At Play

We can all choose to respond to life from one of three places: strength, love and playfulness – or so hypothesises a friend.

It struck me that when parenting, especially when disciplining, we often rely on strength.

Strength looks like me glaring or growling at my toddler to indicate with my body and sounds that he had better choose to do as I say or I will find a way to dominate him. Strength sounds like my husband raising his voice at our toddler, hoping to cower him into submission. But strength can also sound like a commanding voice in the face of a dangerous road.

We often turn to strength in the face of fear, stress, anxiety, panic, insecurity…which can all be different ways of defining our parenting at one point or another… It’s incredibly useful in the face of real danger, but not so useful if it becomes our default setting for engaging our children…even if they are two…

Alternatively, love is tender, kind, warm and uncompromising. Love should sound like empathy, even when we’re firm. Love should look like shared tears and hugs. Love should taste like soft kisses.

Love was when I crouched down low to the ground and extended my arms out to enfold my toddler in a warm embrace, followed by words of understanding the moment after he threw himself down onto the dinning room floor, screaming in front of dinner guests because he did not want to go to bed.

Wait. What?

My baby was so upset at having to go to bed, versus staying up to play with his Uncle and Auntie, that he threw a “tantrum” – a spectacle to end all spectacles. And, amazingly, instead of responding from a place of strength, as I have on other occasions, grabbing him and firmly placing him in bed, I was able to respond from a place of love…

“I’m sorry you’re upset that you have to go to bed,” I embraced him.

“I want to stay up and play!” he screamed.

“You want to stay up and play. I understand. I’m sorry that you’re not able to do that.”

“Mami, I’m so sad!”

“I’m sorry you’re so sad. But you need your rest now. You can play with Uncle and Auntie another day.” Sniffle, sniffle, sob, sob pitter-pattered himself to bed.

I wish there were more of those moments in our repertoire.

Playfulness, on the other hand, seems much easier for us to access and provides incredibly fast returns.

“Stop it!” this serious scream escapes my toddler from the bathtub and then moments later is followed by fits of giggling. I smile, realising that my husband responded to our boy’s defiance with playfulness, diffused the situation and likely accomplished his aim at the same time.

“No!” our son narrows his eyebrows and leans his body towards my half of the kitchen, threateningly.

“No?” I feign shock, gasping and placing my hand over my chest. Peter looks confused and uncertain.

“No?” I ask again, seemingly bewildered as I fall to my knees and am now closer to him in height. Peter straightens his body, pleased with himself and begins to smile.

“No?” I begin to raise my voice in a challenge as I draw him near.

“No!” he screams triumphantly.

“No!” I scream back in defiance and begin to tickle him as he squirms, laughing.

After a few minutes of wrestling, I give him a kiss and a hug and try asking again. He happily complies.

Sadly, I worry that strength is still very much my default setting, “Do what I’ve asked or face the consequences”, which is usually to go sit down in the bathroom or hallway and think until he is ready to do as I’ve asked.

But slowly, as I make more time and space for myself so that I have more energy and presence of mind, I find that I am able to take a deep breath before responding to my toddler and in that time make a choice to empathise or play. And fortunately, both still mean that I guide him towards making good decisions.

One A Day

I’ve decided to mindfully do at least (a) one thing (b) each day (c) that is fun (d) for me.

We were talking about our identities at a friend’s house recently and how difficult it can be as a stay-at-home Mum to function outside of this Mum role, and therefore difficult to see ourselves outside of this all consuming role.

Referring to his own identity, one Dad said that peace is at the core of who he is. Peace is central to his identity. Peaceful is how he views himself independently of any particular function.

“Curious” my husband called out referring to his own core. We all nodded in agreement.

“Fun,” my unspoken answer sprung up in me like a little light from somewhere in the dark inside my chest, behind my ribs…like a well known, but long forgotten room. I nodded to myself, grateful for its return.

Having fun is and has always been really important to me. At times, this has looked incredibly silly, with public displays that leave some laughing hard and others hiding with embarrassment while on-lookers jeer or cheer. Oh, I can be silly.

