Tips for the parenthood-rollercoaster ride

(Sponsored post by Waterwipes)

What a rollercoaster parenthood is! However, a quick scroll through social media would often have us believe that we’re the only ones sitting on this hair-raising ride. It seems like comparison is king and we often feel like we’re the only ones winging it. I’m going to share my top parenting tips, both as a Psychotherapist and as mum of three.

In May, I was honoured to be asked to host and talk at a parents breakfast organised by WaterWipes for its new #ThisIsParenthood global project. Not only have I used WaterWipes’ super pure wipes for all three of my children (bye cotton wool and water), but I was really touched by the #ThisIsParenthood documentary, produced by the talented BAFTA nominated Lucy Cohen. Have you watched it? Here’s the link if you haven’t – grab a cuppa and a spare 15 minutes. The documentary shows a rare and candid insight into the realities of family life with a newborn, detailing some of the challenges that punctuate this crazy, special and map-less time. When WaterWipes showed us parents the footage during the breakfast, there wasn’t a single dry eye…I think due to the fact that, ultimately, we are all just trying to do our best! Sometimes we feel like we are scrambling around in the dark, sometimes we’re winging it, sometimes we’re smashing it (momentarily for me at least), but #ThisisParenthood.

WaterWipes yearns to shift the conversation around parenthood by encouraging us parents to be more open about the highs and lows that come with it. As a Psychotherapist, I am hugely supportive of this initiative as openness and honesty are the turning points to every single one of my clients’ stories.

A global study by WaterWipes revealed:

  • 55% of parents feel like they are failing within the first year (British parents being the second highest country (62%)
  • Almost a quarter (24%) feel like film, TV and advertising contribute to this
  • Nearly half (42%) of UK parents feel the pressure to be a ‘perfect parent’ on social media
  • Nearly half (41%) of UK parents feel they can’t be honest about their struggles due to fear of judgment
  • A huge 50% of parents admit to putting a brave face on rather than being honest about their experience
  • UK mums are twice more likely than dads to feel pressure to be a perfect parent from social media (51% vs 27%)
  • 49% of UK parents feel as though they cannot relate to the parenting images they see on social media
  • Across the world. 68% of parents wish there were more honest representations of parenting on social media

If only these results could shock me…but sadly, they didn’t. I receive messages on social media from 200-400 parents a day who feel like they are failing, or like they are alone in their struggles. Like WaterWipes, I am desperate for us to call a truce on this whole pretence. Yes, of course we will continue to share the highs, the smiles and the cute snaps. However, in order to shift this culture of toxic comparison, we all need to be a little more mindful that what we see, isn’t all there is.

Working with WaterWipes for #ThisIsParenthood was such a pleasure, and for those of you who couldn’t join us on the Instagram live, I thought I’d share the words I spoke:

 

My story

After my textbook pregnancy, birth and then newborn experience with my first little boy, I enjoyed the coffees and the relatively calm play dates. We laughed about our incessant Googling (ps. Dr Google is NOT your friend) and shared our thoughts on routines, and our moans about lack of sleep.

However, my experience with my second was vastly different. He came hurtling into the world wailing, and didn’t stop for a solid nine months. Undiagnosed silent reflux, tongue-tie, and less sleep at night than a nocturnal mouse – I fell into a messy post-natal depression. As a therapist myself, it challenged me greatly that despite all of my training, I couldn’t seem to find the strength to pull myself out of the black hole. It was at this time, during our largely wakeful nights, that I downloaded Instagram. I scrolled mindlessly through images of happy mothers, seemingly thriving newborns with scrumptious chubby legs. I compared their lives to my grey eyed, constantly crying (him and me), chronically sleep deprived (him and me) existence, and the sense of failure felt even greater. With my first, I felt like I was winging it. With my second, I felt like I couldn’t put a single, faltering step right.

I made it through, and the key to that was the moment that I couldn’t hold up the pretence any longer. It was the moment I put my hands up and said #ThisIsParenthood for me. This is MY parenthood. And I found that my openness inspired the openness of others, and suddenly, I wasn’t alone anymore. And that changed everything.

So, I’ll share the words I shared at the breakfast. Why do we often feel like we’re failing? And what do we do about it?

 

Why?

Why do we often feel like we’re not enough? Why do we get so drawn into the half-stories of other people’s portrayal of their parenting experiences and feel led to believe that in comparison, we’re not doing quite so well?

From the conversations we had around the breakfast table at the brunch, I was so reminded of the truth that we’re all just trying to do our best at this parenthood lark, yet we all feel like we’re failing. Why? Expressions like ‘I hated myself for working’, ‘mum guilt’, ‘mummy fail’, ‘helpless’ were thrown around under pictures of our plates of pancakes and greek yogurt, as if they were permanent fixtures of our vocabulary. Are we really failing? Or are we just trying our best but being insanely hard on ourselves?

