One of the most radical suggestions I can make to a mother is to put herself first. But if you want to raise good kids, ones who are kind, independent, adaptable, then this is what you have to do.
Why you need to put yourself first
Here’s why: you are the model for your kids. They watch you, they mimic you unconsciously, and they are profoundly affected by how you feel. If you’re miserable and exhausted because you’ve been doing too much, trying too hard to do all the things you think you “should” do, then your kids will feel it. They will also learn subconsciously that being a parent is about endlessly doing things for your kids that your kids don’t even want you to be doing. All those lessons you drive them to, all that healthy food you insist they eat — they’d rather you just played a game and had fun with them, I guarantee.
Or how about this? Ever noticed how when you’re exhausted and cranky, your kids act up, causing even more problems than usual? How all sorts of things go wrong, from the dishwasher breaking to the car running out of petrol?
That’s because you’ve run out of steam and don’t have the energy to smooth things over and stop them from becoming catastrophes.
It’s my personal belief that mothers are the powerhouse of the family. If we go down, everything goes down. [That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if my husband Malcolm believes he’s the powerhouse of the family, and of course there are many families that have two mothers, or two fathers, or one mother or one grandmother and so on. Regardless, if you’re reading this, then you’re the powerhouse of the family because you’re the one who cares.]
And if you care, then your child or children know that and they look to you to lead the way. You can’t do that if you’re exhausted.
How to put yourself first
So how do you do it? For the sake of your kids if for no other reason, how can you learn to take care of yourself? If you’re like most women, you’re absolutely terrible at putting yourself first. You’ve been told all your life to do things for others, make other people happy and it’s a hard habit to break.
So I suggest starting small. And here’s the magic approach: do what you want to do. Whenever you think of it, give yourself a choice and ask, “What do I want to do right now?” Like right now, do you even want to be reading this post or would you rather kick back with a book, a show, a cup of tea, some chocolate? Then go do that thing.
If you’re like me, a lot of the time your answer will be “I don’t want to do anything” or “I have no idea what I want to do.” You’ll be feeling so tired that when you stop and ask yourself that question, you go blank. That’s fine. Just sit with it. Literally just sit there until an answer bubbles up that feels appealing.
Malcolm will often find me staring out the window blankly for a several minutes while I wait to figure out what I really want to do. Not what I think I should do, not what I guess I want to do, but what eventually gives me a ping of energy, a little sunburst of positive feeling that says “Yes, this is what I want to do.”
A one-week experiment
You will almost certainly find it totally alien and difficult to start doing what you want to do, what brings you either comfort or happiness. But I urge you to try. Treat it as an experiment.
I first tried this approach for one week. I literally asked Malcolm if it was okay if I did what I wanted for a week. And contrary to what you might expect, I didn’t just run off for a holiday. But I did do a lot of reading, a lot of sleeping, a lot of eating. And that was just fine. Nothing collapsed.
And slowly I started to feel more energy. I started actually looking forward to seeing our six-year-old, Gilly, instead of dreading it. Then I noticed how it was affecting my husband and my son directly. They were more relaxed, calmer, happier. They liked this more playful, relaxed mum they were seeing.
What happens when you start doing what you want
The longer I’ve taken this approach, the more results I’ve seen. Frankly, I’m a much better parent — I’m more fun, more patient, calmer and more grounded. And sort of weirdly, I’m much better at discipline. I’m able to be much more consistent and steady because I have the reserves of energy to remember to be so.
And that consistency and calm is reflected in Gilly’s behaviour. In fact, I can always tell now when I haven’t been taking adequate care of myself because Gilly starts to be demanding and irritating and things start going downhill.
So give it a go and if you still don’t know where to start, come on one of our navigation courses or firemaking courses. We’ve begun incorporating this principle of doing what you want, which is otherwise known as “trusting your instincts” or “listening to your intuition”, in a hands-on way.
If you’re a caregiver — teacher, parent, grandparent, foster carer, auntie, etc — then I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What keeps you from doing what you want? How do you take care of yourself?