A recent incident involving, of all things, footwear, got me thinking about all the ways in which I take excellent care of my family, particularly my daughter, but not myself. I book appointments around nap times so she gets enough rest, keep her carnet de santé up to date, and am religious about hat-wearing for warmth in the winter and for sun protection in the summer. But when it comes to myself, I am often a sloppy caretaker.
The other day, as my two-year-old daughter and I were walking home from the nounou, she lifted her foot and cried, “Mummy, feet, sore, shoes fait mal!” The next day, we were in the shoe shop, measuring my child’s feet, and getting comfortable new footwear the next size up. As my eyes watered at the exorbitant prices that seem to be the norm for little shoes, I looked down and realised that my own feet were actually rather sore too, and that my flimsy, old and now rather unfashionable ballerines were not actually comfortable at all.
“They all hurt me – and until now I would just sort of grin and bear it. But I wouldn’t put our daughter in shoes that gave her blisters, would I? So why would I do that to myself?”
Yet I had, and I am quite sure I’m not the only mother, indeed parent, for whom taking care of others is paramount, while taking care of oneself falls by the wayside.
The recent trend for preaching self-care has produced a slew of articles emphasising the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. But what does that really mean when applied to the kind of rich/busy/full/hectic lifestyles we lead in the City of Light? You can book a massage, reserve an evening out with cherished friends, or make time for date night with your Beloved to remind yourself that s/he is more than just the Other Parental Unit. These things are important, but they don’t make up the quotidien of your average mother.
1. Lighten your load
I’m already worried about the huge cartables I see French schoolchildren lugging around and the impact one might have on my child’s spine. But I’ll happily fill my handbag to cracking and cart it around with me, Atlas-like, until my shoulders plead for mercy. No more! It takes two minutes to remove the unnecessary items from my bag in the morning (or better still, in the evening), keeping only what’s required for the day, and I’ve bought miniatures of the cosmetics that I like to have with me (hand cream, sanitizer, etc.)
2. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it
Remember the song? Well, he has a serious point. I wouldn’t dream of letting my child out in warmer months without sunscreen. So, I’ve replaced my face and body moisturizer with factor 50 for the summer and bought a small tube of cream to keep in my handbag so I don’t get caught out. Burning is not an option.
3. Take a look at your plate
My daughter’s dinner is always comprised of three things: protein, vegetables, carbs. She eats three leisurely meals a day, usually at the same times. So why do I rush through the ironing once she’s in bed then inhale a pizza and a glass of red before jumping up to deal with emails? Making my own eating as healthy as hers isn’t hard – I still have some pizza (and, sometimes, a glass of the red stuff), but there’ll be a side salad and fruit for dessert. The ironing will just have to wait until I’m fed. Ironically, by making her my role model for healthy eating at regular times, I become a better one for her.
You can keep tabs on how much your children drink since most kids’ cups and bottles have handy oz/ml marks up the side. Keep track of your own two litres a day by filling up an empty mineral water bottle each morning and making sure you get through it by bedtime. Job done.
5. Make TV mindful
I feel brain dead and kind of depressed after too much television but I still sometimes manage to veg out for hours in front of mindless rubbish. My daughter, on the other hand, gets a single episode of Peppa Pig a week (usually to allow us to complete the dreaded task of cutting her nails). Making my television viewing as mindful as hers – though perhaps not quite as limited – frees up time for other things and ensures I truly choose and enjoy what I watch (GOT night is now an even bigger deal).
6. Keep warm, my dear, keep dry
Alanis had it right (Morissette, that is – for anyone reading who wasn’t an angsty teen in the late 90s). How often have I failed to bring a cardigan or worn silly shoes when it’s threatening to rain because I can’t be bothered or just think, “Oh, I’ll be fine”? The French are a bit nutty about their courants d’air and wearing une petite laine, and much as I mock them, they’re right. Keeping warm and dry are basic human needs. Don’t neglect your own.