We are hardwired to compare ourselves with what we see in others. If we don’t have an inbuilt belief that we are ‘enough’ as parents, then we will naturally look outside of ourselves to get a measure of how we are doing. The issue is, what we see around us is often isn’t the full truth. We compare our behind the scenes, with what other people curate and share of their lives. If I compare my wobbly morning with someone’s #blessed photo of a serene breakfast with spotless kids, of course I’m going to find myself lacking. We so easily see other people’s snapshots and assume that that’s how their life is.

I remember that during one of my hardest parenting times, I strolled down the street pushing a double buggy towards a playgroup, wearing super-sized sunglasses in the blazing July heat. Any onlooker might have thought ‘Wow, look at that mum of two small children. She’s smashing it!’ The reality was that my glasses hid my tear-stained eyes, and nobody witnessed the conversation I’d had with my husband moments before. As I sat on my kitchen floor with two screaming children, I told him that ‘I can’t do this’. I meant it.

If we’re all in the same boat, how can we make sure that we stop feeling like we’re sailing alone? I’m going to share three tips that could shift this for ourselves. Because, really #ThisIsParenthood. It’s brilliant, and hard, and messy and wonderful.

 

What now?

Openness

Openness inspires openness. I remember meeting with my antenatal friends. The first time someone said that they were finding it hard, or arguing with their husbands over night feeds, or finding the bonding a struggle…it opened up a conversation. Sometimes there was an actual visible air of relief as people started to talk about the not-so-fun, challenging parts of parenting. One person’s disclosure gave the rest of us permission to share our true experiences.

Take little risks of openness. Be the conversation starter if you can. I always encourage my therapy clients to engage with at least two friends, family members or professionals who understand the reality of their circumstances. Talk to those who have a history of being kind and understanding towards you. It can feel challenging to start the conversation at first, but it gets easier, and often it inspires others to open up too.

 

So often, we fear that if we portray anything other than the highlights, we’d become a burden to people. Think of how honoured and how much closer to someone you feel when they open up to you! It’s an acceptance of love and friendship, and you’re just as worthy of the support of others as they are of yours.

 

Accepting support

Ask for help where you need it. Whether it’s practical, emotional, professional, online, offline, paid, unpaid. Asking for and accepting support is a statement of worth. You have to believe that you’re worth the support of others, which is why I encourage people to take little steps with this. It gets easier. It’s vital to thriving. Sometimes it really does take a village.

 

Self-care

Self-care is important. It’s not always about the huge gestures – the manicures, the long workouts, the massages. It’s also about attending to and meeting your basic needs. Listen to your body, look after it when you’re hungry. Drink water, get an early night when you can. It’s the little gestures that build up your self-worth. You wouldn’t let your child go hungry or thirsty, because you value their needs. You also need to value yours.

Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s about fuelling the car and respecting that it can’t function if it’s empty. Neither can you. I used to feel that self-care was indulgent and I didn’t feel worth it. Now I can clearly see how my family fully benefits from me not being burnt out and resentful of anyone who gets to pee alone!

 

So.

#ThisIsParenthood: it’s a wild ride, but we’re in it together. We really are. Sometimes it might feel like we aren’t and it might look like we’re the only ones covered in baby goo, with bags under our eyes, but we are not alone. The more shoulders we find to lean on, people that we can share the highs and the lows with regardless of how different their experience may be, and the more we talk openly about the realities of OUR parenthood journey, the more we will start feeling part of something bigger.

I’ve shared my #ThisIsParenthood story on Instagram. Have a search of the hashtag on Facebook and Instagram, and join in the project!

Am I a real mum or not?

Last year, after a morning of hasty Christmas shopping, we sat down at a hectic, over full Wagamama table. The four of us, dogeared, whining and hangry. In walked a Boden advert. A family of four, with children a similar age to ours, dressed impeccably in Breton stripes and polo shirts. The mum and the oldest boy were even wearing WHITE jeans. WHITE I tell you! We gazed at them in disbelief as their children behaved as neatly as they were dressed. ‘Well, they aren’t even real’ I uttered, and delved into my Katsu, before dropping soy drenched rice on my grubby trousers.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the use of the word ‘real’ and there has been a unease simmering in my tummy. I’ve used it tons of times and have never given it a second thought, but I’ve started seeing it used in contexts that make me think a little bit more about what we actually mean by:

Real mum

Real mum body

You’re real

Usually it alludes to the fact that someone is being open about the messier aspects of life: the tantrum induced rage, the depression, the postnatal stitches and constipation, the vomit, the arguments, the unwashed hair, the softer body bits, the mum guilt, the anxiety, the mundaneness. Perhaps the ‘real mum’ photos that litter social media aren’t all smiles and clean floors, but are punctuated with grey eye bags and pen scrawled on living room walls.

So maybe I AM real because I talk about mum rage and share my cry-face.

But maybe I’m NOT real because I’m usually wearing makeup and I love the gym.

But maybe I AM real because I talk about my anxiety and PND.

But maybe I’m NOT real because I didn’t have stretch-marks and could fit into my pre babe wardrobe (why do I actually feel embarrassed to write this?).

