It’s so hard to find time to look after ourselves, but here’s how we’re gonna try

Both the adults in this house are really experiencing a health and wellbeing backlog at the moment. We’re run down, depleted. Our baseline is too low to support extra stress without bickering or feeling totally exhausted or retreating into solitude or exploding – even minor stress like kids being sick and needing a few days off creche. Not surprising, it’s been a huge four years with very little chance to prioritise looking after ourselves.

To some extent this will self-correct as B gets older, and as the weather gets better – the end of July of the second child’s first creche winter is probably a low point. But there are things we can maybe do in the meantime to try and prioritise the related goals of looking after the mental and physical health of our little family and living our life in a way that supports the connections between us.

1) Taking a pause on caring so much about some things

There are things I just don’t care about, I don’t think about them and that frees up mental space. For example I don’t care about make up. Not a thing in my life. I don’t care about our garden. I don’t care about having a nice car.

There are other things I care about but I don’t have time to devote as much attention as I’d like, so the caring turns into a nagging sense that I’m not doing enough. But, you only have so many hours in the day. Unlike make-up or a nice car, these are things that are important things in my life generally, but for now, they have to take their place in the queue and they’re behind the cut-off line: no more room in my mind. I’m recording things that have already slipped, the difference is that I’ll be more sanguine about the deprioritisation.

  • My career: I really like my job and I need that counterpoint to parenting and home life. That said, I don’t want work stress to spill over into general life when I find life with two preschoolers is emotionally draining anyway. Also, I believe – strongly – that too many of us generally prioritise paid work at the expense of health and connection. If I believe this, then I need to live it. Take my lunch breaks: walk around the harbour on a sunny day, go to yoga, meet up with a friend. Leave work on time. It’s been a long hard fight for unions to negotiate good working conditions like I have in my job, let’s not see them slowly erode because we feel like bad Employeebots when we take advantage of them! And let’s remember that over-performing in your role is a classic prisoner’s dilemma. If you’re the only one who exceeds expectations you win, but if everyone exceeds the expectations, they become the norm and you all lose. The expectations should be that you go to work and do a good job and also have a life – so work to those expectations (especially if you’re lucky enough that you can!)
  • Saving money: we are still paying off maternity leave debt. But we’re also buying things that have been deferred from last year. We are both in dire need of new clothes. I feel like we should save more money, but that’s kinda an arbitrary aspiration. Probably borne of articles berating millennials for eating avocados. We’re living within our means and we’re paying bills as they come in with a bit left over so actually I should totally chill out about this and accept that for now, it’s ok to buy lunch out most days because that creates a bit of much needed slack in our lives.
  • The house: both maintenance of the house and tidiness generally. We only clean/garden/fix things when things look like they really need it. Maybe that’s not an issue? Instead of wanting the house to be always tidy-ish I should be happy it’s not always totally dire! I think it’d also help make things relaxed if I back myself to get stuff done when it needs to, because ultimately I do (or worst comes to worst, it can wait til the cleaner comes on Tuesday).

2) Look after ourselves

There’s no replacement for a good mood, and you can’t be relaxed and easy-going when your baseline needs aren’t met – especially sleep. Also exercise. And for introverts like me and my husband, some alone time works wonders to make us calmer in the face of the vagaries of parenting. But we also need to spend time together so we feel like a couple and not like colleagues in a really shoddy childcare centre.

Looking after ourselves is as much a matter of priorities as habits: once it’s a priority, you can think about how to give it effect.

For example, I think we need to have more of a routine for the weekends, one that allows us to recuperate without feeling like our needs are in competition. I think we need to bite the bullet and accept that the only way to fit in exercise is to take turns going out in the evenings after the kids are in bed (worth a try at least, even if we only do it once a week).

3) Identifying stress points, and one by one, doing things to ease the stress points

Some stress points are: lack of one-on-one adult time for D, lack of quiet time in the house for each of us, lack of time for us to hang out with each other without the kids, lack of time socialising with other adults, difficulty managing the clamouringness of both kids when there’s only one adult, lack of quiet time for B in a hectic house.