7. Book your check-ups
Baby has a carnet de santé with its handy list of check-ups and vaccines to consider. Create your own by making a list of all the medical visits you need to book per year and putting them in an eternal calendar, or on your phone or an app. This way, you’ll remember to make a dentist appointment every May and see the gynecologist each time the rentrée comes round. Consider making a preventative osteopath visit part of your yearly routine, and don’t put off going to the doctor when you have a problem. Going back to the old oxygen mask image, you can’t help with homework if you’re in toothache hell, and you can’t even carry your baby if your back is in agony. On the latter subject, I speak from painful experience.
8. Watch your mouth
Do you often insult or belittle your children? I hope not. Now, how often do you put yourself down? “God, what an idiot I am, I didn’t think of that!” “I’ve got a memory like a sieve.” “Crikey, I need to lose weight, what a heifer!” Watch what you tell yourself and others because your self-talk can be self-fulfilling. Why would you let anyone, including yourself, speak to you so disrespectfully?
I’ve no doubt you cherish your children, husband, and family life as I much as I do – so in order to continue giving them the best of yourself, remember to take care of yourself too.
When I was a child, my mother worked part-time. Because of this, I gained an early appreciation of the wealth of options offered by flexible working hours. Indeed, I made elaborate plans for my future career. Or should I say, careers? When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always some variant of the following: “I want to be a doctor and a singer. I also want to write for a newspaper and be an actress. In my spare time (ah, such innocence!), I’ll be a criminal psychologist.”
When adults, perplexed, would ask how I planned to achieve these myriad goals, I would smile sweetly and say, “I’ll do it all part-time, of course!”
Now, as an adult and a mother, I actually do have something resembling this life I had planned out. I work part-time to have Wednesdays with my daughter, plus weekends and evenings, and do volunteer work once a month on the weekend. I also write, practice yoga, attempt to maintain some kind of social life, and spend time with my husband. I occupy a multitude of roles, and I find that in Paris, that is the norm. Women are expected to return to work after having a child.
“You’re pregnant, congratulations! Which crèche are you planning to register with?” No one raises an eyebrow if parents continue to have evenings out, and it’s mandatory to prendre soin de soi. But whereas child me envisioned clear demarcations between each job (Monday at the hospital, Tuesday as a journalist, Wednesday on stage…), adult me knows that my arrangement is more fluid than that, a constant juggling act where roles merge and meld, and I wear several different hats each day. I doubt I’m the only woman to experience this feeling.
And I like it. I’m told it’s because I’m a Gemini that I like diversity and can juggle with relative ease. Whatever the reason for my chameleon-like nature, I don’t want to change it. The part that can be a struggle, however, is making the switch between roles. Turning off coach brain when I go to pick up my daughter. Resisting the urge to pop into a children’s clothing shop to buy new pyjamas for la petite when on my way to a client meeting. Stopping myself from mentally composing my latest article while watching a film with my husband. So, I have developed some techniques to help me move between “jobs” throughout the day. If you, like me, are managing multiple roles, maybe they can also help you make the switch.
1. Mentally close your files
At the end of your work session, always make a list of what’s to be done when you sit down to your next work session. Get the list out of your head so you don’t need to “carry” it with you. Then, as you make your way from work to the crèche, mentally close your work files – picturing actual files is better than electronic ones. Visualize yourself putting away the papers, putting the binders into a filing cabinet, closing the drawer and locking up. This exercise, which you can do as you walk, drive or ride the bus, can really help you get your head out of the office.
2. Change your uniform
Taking off your work outfit (and maybe even having a shower) and putting on “Mom” clothes when you get home can really help you mentally leave your desk behind and step into your evening. Simply changing your hairdo can help you transition from the work day to an evening out with friends. I actually have a casual jacket that I only ever wear on days off. It’s now become so synonymous with “family time” that just putting it on helps me to change my mindset from pro to perso.