But maybe I AM real because my life is just a series of me falling from one awkward scenario and utterance to the next.

But maybe I’m NOT real because my house is always tidy (read this)

(Don’t start me on ‘real mum body’ because that just makes me mad sad. If you’re a mum, and you have a body, you have a real mum body. Whether you’re a gym-honed size 8 or a curvy size 32, whether you’re enhanced with silicon or go makeup-free. Whether you are decorated head to toe with tattoos or have a story of scars, you have a real mum bod. End. Of. Story)

When we glorify and cheer-lead only the ‘real mum’s, what category are we putting everyone else into?

Real vs Not Real. Of course, it’s NEVER that black and white. But words are powerful.

You see a size 6, toned mum pushing an immaculate baby through the street? Or the mum of newborn twins smiling and proclaiming that they sleep brilliantly and she just ‘adores motherhood’. What about the mum who’s kids have never consumed plates of beige 3 days in a row, or the mum who’s freezer doesn’t boast a bounty of fish fingers like mine. What about those who’s kids are screen-free, homework-completing and toddler yoga-ing all whilst feasting on quinoa bites?

Well, that’s not real is it? If it’s not real, what is it? And why do we feel the need to grade something as real or not just by looking at a snapshot of their day, or a small part of their whole?

Yes, those ARE real bits, they just aren’t ALL of the real bits

It is another form of comparison against something that is different to me. Different parenting, different resources, different life experience, different hidden things, different coping mechanisms, different insecurities. It’s a fixation on one part of a bigger picture that we will never see, used to either invalidate or validate our experience of motherhood and how we are doing. It creates distance between people. Between mothers. 

‘I’m not like her, I’m rougher around the edges. My kids tantrum and I feed them freezer food a little too much. I never do ‘crafts’ and I HATE glitter’. We write people off as different because in the light of what we see, we see ourselves as lacking. However, we are being inadvertently judgemental by creating this ‘real mum’ divide.

Let me tell you. Being ‘real’ in the sense of showing my rough edges has taken me years. And, it’s still not always comfortable (I say things that sometimes make me feel somewhat sick and scared as to how it will be received…like this post!) To able to be open about some of the tougher, uglier, harder to hear, complex to say, less palatable stuff has been a hard and valuable journey of vulnerability. Years of therapy, years of repeating to myself the message that I’m still loveable regardless of who I am, what I look like, what I’ve been through, what people have told me, and what people think. I’ve spent years challenging the relentless perfectionist desire to portray something that hides my mess because my entrenched message to myself is that what people think of me is exactly what I’m worth – their opinions of me are truths. You might as well have walked up to me and stuck a price label on my arm.

I remember walking down the street, getting used to life as a mum of two. I would have looked in control, happy kids, well-dressed, lippy on, huge sunglasses. Was I fake?

If I’d have taken off my sunnies, you’d have seen red, swollen, bloodshot eyes of all the tears I’d cried that morning, and the wet rims of the ocean of tears that threatened. Would that have made me real if you’d have seen?

To have the confidence to put your shit out there, you need to have a level of internal self-assuredness that says ‘if people don’t like/agree/want my mess, then I’m okay. I’m still okay. I still have value. I’m still worth something. Vulnerability is risky. As soon as you speak out the harder stuff, which of it’s very nature is tinged with personal intimacy, you put yourself out there for people to ‘think things’ about you.

Some people choose not to take this risk. Some people can’t. Some people have had their vulnerability abused or misunderstood and thus their confidence to share, kicked in the nuts. Some people hide inevitable mess as a coping mechanism – the lynch pin that stops it from all falling apart (like my lipstick! It sounds stupid but during my horrible times, makeup was the one of those needed things that kept people relating to me like I wasn’t a ticking time bomb of tears). Some people choose to share this stuff in the intimacy of close friendships and relationships and not in instagram squares or toddler groups.

They are still real.

I’m not denying that when people share the sparkly bits it can feed the insecurities of others and can idealise and glorify certain elements of life, which of course, can cast shadow onto our own truthfully messy existence.

But..

It’s our responsibility  to recognise that we NEVER see the full picture no matter how much we see. We don’t need to be victim to how other people choose to portray their lives. I share ALOT with you guys, but never everything.

If you know that you are vulnerable to being pulled into the belief that people’s lives are actually how you see them to be, and yours is rubbish in comparison, then limit your exposure. Limit who you follow, what you watch and what you read until you’ve built some more of the internal self-confidence that says you’re doing just fine regardless of who’s next to you in a coffee queue or above you on an insta-feed.

So, my love.

Whoever you are. Whatever you do. However you do it. However tidy your home is. However your kids behave. However your freezer is stocked. However you find it to talk about the messy stuff. Whatever you’ve been through. Whatever you hide. Whatever you look like. Whatever you believe. Whatever you weight. Whatever you wear. Whatever you choose to share. Whatever you choose not to share. For whatever reasons…

You are REAL.