One thing we can do fairly easily, to start with:

  • D to have some one-on-one time out of the house with each parent on the weekend during B’s nap, while the other parent gets alone time in a quiet house. We can do whatever in that time – even nap ourselves. We both find that doing almost anything, even chores, in a silent house is relaxing compared to the go-go-go-noise-noise-noise-interaction-interaction-interaction demanded by the kids when they’re awake. It’ll also mean B can get some quiet time at home when he wakes.

4) Make plans for the future

Next year, screw Wellington winter, we’re gonna save up for a holiday somewhere warm and sunny.



A gift guide for a kid who has too much stuff

I don’t know how my big kid accumulated so much stuff when we buy him very little stuff. His room is FULL of stuff. There are toys EVERYWHERE. People want to show they care about him and that’s awesome but wow there is so much stuff. And we’re terrible too, get invited to parties of other kids, buy them stuff…

And kids are natural hoarders so you can NEVER throw it away. (It’s a precious stick, it’s their favourite peanut butter jar lid)

1)  Most obvious –  assure people they don’t need to buy things for your kid. Make your next party a “presents not expected but we’d love a card to keep” party.

…But because people will still want to be generous and purchase gifts for their, here are some categories of things I’ve thought of to suggest when people say “but I WANT to get him something!”

1) Things that need fairly frequent replacing – e.g. crayons, playdough, etc.

2) Books – I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that maybe it is possible to have too many books, because our lounge is kinda like a children’s library. But it’s not really too many! They can be stored easily, which helps! And you can write a message inside so that they know who it came from and it can be extra special. Books are great. D is especially interested in books in te reo at the moment.

3) CDs for the car (in theory, in practice our car CD player is broken because D jammed a CD in when there was already another CD in, and now they are both stuck in there forever and it can never be used again).

4) Dress ups. Dress ups are such a good wet day activity!

5) Things that add to a set – e.g. duplo, blocks, compatible train pieces (but please no incompatible train pieces!).

6) Things that can be used for a one-off project – e.g. a candle-making kit with a sheet of beeswax and a wick, a gardening kit with some seeds and a pot, a baking kit with a packet of cake mix and a wooden spoon.

7) Things that don’t take up much space and can be played with quietly without adult assistance. Puzzles, etc. The best thing anyone has gotten D in this category is a Melissa and Doug Water Wow book. It was a present from a friend of mine when D had his tonsils out and we’ve had so much millage out of it.

8) Clothes in the next size up from the kid’s age. Especially jumpers, because the outermost layer gets the dirtiest, so in winter more jumpers are always good.

9) Useful things (but check with the parents to avoid double ups) – like a lunchbox or a drink bottle, etc.

10) Money – kids don’t have any money otherwise and the independence is itself exciting. A two dollar coin with a note that says it is to be used for a ride-on thing outside the supermarket will be received with GREAT pleasure. (Depending on the person and the occasion, larger amounts of money to be put in a bank account for when they’re older is also really great).

11) A one-on-one outing – it doesn’t have to be anywhere exciting, but that’s a cool bonus if it is!

12) Postcards from people on holiday or people who live out of town. So cool.

13) Balls – somehow they get lost and more never go amiss.

14) Ask the parents – sometimes kids want random things. At the moment, D wants some picture frames for his creche drawings.

15) Something to add to a collection if the kid is into collecting thing. D has a stone collection.

What not to buy:

1) Plastic junk and things with lots of fiddly bits that can get lost. So breakable and annoying. We’re all guilty of having bought these things for other people’s kids! Oh the annoying things I got my nephews when they were little! It’s in all the shops and at first it seems like a really good deal because it’s easy but then… sooooooooo much stuff…. Stop before you buy and ask yourself “Could this plausibly be classed as plastic junk?” and if the answer is even a hint of a yes, don’t get it.

2) Soft toys after age 3 or so. My two do not need any more soft toys, ever. I tried to suggest a cull and D was adamantly against it. Also maracas. We have just so many maracas and they’re such tempting weapons.

3) Things that take up an inordinate amount of space.

4) Sweet stuff – it’s really hard to control the amount of sugar their poor little teeth are exposed to. I know it seems like we’re being mean but best not to add to it eh, especially in large quantities.