3. Give yourself a moment
So often we drop off bébé, jump on the métro to work then plunge straight into emails and sit in meetings all day. Then we finish work, down tools, run to the nounou, charge home, start cooking, rush to the gym, come back, plop on the sofa, then fall into bed. How often do you take a minute to really experience each transition? What if each time you change roles (worker, parent, partner, exerciser), you took a few seconds to breathe and step into your next activity? Contemplate what you’re about to do; consider how you want to be (professional? loving? fun?) and what values you want to honor as you embark upon the next part of your day. Giving yourself a moment to mindfully step into each role you occupy helps you stay present and enjoy each moment.
4. Be here now
If thoughts turn to work while you feed your baby, or you find yourself completing your online shopping when you should be coming up with new marketing strategies, gently remind yourself to “be here now”. Forcing yourself to focus on the task at hand will help you avoid the dissatisfaction of never feeling like your mind is present in your body – that nasty feeling of “I fed the kids, but now that they’re in bed, I realize I never gave them my full attention”, or the annoying “I could have done the report quicker if I’d actually concentrated.” Your other tasks will be waiting for you when you finish what you’re doing, and you’ll finish what you’re doing faster, better, and in a more fulfilling way if you give it 100%.
You know he’s tired when your husband confuses you with your daughter… of eight months.
Last week, I plopped down onto the sofa, baby in arms ready for a feed, and asked my husband to pass me a bib. Ever obliging, he brought it over and proceeded absentmindedly to tie the thing around my neck. Once I realised this was not a joke and got over the hysterics that ensued, it struck me just how tired he must be. And how tired I am. All the time.
I can’t really blame sleep deprivation – Alice is a pretty decent sleeper. So I don’t need to read yet another book/lecturing tome with a catchy title like “How to get your baby to sleep wherever and whenever you want, including 15 hours a night plus at least five daytime naps”. The truth is that even when you sleep well, the very act of being a parent is itself tiring. Pushing the buggy, carrying the increasingly heavy baby, tidying toys, endless loads of washing, the constant vigilance any time you put the baby down, the permanent nagging worry about [choking/illness/normal brain development/school options/inappropriate friends] *delete as appropriate.
So the only way forward is to accept the tiredness and to adjust life accordingly. Because fighting fatigue is itself exhausting.
Here are the fatigue-accepting commandments that work for me:
1. I no longer stay up late.
Other parents of small children are not merrily quaffing Bordeaux in front of a good film until midnight. They are, like me, falling asleep in front of the TV using their spouse as a human pillow. Suck it up, record the movie, and go up to bed while you still have the energy to brush your teeth.
A sub-section to that: I limit my alcohol intake. Pre-children, most evenings involved a glass of wine with husband or a friend – we live in France, for heaven’s sake! Now, that glass of wine will cause me to pass out even earlier than usual, so it needs to be kept for weekends and occasions.
2. I lighten my day.
I am a list person. And I like getting through my list each day. I now accept that what I can and cannot get done is no longer solely dependent on me; and that I usually won’t get it all done. And that’s ok, because the unwritten task on every list I’ll ever make from now on is “take care of child while doing all the other stuff”, and if that one gets done well, then we’re doing all right.
3. I choose when I do my thinking.
I’m unwell, daughter is ill, husband is away for work, and sleep was a pipe dream last night. Now is not the time to start finding solutions to the Great Babysitter Conundrum. Nor is it the moment to consider school choices (did I mention she’s eight months old?), examine our financial future, make a new business plan. Because, in a sleep-deprived state there are no decent schools; we’ll be penniless, destitute, by the time we’re 40. And my business plan looks rather like the Titanic – a great idea that will ultimately lead to my doom. I put those issues to one side and tackle them once we’ve all had a bit more sleep and a calming cuppa.
4. I have stopped talking about the tiredness.
The above notwithstanding. One day a coaching client was in the middle of a diatribe about how shattered she was when it occurred to me to ask, in all sincerity: “Is talking about it helping you?” I am not recommending we “lean in”, but does complaining to the spouse or competing with other mothers (“I was up all night – got about 30 minutes sleep – not even sure how I’m still alive, really”) make you feel any better?
So, in a definite case of “Coach, coach thyself”, these are my strategies for coping with a fatigue that I have accepted will be with me for at least the next 21 years.