Give yourself a break!

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Why are we mums so hard on ourselves? So often when I get together with friends we spend time berating ourselves for not being good mums, for having an untidy home, for only cooking simple meals, for not being thin enough or glamorous enough, for not finding time to see friends, for not having read a book lately, for not being stars in the workplace. The list is endless. When for heaven’s sake are we going to give ourselves a break?No one person can be perfect in every single way every single day! Why is it that when we become mothers we start expecting too much of ourselves and end up living in a perpetual state of guilt?

I think it starts even before we see that thin blue line and realise that this is it; we’re committed. We often take the decision to start a family and then immediately start to feel guilty about letting people down at work or leaving our friends behind. Then during those long months of pregnancy we feel guilty because we’re not eating healthily enough, we haven’t been to antenatal classes, we’re not resting but running around like headless chickens trying to get as much work done as possible before we have to go on maternity leave, or we’re making mistakes at work because we spend all our time wanting to sleep or are so nauseous we can’t think straight. We feel guilty because we haven’t introduced our foetus to Mozart or the works of Shakespeare unlike the Super Yummy Expectant Couple who constantly remind us how badly we’re doing at this parenting lark. And that’s even before it’s begun!

Then comes D-Day; you’re about to pile into the car to rush to hospital but then remember there’s no petrol in the car and anyway expectant dad is still too hungover to drive. So you arrive at the hospital in a cab only to realise that you’ve forgotten that carefully packed bag of goodies essential to a beautiful birth. Yet another fail, you think. In spite of your best laid plans you end up being discharged from hospital wearing pretty much what you did when you went in with your baby wearing the only babygro that could be found by a desperate (and, by now, very sober) dad. Super Yummy Couple meanwhile smugly leave wearing beautifully co-ordinated outfits. How do you feel? Guilty! But why? Does it really matter? Does it make your baby any happier, will it help your baby grow and thrive? Of course not!

Thus starts the journey of parenthood where we constantly compare ourselves to other people and find ourselves wanting. Everybody else’s baby seems to be sleeping through the night from day three, other mums look svelte the week after birth, everyone else has a happy, gurgling, bouncing baby. Bollocks! The truth is everyone struggles in their own way and if they don’t then it’s down to pure luck. There is no right or wrong way to deal bring up a baby; it’s trial and error with emphasis on the error.

Then along comes baby number two and oh boy, the guilt is magnified a thousand times over. Never before will you have felt so torn, never before will you have felt such an abject failure. I remember the day after my second child was born being in floods of tears as both the toddler and baby were crying at the same time and I simply didn’t know what to do. It took an awfully long time to learn that all I could do was my best and that children would not be harmed by having to wait a while for attention.

It’s hard juggling the needs of multiple children, particularly when we are constantly being bombarded by the idea of ‘quality time’ or ‘one-on-one’ time. I had a wonderfully happy childhood but when I look back I can’t really remember my mother sitting down to play with just me. Our ‘quality’ time was experienced in the course of everyday events: the laundry, shopping, clearing out the cupboards, even unblocking drains. She had the ability to make even the most mundane task seem fun simply by singing silly songs, making up rhymes and by actively involving me; and I think, fundamentally, by not feeling guilty about doing them. I had loads of fun and acquired a multitude of practical skills along the way. On other occasions my brothers and I would be expected to just get on with it and as a result we played together a lot using our imaginations and became closer and closer in the process. She was a great believer in children having time to do nothing but would never allow us to say we were bored, she always said that showed a lack of imagination. I always think of this on those days when my youngest child asks me what the day’s plans are and my response is ‘cleaning,laundry and meals.’ No need to feel guilty at all-it worked for me and it will for him.

I have many moments when I feel like a bad parent but I do know that this could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of the time my children are happy, well looked after, well fed and enjoy living in a warm home full of love. But on those days when I sleep through my alarm, realise no-one has a clean shirt for school, have to scrabble around looking for matching socks and lost homework and then spend the rest of the day careering from one ‘disaster’ to another, I can feel like the most useless parent in the world. I forget about all the other days when things run smoothly, forget about the myriad of things I manage to achieve in an average day on top of looking after the family, and can end up feeling worthless. My head tells me that’s not the case but my heart tends to disagree. I know I can’t always get it right and I know that my family and friends understand that I am doing my best so when will I stop being so hard on myself when things go awry?

I’ve been a mother now for over twenty years and slowly, very slowly I’m learning to take better care of myself and to set aside time to do things just for me whether that be reading a book, having a long, relaxing bath, coffee with a friend or just sitting doing nothing. I am becoming more relaxed about leaving jobs until the next day, after all they’ll still be there. But it’s hard to escape that niggling guilt trip of motherhood, that little voice at the back of my head that tells me I could do better.