5) Things for the older one, that the younger one wants to play with but might easily break or hurt himself on.


Not just difficult, traumatic

A few weeks before my older son’s third birthday, I started seeing a therapist to talk about his birth. His first two birthdays, I’d found myself going over and over and over in my head everything that happened. Approaching the third anniversary, I figured, time wasn’t enough to heal this wound. I’d had another baby since and that birth was fine, but I still feel a bodily tightness and a hot-then-cold shiver whenever I’m prompted to think of the first birth.

A traumatic experience doesn’t want to stay in the past, it pops up all over the place in the present. It’s not like a difficult experience, it doesn’t become an interesting story to tell. It feels raw. Not a scar, but a tender patch that never fully healed.

At a doctor for a kidney infection, asked to rate the pain, I get flustered remembering that I was asked that a lot during the birth.

Another mother says something dismissive about childbirth, how it’s not really that bad, and I feel my whole throat seize up.

Someone says that the baby is surely all worth it, and I fumble my words, trying to say that I need to put them on different ledgers, because if I put the baby on the same ledger it doesn’t make the birth seem better, it makes the joy in the baby seem diminished, and all I can think is other people get babies without going through that. 

For a long time I used the word “traumatic” to describe the birth, but with an edge of self-deprecation. I didn’t want to claim my experience was up there with things that went super really badly wrong (like here and here).

I read this widely shared piece on the Guardian just before Mothers’ Day this year, and cried with the recognition of myself. The floppy baby rushed of to intensive care with a tiny oxygen mask. The pelvic organ prolapse. Both true for me too.

The repeated uninvited mental replay of the last ten minutes – the labour was upwards of 36 hours long, but the last ten minutes stick the most. The baby’s monitor showed that his heart rate was dropping. The hospital midwife said they needed to do an episiotomy. They made an incision, and I pushed, but the baby was still stuck. They got stirrups for me so they could see better. They cut further, but the surgical scissors slipped – and I felt the cut go wrong. The epidural meant my flesh was numb, so I felt it the way you feel a dentist poking around your mouth when getting a filling, like if the dentist accidentally cut into your gum. An episiotomy should cut into the perineum, it should not cut into the side of the vaginal wall, but they slipped. When the baby came out (and I always think of him as “the baby”, the memories seem so removed from the small boy in my life), he was not breathing. He was not moving. He was blueish and he was limp. They gave him to me to hold for a few seconds, the barest hold, and then they took him away to NICU with an oxygen mask. My husband went with him. My mother came in from the waiting room. The midwives didn’t want to let her in but she insisted. She sat with me while I was stitched up, which took over an hour.

I had no idea what was happening to the baby and no-one told me anything in that time.

My husband called and said that the baby was going to be alright. That he was going to be fine.

This should have been a happy moment but it was just surreal. I hadn’t realised he might not be fine. This bit weighs heavily in the memory. No-one told me he might not be fine!

Could I come and feed him, my husband wanted to know, could I come down yet? No, I was still being stitched up. I didn’t know how long it would take.

When I went through, the baby was so beautiful, and most of the babies in NICU were prem but he was a good size, and we felt like we were the luckiest parents in the room. We dressed him. We took a photo. We put it on Facebook. It seemed like we were past the bad bit. The rest of the day was good. He was let out of NICU that same day. We were relocated to a room together. It was an ok afternoon.

Until it was time for my husband to leave at the end of visiting hours.

I still had a catheter attached, and moving was very painful. I asked the nurses if my husband could stay but they said no. Almost as soon as he left, I called him and burst into sobs. I still feel very emotional thinking of that moment, of how alone I felt, I’d been through hell and now I was by myself with this baby and I didn’t feel remotely up to it. I sat in bed cuddling my sleeping baby to my chest, soothing myself more than him. A nurse came in to give me pain relief and berated me for holding my baby in the bed – this is against hospital policies for safe sleep for babies. After that, I didn’t want to ask the nurses for help, didn’t want to be told off again, so in the middle of the night when the baby cried, I tripped over my catheter trying to get to him and change his nappy and manoeuvre myself and the catheter bag into a position where I could feed him. I got stuck in the hospital chair unable to get up to put him in the bassinet and unable to reach the bell. I was in so much pain. I felt a huge wave of dread that having a baby had been a horrible, horrible, terrible mistake that I could never take back.

