One of the main reasons behind the increasingly poor mental health of new mothers is the expectation that we can have it all. We can, just not all at once.
Lets break it down - how long do we spend on average in a day on different parts of our lives?
Eating and cooking 3-4hrs
Rest, meditation, introspection 0.5hrs
Social contact 1hrs
That’s on average around 24hrs - relatively balanced life - throw in longer hours at work, being stuck in traffic, a day trip, long bath or a party and things can very quickly go out of sync. What about spending time with your partner and family, having a pet? Now add in a child or more, who requires nearly 24hrs care a day, certainly at the start and you can see how impossible having it all is, especially if you want to do everything well.
We have evolved socially in ways we have not caught up physiologically. Physiologically, we are the same women that lived in caves and mud huts thousands of years ago. Women, that mostly gave birth and brought up their children together with other women of their tribes or extended family. Women, who were cared for and protected, who would focus on recovery and their infant first and foremost before reengaging with work as they felt they were able to. We evolved to follow our instincts, to be close to our young till they seek independence and to lead fairly simple, straight forward lives.
Yet, today, as a mother I am expected to fend for myself, to provide the basics and the luxuries, to keep the house clean, the meals cooked (from scratch of course), to work full time and to look after my child. There is added pressure of having a social life worthy of Instagram posts, working out to get my body back (I haven’t noticed it leaving me ?) and to be a good partner or find someone to be a good partner to (apparently that entails apart from other things, having a lot of sex and alone time with my other half).
The media (social and commercial) keep feeding us this lie that the above is possible while staying sane and raising decent humans. There is just not enough time in the day and definitely not enough energy in my body. The system is inherently sexist and it has a long way to go to allow women to have a career waiting for them while they spend the crucial first couple of years with their children. Until that happens (thanks to @motherpukka that might be soon), we have to drop at least some expectations of ourselves to keep our mental health intact.
Do I want to go back to prehistoric times? Absolutely not! I love the modern life, but I am also a pragmatic and know that something has to give. I personally, wanted to spend time with my child, to be the one to lay the foundations for his humanity and his social skills, to teach him my mother’s tongue, so I temporarily let go of my career, social life, hobbies and romantic life. I am fully ok with that. I do not view it as a sacrifice, but merely a phase in my life that will pass. There is no right or wrong, just choices to be made.
Maybe you really want to go back to work early, outsourcing child care and house work might be necessary, so when you come home you can just focus on reconnecting with your kids and resting when they go to sleep. Doing chores instead will only exhaust you and cause rifts in your relationships.
Maybe you really want stay at home with the kids till they are ready to go to the nursery or school whenever that might be. Your work than might need to take a back seat or at least it’ll need adapting to your child caring needs.
Perhaps having time to yourself or daily hour of exercise is a must to maintain your mental health, arranging your day in a way that allows for that without stressing you out might take some forward planning and asking for support from family and friends.
When deciding your priorities, focus on security first - having shelter, food and clothes comes before everything else. Once that is covered, focus on mental and physical well being of the children (food, connection, safety, sleep, entertainment), the last stage is focusing on what brings you the most joy and/or peace and/or growth. The last is entirely personal. Make a list numbering your priorities and allocate them a time you want to spend on them in a day.
The last year, the list looked like this for me (security and child’s needs met)
Looks idyllic, doesn’t it? Most days I get to do the first eight things. The rest falls victim to spending more time outside or Oli’s meltdown or longer bath time or my tiredness, etc. I am reviewing my list periodically as Oli reaches new milestones and the needs of either of us change. Most importantly, the list for me is to inspire me, I do not expect to complete it every day, not even every week and I always leave some space to go with the flow, because I learned to love that feeling too.
When compiling this list, it is important to stay realistic and update it as you move through different phases of your child’s life. The first three months of my son’s life my priorities were basically to feed him, change his nappies, to feed myself, to look for accommodation, to sleep and to run my blog. That’s it. I literally did nothing else. Our and our baby’s needs change all the time and so should our priorities list and our expectations of completing it.
If you are the spontaneous-go-with-the-flow kind of person, you will very likely be ok just floating where your heart takes you. However, if like me you are super analytical and have tendencies for control-freakiness, making actual lists, mind maps or vision boards might be a better way forward. Use whatever works for you, reminders in your phone, sticky notes, list on your fridge to tick off, etc.
Do. Not. Overload. The. List!!! A day has only 24hrs in it and sleep should cover about a third of it or at least a quarter. Rest is paramount for mental health and as a new parent you won’t be getting much of it. Make it a priority no 1 in the first year. Naps are more important than washed dishes. Sleep deprivation can harm you, unwashed dishes won’t (unless you leave them for a year).
Only once you are getting enough rest, once all your security needs and your baby’s needs are met, start including other stuff. Usually that starts happening around the fourth month and slowly improves throughout the first year. The second year offers much more me time due to the child’s growing independence. The closer you keep them in the beginning, the faster they become truly independent (personality must be taken into consideration though). After that it’s onwards and upwards (unless you have more children of course, then it might take a little longer).
As you can see, that enmeshed stage where you feel like you can’t get a second for yourself, will not last forever, so prioritise while you are in it.
Of course, all this presumes that despite feeling a bit stressed, sleep deprived and overwhelmed, you are otherwise healthy and well. If that’s not the case or you start feeling yourself slipping into a state of anxiety or despair, do seek professional help. Good therapist can make a lot of difference to your experience of motherhood.