When we become a mother, we often think that our duty is to put everyone else’s needs first, especially when it comes to our children. But what good are we to ourselves, our children and our family if we’re completely running on empty? One of the phrases I find so helpful to hold in mind when it comes to mothering is: you need to put your own mask on before helping others. And the same applies when we are parenting…if we always put the needs of others first, without making sure we have enough resource for ourselves, then eventually we will end up maybe feeling resentful, perhaps feeling stressed and definitely running on empty.
When it comes to motherhood, we often seem to hold unhelpful beliefs such as ‘needing help is weak’, ‘I should be able to “do it all”’, or ‘I should feel guilty if I take time for myself’. However, it is of the utmost importance that we begin to challenge these unhelpful narratives and give ourselves permission to, and take responsibility for, looking after ourselves with the same kindness and compassion that we look after our kids. As such, we can see one of our primary tasks of being a mother as learning how to acknowledge what our needs are and prioritise things that will meet those needs.
So what are some of the things that might be contributing to you ‘running on empty’? What needs might be going unmet? And what are some of the things you can do to increase the resource you have in this area? This will look different for everyone but below I will outline some common themes that come up when it comes to parenting.
This is probably one of the most common need that goes unmet for parents. And unfortunately, it seems to be a universal experience of new (and not so new parents). It is said that on average, new mothers lose 700 hours of sleep in the first year (Dr Oscar Scerrallach). Every parent will approach sleep differently and it can be a hugely emotive, political and personal topic. For that reason, this article won’t talk about individual approaches to baby sleep here. But what I will talk about is what you can do to cope with sleep deprivation.
First and foremost, is to start prioritising yourself and your sleep. If you have the choice between doing those dishes and taking a nap; take the nap. If you have the choice of watching that Netflix programme or going to bed early; go to bed early. If you are very sleep deprived, think about how you can increase the pockets of time when you know you will un-disturbed sleep. One of the things that can be particularly gruelling as a parent is being woken mid sleep cycle. Therefore, trying to get pockets of time to sleep that are in line with adult sleep cycles (approx. 1.5 hours) will help you to feel more refreshed. So, do you have a partner/friend/parent/ other trusted person you can ask to hold the baby whilst you try and get 1 (or more!) full sleep cycles? Perhaps in the early part of the night until babies first feed (or asking them to do babies first feed if you are using a bottle)?
If you are not super sleep deprived, research has shown that having just a 20-minute nap in the day can be enough to help without disturbing our nighttime sleep (see the postnatal depletion cure by Dr Oscar Scerrallach). However, when sleep is really elusive, it can also help to focus on creating rest (lying down to breastfeed for example), rather than anxiously focusing on lost sleep. Similarly, adjusting our expectations of infant sleep and accepting that infants are designed to wake frequently throughout the night can also be hugely helpful (Sarah Ockwell Smith has some really helpful illustrations on what constitutes ‘normal’ infant sleep). There is a wealth of resources when it comes to infant and child sleep – so finding an approach (or a general philosophy) that fits can be very helpful. This may be in the form of books, podcasts, Instagram, friends’ experiences, or sleep consultants (one of my favourites is Kerry Secker @careitoutsleepconsultant).
2. Building and utilising your village (support network)
We have spoken about prioritising sleep – and undoubtedly this is of the utmost importance when recovering from childbirth and transitioning into our new roles as mothers. However, as you journey through motherhood, another thing that can sometimes be as good as a rest is a break! Think about people who you can ask to help provide pockets of time where you can have a break; whose is in your village? Partner, parents, siblings, friends, paid help? And then think about what is going to nourish you during this time – is it painting, writing, a podcast, reading, yoga, walking, dancing, coffee with a friend? It doesn’t really matter as long as its time used for YOU! Use your village to support you in whatever way can be helpful and again make sure you are prioritising your needs and desires, not just using this time to clean, tidy, or prioritise others.
As well as utilising your ‘real life’ village, think about your virtual village. Not only can what we consume on social media have a big impact on how we feel about ourselves, but there really is a wealth of helpful information out there for new mums, especially on social media. Some of the accounts I count as being in my virtual village include @motherkind_zoe @the.holistic.psychologist @mumologist @milkmakingmama @chaneensaliee, as well as all my fellow family friends on the piccolo website who all offer supportive parenting content – you can even join our club there!
3. Think about your boundaries (especially your parenting boundaries)
Are you entertaining everyone? Is your mother-in-law visiting twice a week and it’s just too much? Are you trying to do it all? Are you saying yes when you want to say no? Do you always put your partner, kids, friends, family, extended family, strangers on the street ahead of yourself? Start noticing what your needs and wants are, rather than doing what others want or expect of you on autopilot. Practice saying ‘no’, practice the joy of missing out, practice loving yourself and putting yourself first. This might look like sending a thank-you-text instead of a thank-you-card, spending the day in your pyjamas rather than attending all the baby classes, saying no to that visitor who leaves you feeling depleted rather than nourished, or telling people if they continue to give unsolicited advice you will no longer continue the conversation with them. Have a think about what your boundaries might be, write them down so that you they are clear in your head, discuss them with your friends and family so they can know what to expect. These might change over time, which is fine, but starting to know where your own boundaries lie, and holding these boundaries, protects our energy, and prevents resentment and emotional burnout.
4. Looking after ourselves
It can be so hard when we’re running on empty to try and nourish ourselves through the food we eat and the things we do. Tiredness can leave us reaching for coffee and sugar hits (coffee, one sugar is my morning go to!) But it’s important for us to try and provide ourselves with nourishment in small ways. This might look like continuing to take your prenatal vitamins, drinking enough water, asking others to bring you homemade meals, doing some pelvic floor exercises, practising mindfulness, gently moving our bodies, stretching and walking. Making small commitments to our well-being each day rather than overwhelming ourselves with a whole new eating and exercise regime is key! Beyond this, mum and baby yoga (think class or youtube!), acupuncture or massage are other ways of providing nourishment and love to our bodies in the postnatal period.
And finally, I know it’s hard to believe it now – but it does get easier! Becoming a mum is a period of transition and huge physical and neurological changes, so be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself, start viewing yourself as a person that matters, and most importantly love yourself – you deserve it!