I eventually made it to the bed and rang the bell. A different nurse came, changed the baby, settled him to sleep in the perspex bassinet, and gave me more pain relief. She was lovely.

The next day we went home. The baby’s thick black hair was caked with blood, my blood, from the episotomy. No-one at the hospital had helped us wash his hair. We gave him a bath at our house and spent ages gently trying to remove the sticky hardened blood. I wanted him to smell like a baby, not like stale blood.

Breastfeeding was hell. The baby had a tongue tie and lip tie. My nipples were covered in blisters. Everything between my legs felt shredded and there was no way to get comfortable, not sitting, not lying down, definitely not standing. I had no bladder control or sensation of bladder fullness at all for two weeks.

We were just starting to feel like things were getting better, breastfeeding getting established, when my husband went back to work. I was alone with the baby for long long days. The weather was getting colder. And I’d noticed a definite bulging coming out of my vagina, and it was getting worse, and I had to strictly limit the amount of time I spent standing up, and the baby cried a lot going to sleep and only settled when he was walked to sleep in the baby carrier, and I didn’t know what to do all day.

He would cry and cry when I tried to settle him for sleep and I would find myself trying to be patient, so patient, and then losing the ability to keep being patient. I was terrified of screwing up. I had this idea that I’d already paid such a high price, a huge physical toll, that I had to make sure I was the best mother I could be. I had to do everything right for this baby. If I failed, I’d have nothing to show for it. Throwing myself into parenting was my only coping mechanism and I held onto it like a drowning person holding onto a raft. When my frozen fingers slipped, I panicked. When he cried and cried going to sleep, when he cried at night, my inner self battled between rage at the cries and desperate desire to comfort him, and I felt like a worthless failure when sometimes I couldn’t comfort him. Especially because I knew that what worked best was walking him in the carrier – but I couldn’t do that very much, because of the damn prolapse, which was a constant source of significant pain and discomfort. Once, I yelled “JUST STOP CRYING!”, then, horrified at myself I put him in the cot to scream, while I had a shower. I cried too in the shower, sitting on the floor and listening to the water in my ears so that I couldn’t hear the baby wail. He was asleep when I came out. I felt so much empathy, so much surprising empathy, with people who shook their babies or worse. I felt like the emotional toll of caring for a newborn was almost unbearable.

I put these feelings down to mothering at home with no other adults for many many hours each week. And that was part of it. But a lot of things make much more sense when seen through the lens of a post traumatic stress syndrome diagnosis. Being unable to sleep, for example – I’d always had trouble sleeping, and babies disturb sleep patterns, but even so, this was extreme: the baby would wake at 3am and sometimes I’d lie awake until he woke again at 5am, unable to relax.

There was screening for post-natal depression, and while post-traumatic stress can trigger depression, it wasn’t a match for my symptoms. I felt fine when I was with other people, most of the time. But I felt on edge in response to a lot of things, more emotionally fragile than I was used to – things like walking past some anti-abortion protesters and wanting to just YELL AT THEM FOR HOURS, yell at them until my vagina collapsed to my feet (yelling with prolapse is unadvisable), so filled with epic rage that people can be actively lobbying to prevent a woman’s ability to choose whether to give birth.

I felt intensely emotionally volatile and completely unable to control my responses whenever my husband was grumpy with me. The therapist has helped me identify that this is something which I perceive as an emotional threat, and the post-trauma heightened response is coming across as a fight response in my case not a flight response. There have been times when I’ve been siting cross-legged on the floor whacking myself in the legs and saying “JUST DON’T BE GRUMPY AT ME I’LL DO ANYTHING, JUST STOP BEING GRUMPY AT ME!”. I hit myself because I didn’t want to hit anything else. I didn’t want to be a threat to anyone else. I felt like my emotions simply had to be released from my body, but couldn’t be put anywhere else, so the only option was for them to come back in. This response is apparently very common in women who’ve had traumatic experiences. Not self-harm the way it is usually depicted in the media, a calculated knife, but a rage response that runs straight up against a deeply ingrained prohibition on pushing your rage onto others in any way, and so becomes re-directed at yourself.

