that I need to take action.
There is really only one way out of the pit of mental exhaustion, and that is quality “me time”. That is to say time with yourself, for yourself, doing whatever you want to do. And that includes doing absolutely nothing if that works for you. We are just humans, at heart simple creatures. I’m not talking about elaborate holidays here, although if you can swing that luxury go for it! I’m talking about beautiful and simple things. A candlelit bath and a good book, a glass of wine with a close friend, a walk or hike alone, a date night with your partner. Time away from your children, ignoring what you think “needs” to be done and instead doing whatever makes you feel happy.
I am a sociable introvert. I love the company of other people, but also need time alone to recharge my batteries. As all mothers know, time alone is a rare occurrence, especially when you have babies or toddlers that are not yet at school. So for me, it is that I seek in order to heal. Once every few months I will pack my little one and her dad off to his parents house for the weekend. I use the time to first get the house cleaned and tidy. I know, I know, but I am one of those people that can’t relax in a messy environment. Then I will write (if I feel like it), go for walks, have a drink with friends, exercise, watch movies, give myself a pamper session. Whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it. Bliss!
Dealing with the inevitable guilt.
As I wave them off and my daughter is blowing me sweet kisses, I have a lump in my throat and tears stinging my eyes. I have in the past even wondered if there is something wrong with me to want time away from the people I love most in the world. But I have learned to allow myself to feel that sadness, then let it go. As my weekend to myself progresses I can literally feel the life coming back into me. I reconnect to my own thoughts and my mind clears. I like to see it as restoring myself to my factory settings.
Infuriatingly of course I miss my little girl every second she is gone. But I know that when she comes home I will be feeling reengaged, remotivated and recharged. I will be there to greet her and my partner with a big smile, open arms and genuine relief to have them back. I will be back to loving motherhood and life again.
So to the jaded mum reading this who might be feeling ashamed that you need some time to yourself, do not feel guilty. It is not self indulgent, ungrateful or weak. It is nothing less than essential. Motherhood is hard and it is constant. You are the centre of your family, and you are only human. If you fall apart the whole family does, so if you can’t do it for yourself do it for them. Trust me, you will be so glad you did.