I could smell something burning. I was in the bathroom helping my daughter who had just wet her pants, while my older son was screaming for my attention in the living room, “Come here now Mum!! You never play blocks with me! You said you would!” Crash! My son threw a block, and as it hit the wall behind me both my children started crying. The burning smell intensified – dinner! Somewhere in the distance I heard the phone ring, and through the screams and tears and me trying to save dinner, I heard my husband’s voice on the answering machine letting me know he was delayed in getting home. “No!” I thought, “This can't be happening! Not today!” How can I ever have enough attention for everyone who needs it? Let alone hold it together myself?
The importance of putting support into place before the crisis hits
We have heard this before: as parents we need support. We know it is helpful to call a friend or relative to look after the children or help around the house and it is helpful to take time out for ourselves to do the things we love to do (if we can even remember what they are).
Why is it so hard to ask for help?
Do we tell ourselves we should be able to manage on our own? Do we think our friends are too busy with their own lives to take time out to help us? Is asking a relative too fraught with obligations that the thought makes our stress levels rise? Do we think we are being selfish if we take time away from the family for ourselves? Or is it too hard to switch off anyway?
Unfortunately, these thoughts are all too common. As parents we have such high expectations placed upon us, by our family and culture – but more often than not, the highest bar is placed by none other than ourselves. We've all heard that we don't need to be perfect, a messy house is not a true indication of our worth, just reeeeelllllaaaaaxxxxxx!!! Yeah right. Our thoughts tell us, if I just get one more thing crossed off my to-do list, then I'll feel ok. If I can just get the project at work completed, if I can get dinner prepared, if I can get through the homework hour, or the bedtime routine…THEN I'll relax.
The risk of not asking for support
The problem with putting off calling in help or taking time out until something is done is that there is always something else to do! There never will be a good time to drop everything. That is, until we are forced to – we get sick, we have a meltdown or breakdown. Too often we wait until the crisis is here before we let go, ask for help, and realize something has got to change.
Why do we wait until it all falls apart? There are many reasons, and only you will know yours. One woman spoke on national radio recently about her anxiety about getting it right – being a good mother, being good at her job, holding it all together, when inside she was falling apart. At the end of the day when the activity slowed, her big feelings started to rise so she squashed them down, by having another glass of wine, by eating too much, by zoning out in front of the TV. These big feelings needed to come out and be acknowledged, but instead they were suppressed. This eventually led to a diagnosis of anxiety and depression. She was speaking out to raise awareness, to start a conversation, to get us all to think about the similarities in our own lives and to begin to recognise when something needs to change – BEFORE the crisis hits.
Parenting is a tiring, emotional job
Being a parent is a huge job. Not just the physicality of washing, cleaning, entertaining children, sleep deprivation, but also the emotional work of thinking about our family, worrying, wondering, not to mention being triggered by our children's behaviors and the situations we find ourselves in. Add to that the lack of support most of us feel, the high expectations we, and others, place on doing this job a certain way and we have a recipe for a meltdown of our own.
So let's go back a step, and look at your life right now. If you are reading this, chances are you have a few minutes in between other things to stop and think. What are your priorities? What is really important to you? I encourage you start a conversation with yourself – even better, with someone else – about what track your life is on. Are you looking after yourself? Are you asking for help when you need it?
You deserve support
Putting support into place when things are going well can be a good place to start. What about swapping babysitting with a friend so you can go out with your partner or do something for yourself, and they can do that too? What about asking a relative to have the children every Friday night, regardless of whether you feel like you need a break or not? What about taking half an hour to exercise or meditate on the weekends or after school drop off? Could you schedule a set time with your listening partner each week?
What's one regular thing you could put in place right now? Don't just keep reading, stop and think. One thing.
What happened when you thought about asking for more support? Did you notice what feelings and thoughts arose in your mind? Did you come up with 101 reasons why you don’t need help, or shouldn’t ask for help? Did your body tense up? Or did you start to feel better?
Having someone listen to you is good support
Talking to a good listener (we call it Listening Partnerships) about how hard it is to ask for help, or how hard it is to schedule one supportive thing in your life can be helpful in clearing the way for more support to flow into your life. Listening partnerships are a wonderful way to diffuse the tension of our big feelings, and can go a long way in providing the support that alleviates parental stress on a daily basis, therefore preventing the buildup that can lead to the crisis. However, if you are feeling stretched already, finding the time for listening partnerships can feel just like another thing to do. Again, observe what happens in your mind and body when you think about setting up a listening partnership – does it feel too hard? Too scary? Awkward? Do your shoulders tense up?
What happens when we ask for support?
Observing our reactions to asking for help is often a really good place to focus on, so we can understand what might be hindering our willingness to ask for help and accept support. Often the feelings and sensations that come up when we think about asking for more support can be signals, asking us to look at the reasons behind why we feel this way. Even starting a listening partnership by talking about how hard it is to schedule it in, how awkward it feels, how much we think we don’t need it can be enlightening, and help us move through our resistance.
As the woman on the radio so aptly described it, we often have a “gap” between our authentic selves, and what we are actually doing in the world. Putting in place some regular support or time out could move us toward closing that gap, being more in alignment with our true selves and how we want to be with those around us, especially our children. It’s only when we support ourselves adequately that we can truly support our children.