But, other times fun has looked like hiding in a corner, quietly eating a bucket of ice cream with a friend while staring at the sky until there’s no ice cream left.

Fun can be loud and crazy or quiet and simple. The common, and most important factor is that I’m enjoying an activity.

In a life full of days speeding by, consumed with thoughts and activities focused on serving the joy, development and basic needs of others it becomes incredibly easy for one day, followed by many days, to whirl by without thoughtfully doing anything just for my own enjoyment.

But if fun is at the core of who I am, then it seems to me that part of looking after who I am will require looking after my internal fun-o-meter. Not just by orchestrating fun, but bultimately allowing the fun hidden inside of me to flow outward – allowing myself to be more me rather than forgetting myself whilst focussing on (very important) others.

I reckon, that if I can do that, I will be a happier person – not because I’m having fun, but because I’m looking after who I am. So, I’m going to give it a go.

I resolve to mindfully do one thing each day that is fun for me.

Here’s what that’s looked like so far:

Monday – Watch funny movie and eat popcorn with hubby.

Tuesday – Take kids for long walk in pram before dinner.

Wednesday – Attend high school fashion show and behave like a teenager – while hubby looks after the kids at home.

Thursday – Visit friends for dinner.

Friday – Blog.

Saturday – Finally get much needed haircut and re-style.

Sunday – Family brunch at local cafe.

Monday – Speak only in operatic voice during our morning routine…

Parenting Self-Care

I’ve been awake for three hours, have breastfeed once already and am due to breastfeed again in just an hour. I’m still in my pyjamas, but the house is tidy, there’s a load in the wash, the baby’s changed, dressed, fed and napping and the toddler has used the toilet, eaten, is also dressed for the day and happily playing. I finally sit down, at the tiny toddler table, with my breakfast plate – cold toast, lukewarm eggs and tepid coffee – and start to eat while helping my toddler work through an activity sheet – part of our morning pre-school routine.

“Mummy, can I have some of your eggs and toast?” he asks each and every single morning. I hesitate, stare at him, stare at my colder by the second plate of food, stare at him again, sigh and guiltily respond.

“No, darling. You’ve already had your breakfast. If you’d like, when I’m done eating, I can make you your own egg and toast.” I have to remind myself that in the last three hours he’s had a piece of fruit and a bowl of cereal and that in just another hour he will have another piece of fruit and veg – and his very own egg and toast if he’d like.

Later, I’m just about to finally sneak into the bathroom when I hear the baby cry. I have to stop my reflexes from sprinting down the hall into her bedroom. “You can quickly use the toilet before helping her find her dummy again,” I encourage myself.

These are some of the teeny, tiny but massively important steps I’m taking towards looking after myself whilst caring for my two babies, aged five months and two-and-a-half years.

I find it incredibly difficult to remember to stop and ask myself what I need, rather than becoming so consumed by what my babies need every second of the day that I forget or ignore even the most basic of needs, like using the bathroom or eating!

But, I have recently become even bolder. Last week, I went and paid for a full body massage while my husband stayed home with the kids for an hour. Yesterday, I went out and purchased concealer, eye liner, lip gloss and a matte finish face powder – items I have been in need of since my first baby was just a few months old – two years ago! Today, with winter upon us down here in the Southern Hemisphere, I went out and bought myself a set of pyjamas and warm house slippers. Next weekend, I’m really going for it. I’m going to a fancy salon and getting my hair not only cut – but styled.

I am in search of me. Not the “mum” me, but the me that is also a mum.

With my second baby only five months old, the lingering possibility of a future baby, my strong beliefs on breastfeeding into toddler-hood and being a stay-at-home Mum, I realise this journey will take quite a few years. But, the journey must start somewhere and the sooner the better. Because I now realise that the better I care for myself, the better able I am to look after my kids. And the better I care for myself, the less likely I am to store up an expectation that my kids will be required to care for me at some invisible point in the future (see Dear Mum, I.O.U.).

For some Mums, self-care comes easily. Maybe they’ve got heaps of family around to support them along their parenting journey. Or maybe they learned strong, healthy boundaries growing up.

