The overwhelming need to take time for yourself

Ah, looking after yourself, the fucking bane of every over-worked mother’s life. I always think of those stupid healthy choice ads, frozen gunk meals I associate with working late nights at a law firm. Yes, I am looking after myself, I’m shovelling down something that tastes like wilted seaweed but hey it’s got the heart foundation tick!

My mum is big on soldiering on, doing what needs doing, etc. But also, she’s always complained about having too much stuff on her plate. From when I was tiny. Til now. I don’t mean to be critical of her; having my own kids has made me realise just how impressively she managed to stay on top of everything. But even so, it’s one of the few areas where I want to make sure my life doesn’t fall into the same patterns as my parents’.

My dad doesn’t stretch himself thin. He believes strongly in giving with a generous spirit, if he says yes to a request you don’t need to worry that he’s secretly annoyed at you for asking when he’s frantic with a million things. He played golf every Sunday. It was sacrosanct. I don’t want to criticise him for that either, I mean sure, there were clearly some gendered issues with division of labour vis a vis my mum but also it’s kinda great that he carved out that space to do something that was neither work or family.

Sigh. It’s such a well-worn trope. Every family sitcom, the harried frazzled mum trying to juggle lots of things, constantly worried about whether she’s doing enough for her kids, meanwhile having almost no time for herself; and the dad who’s less on top of household things but well-meaning and fun.

And it’s so prevalent that it’s almost like the relaxed easy-going mother who makes time for herself is considered tacitly neglectful.

Sunday morning I woke up twice. The first time at 6.15am, the baby started thrashing about trying to find a boob. I feed him and we snuggled but he didn’t fully go back to sleep and half an hour later I prodded my husband awake and murmured something about “your turn”. I fell back asleep but shortly woke again to the little dude clambering in next to me (once they can open their own bedroom doors, game changer), and saying “Mummy mummy mummy put a blanket on me”. We cuddled in bed for a while too, then he got out to make pancakes with his dad, and I reluctantly stumbled into the day. Ugh and I was so grumpy. After snapping about something stupid I thought screw it, it’s a rainy morning and we have no plans, maybe I’ll retreat to the bedroom again. So I did, my husband played with the kids, and I wrote that blog about Christmas. It’s the first time since bub was born that I’ve gone off for time to myself in our own house and not prioritised sleep. I’d forgotten that’s an option!

Then Mr Daddy appeared saying the baby was starting to get grumpy, but the second he saw me he beamed and squealed with delight (“She was here all the time! Wow!). Later, in the afternoon, I retreated to the bedroom again for a lie down. Then I made dinner and we all ate together. Bub got completely filthy so Mr Daddy took him away for a shower.

And I found myself being funny and silly for the little dude, pretending to be a piece of spaghetti cooking in the pot; it was the first time in ages I felt really properly relaxed with him. I’ve been so exhausted lately. You can’t fake being relaxed, y’know? Seems to me there can be a vicious cycle with the kids, they’re not getting Fun Mum so they clamour for more attention but they still don’t get Fun Mum so they want even more attention, and the demands for attention make it feel more and more impossible to get away and recuperate.

But I don’t want them to see me frazzled and snappy too much of the time. It always feels like such a big ask trying to get enough space away, and I need to remind myself that it’s more considerate of others (especially husband) to ask them to help me take a break in advance of feeling burnt out than to ask them while yelling about how I’m exhausted and no-one else ever feeds the cat. Ideally, the goal should be to build it in to the weekly routine, like dad’s golf.

Except, the kids don’t want me to not be there. DAMN IT.

A few weeks ago I went out in the afternoon with a friend. The little dude was really upset. He wanted to come too. He made an enormous fuss. The world was actually ending because I was going for a walk in the town belt and he had to go to McDonalds with his dad instead.

And part of me feels like, oh, he needs me, he wants that connection with his mum. A more sensible part thinks, he will stop crying when you leave and even if he doesn’t he is being left WITH HIS FATHER to go on a special treat outing! Besides, you need this time to be a good mum when you’re with him! (Not that he needs to know that).