The therapy sessions have been really really helpful. In some ways I wish of course that I’d accessed that sooner. I didn’t because it took me a long time to feel recovered enough to risk putting myself in an emotionally vulnerable position by opening up to a stranger. I always worried that people would tell me that I just needed to toughen up, that it hadn’t been that bad (“people used to die in childbirth!”), or that I should focus on the baby. At the same time, I worried that if I opened up completely, people would doubt my ability to be a capable mother. And while I felt that my mental health had suffered a knock, I didn’t know anything about trauma responses, didn’t know enough to identify them in myself.

This has been a hard post to write, and there are things in here that I haven’t discussed even with people very close to me. Writing is a million times easier than talking to people face to face, I still feel exposed when I do that, I don’t want to put this on anyone else, don’t want to have to navigate their responses. But I’m putting it out in the world because it can’t just be me who’s had this experience – it must be fairly common. So hopefully this helps someone, because we need to talk about it more.

And it does get better.



So I was working on this guide to getting stuff for kids who already have too much stuff, it was in my drafts folder, when the news broke about the Green Party’s policy of benefit increases. On Twitter, a friend who’s doing her PhD on food insecurity tweeted some quotes from interviews, and it’s grim:

Could there be a more blatant example of inequality than the middle class mother having a problem of toys everywhere, while not far away, another mother has the problem of skipping meals so the kids can eat?

(No prizes for guessing who I’m voting for)

On paid work and social support

I’m on my phone in the car while bub is asleep in the back. It’s midday on a Monday. Crèche called at 11 and said bub was unwell, again. Ugh that first winter of crèche is an extreme immune system assault – BOOM here’s another virus, BOOM and another, BOOM and another. Winter eh. Bloody winter! It’s absolutely bucketing down with rain so I’m not going to attempt to take him inside. Just sitting in the front seat with cold sodden feet feeling glad my phone has full battery.

My manager is on leave, and my acting manager gets it, her kids are 6 and 8 and she’s been where I am now. Work has been ok with my patchy availablity the past few weeks – my team is very collaborative and we’ve been subbing in for each other to keep things afloat in the lurgy season.

There’s nothing exceptional about kids getting sick in winter and needing time at home to recuperate. It’s been over a month since my husband and I have both had a full week at the office. Our kids are generally healthy kids with no underlying conditions that make them extra susceptible to bugs. It’s just winter, and two kids under four, and winter.

Our employment contracts give us more than the minimum amount of sick leave, and between us we can accommodate the time off for the kids. If it was just one parent taking all this leave and holding down a job… that’d be bordering on impossible. 

People do it, and push come to shove I probably could if I had to, but it requires employment conditions that are well beyond the minimum employers have to provide. It helps if your skills are particularly valuable and the employer can cut you slack because you’re a good investment and they’re expecting you to stick with the organisation for a while. 

For sole parents without family around to look after sick kids, without an attractive CV, without a high enough salary to pay for good childcare, the barriers to employment would be enormous. Looking after small kids is already a full-time job, it really is. Last night my husband was in Auckland (for work today), and both kids ended up in bed with me – neither slept well, and I barely slept at all. 

It’s hard enough combining two kids and paid work with all the advantages I have – it requires a lot of organisation both at home and at the office, and I think the main thing that makes it viable for me is how much I enjoy my job and how much flexibility and autonomy it provides. I can take time for myself during lunch breaks, enjoy the contact with colleagues, and get paid a salary that provides us with enough money to pay for conveniences that reduce household labour needed. None of this would be achievable without the huge upfront investment in my education and career development before kids. A low wage job that you’re forced into is a totally different proposition for combining work and motherhood. So different it shouldn’t really be compared.

I’m excited to see the Greens policy announced yesterday and I think it’s a huge step in the right direction. We need to fundamentally change the way we think about work and single parents. It shouldn’t be seen as a problem if a single parent receives state assistance until her youngest child leaves home. It should be ok to be out of paid work at least through to school age for those who prefer, then have government funded part-time training for a few years, then continued income top-ups for several more years. These forms of support should all be readily available and given ungrudgingly, especially to those who have kids young and don’t have a career already established. 