Other Mums gravitate towards self-care to such an extreme that it borders neglect. I’m not advocating that. I never want to reach a place where I am always or only placing myself first before my kids.

But some of us are too far on the opposite extreme, neglecting ourselves almost entirely in favour of our kids (house, husband, job, etc.). This places us in danger of depression. It also means we fail to teach our children to respect us or themselves. We fail to teach them healthy boundaries. And we run the risk of creating unhealthy relationships with our children into their adult years.

Self-care in parenting is perhaps best analogised by airplane instructions: “In case of emergency, place your own mask over your face first -” then assist your babies. We’re no use to them if we’ve suffocated in an attempt to help them breathe. What happens then? It’s unreasonable to place the onus of caring for us on them, because we failed to place our own mask over our face first.

“Mami, I want to have a juice — while you and Lynn have a coffee,” suggests my toddler, by way of an outing.

“Good idea, my love.”

Dear Mum, I O U

I was recommended a website called Womb of Light, which discusses the under-resourcement of mothers in Western society and the effects this has on individuals. One key point was the idea that many Mums pour themselves into their children and, often unknowingly, create an understanding between themselves and their children that amounts to, “You owe me.”

Before you wave the idea away, think about it. Really think about it. How many of us feel like we owe our mothers – something – at the very least because she gave birth to us, anything else she might have done for us becomes an added bonus for which we also owe her.

So, I reflected on this point and imagined my little prince, suddenly a successful grown man, “all because of everything I will have done for him – including all of the sacrifice,” – whoops. Okay, well maybe “in part due to…all of the good I will have done for him…and the sacrifices…” Hm, still sounds a lot like the makings of a, “because of me” and “you owe me” relationship brewing.

Here’s the problem with this I-O-U: He can’t pay me back. Under this theory of the mother/child relationship, an incredibly prevalent one, we are burdening our children with a debt they absolutely can not ever pay back. No amount of cash, goods, success, affirmation, attention or perfection can repay someone for not only providing another with life itself but for then ensuring that person’s survival. Our babies are entirely dependent on their caregivers for survival itself. How do you pay that back? You can’t.

That’s a set up for failure.

Who does that?

Why give our children an unachievable task? That’s unkind. And as with any debt, it also binds them to us in an unhealthy way.

“It is for freedom that we have been set free,” Apostle Paul rephrases the fact that Christ died so that we might be set free. Might be. We have the option, but we are instead constantly choosing to burden ourselves and each other.

Well, I want my children to be free. Free to succeed. Free to love and free to be loved. And free to live free. So, how do I do that? I don’t know!

Except, that if I “sacrifice everything” for my kids, I will feel like they owe me. If I don’t sacrifice everything for my kids, then I may not feel like they owe me… Because I took care of myself, I won’t feel like someone else (my kids) need to take care of me. They won’t have to pay me back – there will be no debt to repay.

If I pour into myself as much as I pour into my kids, then I believe that I won’t be creating any debt, because I won’t be creating this self-sacrificing mentality. Instead, I will be freely giving and freely loving from what I have to give. But I will also be freely giving to and loving myself, so that I’m not creating a need…a deficit that needs to be filled later by people incapable of filling it.

So, I have started putting my kids down to bed promptly at seven pm in order to have two or three hours to myself. And I have finally finished re-drafting the children’s book I’ve been working on for a couple of years now and have just submitted it to a professional assessor in the hopes of getting it ready to be submitted to literary agents within a few months time. I went out for dinner with a friend while my husband stayed at home with the kids. I put the kids down to sleep and left two very close friends reading books in the lounge while my husband and I went bowling – our first date since our first child was born, nearly three years ago. I went and got a full body massage we can’t really afford. I’m thinking about the possibility of finally learning to play the guitar. And I’m looking forward to the possibility of enrolling in a dance class, although that may have to wait until next year.

I am and would like to continue being a full time, stay-at-home Mother of two. It is an exhausting, all consuming job that leaves little time for anything else. Living far away from our family makes it even more difficult. But because I love my kids and want what’s best for them – an unencumbered life, where they might be free – I must find a way to make time for self-care.

Journey through life as a multi-cultural parent, inter-racial spouse and migrant woman.