A newborn son just 12 days old, a two year old daughter and a full time business, it’s not often that I get time to myself, nor would it appear rational that I sit down to write an unprompted and unnecessary article after a long night pacing and breastfeeding. I am the luckiest person in the world. I have an adoring partner whom I love with all my heart and two beautiful children, no financial worries to speak of. And yet I am finally facing facts. It’s scary and it’s shameful. I am admitting in public that I don’t like spending time with my children. There are moments of joy…interspersed with long periods of monotony. I’ve brought this on myself and the thought of it makes me panic. Enough for me to re-examine what motherhood means whilst feeling selfish and ungrateful for the miracles in my life. Have I made a terrible mistake? Are there some women who just aren’t meant to be mothers? And am I one of them?
My daughter is an utter joy and delight. A curly haired, blue eyed angel who sings most of the day, be it the theme tune to Postman Pat or my own bastardised version of Teddy Bear’s Picnic which even after two years I don’t know off by heart. I would lay my life down for her, walk over hot coals for her and yet going through the motions to cut out the 15th crocodile in play-doh just to watch it be trampled into the living room rug, makes my sleep deprived head ache and my eyes fixate on the second hand of the clock. 15 more minutes until tea-time. 30 more minutes until bath time. 45 minutes until I can put her to bed. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
‘I was exactly the same,’ said my biological mother. ‘I suspect most women are, they just don’t admit it. Don’t worry it’s normal.’
Normal. This is a word that throws a challenge my way. Because ‘normal’ behaviour is highly correlated with unchallenged and inherited behavioural patterns. I don’t believe in normal. It doesn’t feel right to me that I should be bored and anxious about spending time with my beautiful children. But the prospect of maternity leave of 12 months for my newborn together with reduced nursery hours for my daughter means dealing with endless throwing of food on the floor, or tantrums because she doesn’t want her nappy changed coupled with managing my new born son who eats, shits, screams and sleeps. It all just makes me want to curl up in my own foetal position and hibernate.
‘Who would be stimulated by Peekaboo after the 10th time?’ said a fellow Mum. ‘Come over we’ll stick the kids under the activity mats and gossip over tea and biscuits.’
That was how I got through my first maternity leave. Panic seemed to abate when I did baby yoga, monkey music and playgroups with other Mums. But it was still just an excuse to displace the anxiety I felt at the prospect of spending dedicated alone time with my daughter. The love of my life, the apple of my eye.
The thing is I remember meeting my boyfriend …and how true love felt. I could listen to him for hours warbling on inanities or simply spend time in his company watching the way his face moved. And it was my deepest bliss at that moment.
In my head that’s what it should be like with my children. I’m in love with them. I want to feel deep joy at being able to spend time with them. Teaching them. Playing with them. And so I force myself yet again to get the Crayola paints out whilst my daughter delights in printing sticky blue hands on the easel, the staircase and my trousers. And I feel the heavy weight of my iPhone in my pocket begging to be fiddled with or my hair clumped to my head needing a thorough styling and wash. But of course I don’t do either of those things. Because then I would be a bad mother attending to myself above my children. But my daughter is getting to the age where she can perceive that I’d rather be elsewhere… and that, is even worse.
“Selfish has a bad rap. But ironically putting your own needs first gives others permission to do the same and is the most selfless thing you can do,” said my therapist.
“How can you say that? I want to give all of myself to her. Why can’t I do that? She’s the most important person in my world,” I said.
“Is she more important than you?” said my therapist thoughtfully.
This stumps me. There is of course no reason apart from that I deem her the most amazing human being on the planet, now one of two most amazing people.
‘No one should be more important to you than you,’ said my therapist. ‘The world cannot function properly if you don’t put yourself first. Who do you expect to do it for you?’
At that precise moment, what I feel is utter disgust. For my therapist. But somewhere in the corner of my mind is a shining light. It feels like joy. I don’t of course expect anyone to take care of me. I don’t expect to be taken care of, period. Surely that’s not a mother’s lot. It was certainly what my adoptive mother taught me, although I’d thought I was done taking care of those wounds. But by not taking care of myself and my own needs, by not living my own life, my therapist says I am not taking responsibility for my own happiness. Because I have been taught to believe that my happiness should be found in my children.
But either no one does it, in which case I eventually become the harried unhappy martyr. Or my partner does it, in which case I put an unnecessary burden of my emotional well-being on him. Or – God Forbid – my children do it, as my mother did it to me, living vicariously through my actions, destroyed by my errors and validated by my triumphs.
So before my children detect that my focus is not on them even if I so desperately want it to be, I have to change my ways. I have been taught that children come first. It’s what we are all taught, expected to feel and if not feel, pretend, regardless of what the reality is. A mother thinking about her own needs? Scandalous.
The difficulty is balancing time with your children – the time they need to feel secure, loved and happy – and the time you need for yourself so that you can give them this dedicated time willingly and joyfully. Just how much time do I need for me to spend joyful time with them? It’s not binary. And it’s not cumulative. If I have one week holiday by myself, I can’t then spend one dedicated week with them. It has to be taken – like everything else in life – one day at a time.