No-one should have to choose between putting food on the table and being there when their young child is sick. And no-one should have to choose between putting food on the table and committing benefit fraud. 

Raise our taxes

Three years ago, in a cold cold July, I wrote this piece. Our house when D was a baby was freezing. It cost so much to heat it. When I was pregnant, we tried to save as much of my salary as possible, to fund the year out of paid work. We definitely needed the fund for winter power bills that year. Whenever we dipped into the savings we felt glad we had them, but worried that we were eroding our house deposit. The following winter I wrote this piece, on a friend’s blog. Childcare costs and the salary reduction of part-time work was a shock when we went back on two incomes, and while I knew we were going to be comfortable and financially secure a few years down the track, it felt like a long track yet. We were still in that icebox of a rented house.

Just six months later, we bought a house! And I was pregnant again. We were anxious about paying a mortgage and rates and insurance while on one income – babies are hard enough without extra outgoings and reduced income. But we were enormously relieved to be moving somewhere cosier before the baby came.

And now, we’ve been back on two incomes for six months and I’ve just paid off my student loan. I PAID OFF MY STUDENT LOAN! It’s the biggest financial milestone of all!

Pretty much overnight, we feel an entrenched part of that comfortable class. I couldn’t have known two years ago how close we were! I got a big pay rise when I started my current job last December, and the sense of security from owning our home is huge. The largest contributor is being on two incomes – our individual salaries are fine, but combined, it’s a salary very few individuals could earn. Creche fees are huge, but in another two years D will be at school and B will be eligible for the 20 ECE hours, so it doesn’t have that heavy burden feeling it had when I returned to paid work from parental leave the first time. 

The instant my student loan was gone and my pay packet expanded, the tax portion started to seem shamefully low. In the piece I wrote after we bought a house, I said “In theory I support a universal student allowance, but in practice paying $320 a week for childcare while still paying off my own student loan makes me not super keen to pay more tax just right now… Maybe later… Definitely later…” Later has come, and contrary to what people like to tell left-leaning young people, I feel this even more strongly now. How can our taxes be this low, when there is such an enormous social deficit – more and more homeless people every week it feels like. The gulf between the lives our kids lead and the life of some of their peers is getting wider and wider. How can anyone on top 10% incomes, owning a home, and without a student loan, begrudge paying more tax to mend the holes in the fabric of the social welfare state? It’s unconscionable.

If people on lower incomes knew how nice the lives of the top income earners were, they’d be rioting in the streets. 

And it’s not just the comfortable lifestyle, it’s that we have money leftover. We could still have all the nice stuff, while paying A LOT more tax. The real kicker is that I checked just now, and we’re not the top 1% or 5% or even 10% of households with two adults and two kids. We’re the top 15%. What the hell? There’s a HUGE group of people swanning about with hundreds of spare dollars a week and they have the gall to criticise policies to raise taxes?! Where do those people even begin to get such a monumental sense of entitlement despite already having more than they need?! 

I can understand the people in the lower-middle of the income curve wanting to hold on to everything they have. They’re doing ok but they don’t have a whole lot extra and we all want nice lives and tend to prioritise ourselves before others, whatever, I get that. And a single income earner supporting a whole family would rarely feel well-off. These issues could partly be addressed through a universal child benefit paid to the main caregiver, and funded by a more equitable tax system.

Because the upper-middle and the top income earners, we’re a big minority of taxpayers and we’re shirking our fair load. Our only justification is selfishness. There are literally kids living in cars in this country and parents lining up at foodbanks to put food on the table, then being criticised for their financial choices – while at the other end of the spectrum, you can spend money on buying lunch in town every day, and having a cleaner come every week to make your house nice and tidy, and going on holidays every year, and still pay all your bills, because you have so damn much to begin with. And no-one criticises you even a tiny bit for how you spend your money. It’s an obscene double standard.

Raise our taxes. Build a society where the standard of living for the kids in the council flats just around the corner is about the same as my kids. Don’t you dare try and cut my taxes when there are kids in the hospital down the road with rheumatic fever.