Oh, don’t worry about me: I like being bottom of the heap
But putting everybody else first all the time is not good for you, or your family
Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting believes that “nobody disrespects you unless you allow them to”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It’s when you’re utterly exhausted and your baby is crying yet again . . . or you’re running all day after a toddler who has no off-switch . . . or trying to coax tired and fractious children to bed after your own hard day at work . . . or struggling to hold the line with argumentative teenagers . . . and still there is shopping to be done, meals to be made, clothes to be washed and a house to be cleaned.
Worst of all, you know that tomorrow it’s going to be more of the same. It’s relentless. Yet your partner still seems to be able to make time for weekly soccer, or golf, or a few drinks with the lads.
Every day, it seems, everybody wants a piece of you and you want to scream “What about me?” That’s when you know you’re “bottom of the heap”.
Motherhood and martyrdom don’t have to go together but sometimes it seems as inextricably linked for modern mums who strive to have it all as it was for the Irish Mammy caricature. Of course self-sacrifice goes with the territory but prolonged lack of self-care does nobody any favours: not you, and not your family.
It’s a trap that professionals working with mothers and families see women fall, jump – or be pushed – into. Here they share their views and offer advice on how women might extricate themselves from the bottom of that heap.
The two-week check for baby after birth is a good way for GPs to get a feel for how a woman is coping, she says.
“You want to check that the recovery is okay and see what supports she has in place. Certainly for me at that visit, I would be picking out women who I would be a bit more concerned about.”
She will see them again at the six-week mother-and-baby check-up and as they return for the baby’s vaccinations.
In her experience, mothers are horrified to admit they are not coping too well. The first step is to assure them that what they are feeling is totally normal, she explains, before probing for signs of more significant depression rather than just the stress of feeling overwhelmed as a new mum.
Once children are a bit older, Ni Shúilleabháin says she doesn’t see many women coming into her still feeling overwhelmed by it all.
“I think women have worked it out at that stage. Motherhood is about putting yourself last a lot of the time, but you have to take time for yourself and I think a lot of women are better at doing that now.”
For women who are struggling later on, there are usually several factors at play. “They may not be making space for themselves but usually it is not just about that.”
It doesn’t matter whether you are a stay-at-home mum or a working mum, they are both very difficult jobs, she points out.
“At home it’s relentless – all the thousands of little things that need to be done every day and very underappreciated in a lot of cases.
“Equally, if you are a working mum, you are torn in lots of different directions. You are still doing everything as best you can but, inevitably, not quite as perfectly as you could do it if you gave it your full attention.”
Ni Shúilleabháin has more than a professional insight on this issue. She has two boys, aged six and five, and has just returned to work from maternity leave after the birth of triplet girls, who are now seven months.
Her first advice to fellow mothers is to get some sleep. “I would often advise Dad to do the 11pm feed – whether expressed milk or formula feed – but that you go to bed at 9pm. Get a good run of four, five or six hours’ sleep – that’s really important.”
Take all the help that is offered and let your partner do what he should be doing with the baby. “It may not be the way you’d do it, but it’s fine; and the baby will be fine.”
Joining mother-and-baby groups is “really useful” and make sure you get out and about.
“Even if you don’t have the support of somebody minding the baby, just get out with your buggy and walk. Make sure you get fresh air and exercise every day,” she says. “Being stuck in the house is just awful.”
“It is certainly not coming through in the statistics if they are. Maybe men who are in full-time employment are doing a bit more, but it is not having an impact on their employment status in any way.”
Yet parenthood clearly has a huge impact on women in the workplace. Hard-won equality of job opportunities is eroded by caring duties and lack of accessible, affordable childcare.
While the gender pay gap is narrowing for women without children in Ireland, she says, a 2012 OECD report on the high price of motherhood showed that “once you put one child into the picture, it immediately shot up”. Taking part-time work into account, the report found that the pay gap triples here for women in families with one or more children.
The struggle of combining work and family life is very much women’s struggle – even if men are doing a little bit more, O’Connor argues. Being one of the few countries in the EU with no paternity leave also sends out a strong message about who’s doing the caring.
The forthcoming Family Leave Bill is an opportunity for the Government to show a bit of leadership, she says. The NWCI would also like to see a legal right to request flexible working.
Workplace culture needs to change, she stresses, if women are going to be able not only to balance a job with rearing a family, but to progress in their careers. Neither she nor the council buy Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean-in” approach, she adds.
“We think women are leaning in enough. We need a workplace culture that enables women to lean out and for men to be taking up much more responsibility in terms of care work.”
Parenting coachPractical Parenting
To people who complain that they are disrespected, she says, “Nobody disrespects you unless you allow them to. You put yourself at the bottom of the heap.”
Whether we like it or not, many men identify with work and many women identify with family, she says. The more mothers care for everybody else, the less likely they are to ask for help, feeling they shouldn’t need it. But you hide that need at your peril.
“You are cranky; irritable; you’re shouting at people because you’re shouting for help. The best thing you can do – not only for yourself but for your children and your husband – is say ‘I need to take care of myself.’