A lot of women internalise the idea that motherhood means always subordinating our own needs. It can look like good parenting to put them first all the time. Selfless, ever-giving and kind. It can feel like bad parenting to make space for ourselves. But what message does it send our sons?

Mulling this over, it occurred to me how common it is for adult men to assume that mothers love every minute of time spent with their children. A lot of men don’t seem to realise that caregivers have needs of our own which can’t be met when the children are always there. How does that view emerge? Could it be in part because boys see their mothers doing everything and not complaining, and start to take it for granted that this is what women should do?

Like that ungrateful little sod Charlie Bucket. You didn’t think maybe your mum deserved a day at the chocolate factory?!! What a dick.

It’s a horrible double-bind. Internalising the ideal mother code is harmful but also a powerful defence against feeling angry all the time. It gives purpose to the hard work. The same applies for internalised messages about chores division, all those women who do much more than their fair share while rationalising it with a resigned “well, what can you expect from a man?”

For me, going back to paid work will help in several ways – more money to throw at stuff like weekend outings, more scope for a break at lunchtime on working days. It’ll also mean that my one day a week at home with them can be more of a treat because creche is their norm (a special mummy day rather than just a day). As bub gets bigger it’s easier too. He needs me less. Eight/nine months is so lovely, I love it when they’re still cuddly but also mobile, and I love it that he’s still breastfeeding but also eating heaps of solids. The time when the kids are both awake is getting much easier, bub can tag along to things that interest the little dude and absorb the ambient stimulation and explore. Te Papa last week was good – the first time he could crawl around the play spaces! Finally the start of the chapter where I can have brief moments of watching them play together in a child friendly space.

It’s a Wednesday now and it should have been the little dude’s last day with me before I go to the office tomorrow. Instead, he’s at creche. Because bub is sick and last night was really bad.

Bub woke from his nap yesterday with a bit of a temperature, and generally not so happy. He got worse through the evening and when I got home from creche collection and put him down in his highchair for a minute he crumpled into distressed tears. Oh little one. He’s such a patient baby, he’d been patient all through the trip to creche and the supermarket on the way home, and it was finally too much being parked in the highchair instead of cuddled. I decided to give him a breastfeed and he fell asleep on me almost immediately. With one spare hand I set up a video for the little dude and we all sat on the couch until Mr Daddy came home.

Then I pretty much held the baby for the next 12 hours.

Yeah.

He woke whenever we put him down. Warm little head just wanted to lie on another body.

My husband took a few shifts, gave me a dinner and shower break, then a 2am break and a 5am break. The rest of the night was intermittent dozing with a baby on me.

So this morning when Mr Daddy poked his head round the bedroom door and said “creche has space for a casual day”, I thought, oh hallelujah, that is the best news. Packed the little dude off with his dad on the bus, he was a bit put out by the change of plans “no no no no dis one is a Mummy day”, and suggested the compromise that I could come with him to creche. We tried to explain that things would be very boring today if he stayed home with me, that his little brother was sick and we wouldn’t be able to go out. He didn’t really seem convinced, but I tell myself he’ll have a good day once he’s there. Definitely much better this way for me and bub. I need to rest, and need to make sure bub gets good naps. We want him to be better before tomorrow when – gulp – I have my first day in the office! Poor little dude, four days in a row without his mum will be a bit of a wrench. Maybe we’ll have a special big boy outing together on the weekend.

At least he had a good Monday with me. I was feeling great after my time out on Sunday. I packed the kids into the car early, and we went to Petone. We had some brunch at Seashore Cabaret then a long play on the beach until the rain started to threaten. Bub napped in the buggy on the beach, and the little dude and I had some really nice time together, squelching in the sand, making gardens of shells and sicks, splashing in the shallows. If I’m in a good mood, he tends to be in a good mood. I owe it to him to be in a fit state to enjoy his company, to have that genuine interaction with him.

Need to remember that.

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