“Get in touch with your needs and find your voice; nobody can do that for you,” says O’Malley, who points out that many fathers find time throughout their parenting years to, say, play a weekly game of golf, to take care of themselves.
“That is what men do and women bitch about it” – primarily, she suggests, because it is something women need to be doing more of themselves.
As a trainer in workplace wellbeing as well as parenting, O’Malley sees that the women who cope best with the pressure of being a working mother are the ones who carve out time for themselves, be it to walk at lunchtime, meet a friend, listen to music, read a book or go for a run.
“No matter how busy you are, you can actually do it,” she stresses. As for any guilt you might have about putting yourself first for once, “bin it”, is her advice. “It is always about [feeling] a lack of deservedness.”
Doing too much for children is not good for them either, making them very dependent.
O’Malley doesn’t go along with lauding a mother who does everything for her children as they are growing up.
“She is doing it for herself, she is not doing it for the kids, to be blunt about it. She needs to have her own life.”
The helpline chief executiveParentline
“A mother is handed this child who is completely dependent on her, so she assumes this responsibility naturally. It’s not so easy then to let go.”
The vital early months of baby-mother bonding can set a pattern that is hard to alter, if not with your partner, then with your child who sees Mum as the “go to” person.
But successful parenting is about raising an independent adult, O’Reilly points out, so mothers should be letting go bit by bit, increasing their children’s responsibilities and thereby freeing time for themselves.
Yet in an era when constant busyness is seen as a virtue rather than the health hazard it is, O’Reilly warns about setting standards too high for yourself, your children and your house. To the mothers who say “I never sit down,” she wants to respond: “I wish you would.”
It’s a vicious circle, because a frenzied mother is more likely to find herself in conflict with irritable children.
People ring Parentline when it all becomes too much. “They are trying to be perfect; trying to be too right,” says O’Reilly. Suddenly they can’t do it anymore but they can’t turn around and admit that to those around them.
“The hour of unloading on Parentline is very good because it puts things in perspective,” she suggests. It can help mothers see that they “can take a foot off the pedal a little bit”.
The relationship counsellorBernadette RyanRelationships Ireland
In the first flush of love and moving in together, they tend to take on the lion’s share of household tasks. Men are happy to go along with that. Then it becomes the norm, and women’s resentment builds up, she observes.
Speaking from personal and professional experience, she says that when children come along “nature has a way of taking us by surprise”. A couple may have planned to share the care, then “nature kicks in and there is this bonding process that takes place between mother and baby” – what paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott terms “primary maternal preoccupation”.
“I think for modern-day young women it can come as quite a shock,” Ryan says. And the danger is the partner will feel pushed out.
The woman is under social pressure, firstly to be the earth mother extraordinaire and secondly to have it all: career, baby, perfect relationship and lovely home.
“Either way, the woman keeps coming up short,” she says.
Another factor can kick in, at a very unconscious level, if there is a “gap” within a woman who feels unloved and lacks self- worth. If there is any uncertainty about the relationship, the baby can fill that hole very easily, she says.
“Here you have unconditional love for this infant gazing up at you, you’re gazing back: happy times. You don’t have to worry about bothersome men.”
That’s okay for a while but if it continues too long, it can set up a lifetime of children coming between the partners, she warns.
For any woman who feels she is the bottom of the heap – regardless of how she got there – Ryan’s advice is to start seeking and allowing support.
Time and time again she sees women who believe that if their partners really loved them, they would know how they were feeling.
“He doesn’t know,” she says simply. If mothers feel they are in over their heads, they need to talk to their partner and try to renegotiate their roles.
“If we do put ourselves on the bottom of the heap, we could end up staying there until we say ‘No, this needs to change for me,’ ” she adds. “That is not being selfish; that is self-care.”
Parentline can be contacted on 1890 927 277 or by email at email@example.com. See also relationshipsireland.com; practicalparenting.ie and nwci.ie
How I manage my work-life balance Mother of three Laura Smith, who works full-time outside the home in hospital administration, sometimes feels she’s “bottom of the heap”.
“I would say you can go under if you don’t look after yourself.”
But she swears by early nights, snatching time for herself when she can, a good diet, taking vitamins for energy and a weekly boxercise class.
“I do a 20-minute walk during my lunchbreak, which is invaluable because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t see the light of day from one day to the next. I also stick to a very strict bedtime routine for the children, so that I have those few hours to myself in the evening: it is also amazing for them, their health and for their concentration at school.”
Her husband, a construction engineer who has been unemployed since the collapse of the building sector, is a huge support.
“He does all the cooking and is great with the kids, so that really takes the pain out of things, and he also does the drop-off for school and for creche.”
However, because he is at home with the children, the minute Laura walks in from work at Beaumont Hospital in north Dublin, he wants a break.
“I think he sees me as having a break away being at work but, as you know, that is not the case,” she remarks.
Laura prioritises weekends as family time with her children, aged six and three, and also her 16-year-old daughter who has a profound intellectual disability and needs round- the-clock care.
She lives in St Michael’s during the week but comes home at weekends, when Laura’s parents help out.
If Laura was given an extra hour a week, what would she do?
“I would spend some silly time with the children,” she replies, “as I sometimes feel I am missing out.”