It’s been a quiet few months on Mums Are Made. A big reason for this is that the Hubster has just spent three months teaching at the University of Durham. I had an exhilarating few weeks looking after the three kids on my own in Portugal, headed to my Mum and Dad’s house in the UK, then returned with them for another few weeks back home again. On the plus side I have spent a lot of time hanging with the little ones, seeing old friends, and visiting favourite childhood haunts. I had a night or two OUT, which was extremely welcome. The only snag was that, while I have been lucky enough to have outstanding help and support from friends and family, I have felt quite overwhelmed with the responsibilities and practicalities of being the only full-time parent on hand. I can’t remember ever feeling so exhausted.
Actually, I still feel tired, but much less anguished, thanks to some very simple changes to my thinking.
I will return to that in a minute.
First, a typical source of anguish.
One of the things that I get worked about is Miss just turned 1’s sleeping habits. The issue of baby sleep has become one of the most contentious topics on parenting websites, forums, and the topic of various research endeavours. Thanks to the mighty net, each of us has a plethora analyses and advice, not just the word of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, perhaps the odd baby book, but also forums and Facebook groups, ‘parenting experts’, and scientists. There are loads of books and ebooks to choose from too depending on your chosen approach.
Now, of course, being woken repeatedly throughout the night does tend to be tiring. On top of this though, is a list of niggles and anxieties: I am not intervening enough; not setting good enough routines; exacerbating her waking by co-sleeping; in danger of losing more sleep if I stop co- sleeping; night weaning might get me more sleep, but there are some benefits for Miss 1 if she carries on feeding at night; I don’t want to wean completely because I am enjoying the extended breastfeeding relationship and this is likely the last time I will be doing this; perhaps I should be prepared to do almost anything if it guarantees more sleep; perhaps I should have sleep trained after all; consulting literature reveals that there are pros and cons to sleep training, so either way I have probably done stuff wrong; perhaps I am doing the kids a disservice by being tired and grumpy too much of the time; maybe if I …..and on and on and on.
And Miss 1’s sleep is but one of many things that I am find tough! Throw in Mr almost 3’s concept of safety, Miss 5’s independence dependence dance, and the other random concerns that crop up on a daily basis. Then there is the wellbeing of Husband and I.
Fortunately, there is hope out there for chronic over thinkers, worriers, and control freaks:
Enter Nicola Bird, Life Coach, and Wise Lady Entrepreneuress. I had the opportunity to spend an hour with her last week as part of her 100 Conversations Project, and she helped me out with a simple insight:
It’s not the circumstances of my life that are overwhelming, it is the way I think about them which makes me feel overwhelmed.
At any given moment, I am constructing my perception of reality through my thoughts. Thoughts arrive unbidden in my mind on a constant basis and tell me stories about what is happening in my life. Such as why Miss 1 doesn’t sleep through the night, and the devastation it will cause because, clearly, she is never, ever, going to.
Nicola used an analogy involving TV newsreels to make me more aware of my thought patterns:
Imagine that your thoughts are a ticker-tape playing across a TV screen; one of those strips at the bottom of the TV, which keeps you abreast of incoming news items. The ticker-tape stories are played out in greater detail on the screen above.
As we move through our daily life, the ticker-tape flashes up responses to what is going on. For example, it reports on our behaviour and that of others. The story we connect to these behaviours appears in technicolour on the screen evoking emotional reactions.
The more that we pay attention to a particular story, the more vivid it gets. The story starts to feel more and more real. We start to make it real, even though it started out as pure imagination. The real fun happens when you start to try and pay attention to every story on the ticker-tape and begin to make them ALL real at once. This saps energy and leaves no room for what is actually going on in the present moment. We start to live in our heads. We smother our own personal resources. We start to feel less than well.
The bad news is that you can’t just switch the TV off. It is always there in the background. It is part of us.
On the other hand, we can just turn the TV round. Put it in a corner. Pay less attention to it. Take it less seriously.
I commented that I thought this idea would be useful.
‘It’s not just useful, it’s liberating’ said Nicola.
She was not wrong.
Another helpful idea she talked about was that peace of mind is not something which we need to cultivate through yoga or self- improvement. It is there all the time within us, but when we are wound up by our thoughts it gets obscured.
Buried beneath all that thought is the innate wisdom which says ‘Hey now, you know what to do and you’re fine. You love your kids and your husband and you know how to look after these people, and nurture these relationships. You know how to take care of yourself too’. If I let up with the analysis and strategising it can shine through. If I stop suffocating myself by overthinking, deep down I am calm. If I step outside the thought storm I can be receptive to new ideas.
So, I hereby give myself permission to not bother with a whole load of unhelpful thoughts and the attendant feelings they create in my brain and body. I cannot stop having them, and I do not need to change them. I can choose not to get caught up in my thoughts. To stop piling meaning onto events, which simply are what they are and no more.
I have been doing this for a week now and it is helping me so much. For instance,
Miss 1 is so very far from sleeping through the night that the very idea of ever sleeping again seems laughable at times. Like I said above, I react to this in various ways. I have spent untold amounts of time thinking about strategies to help her sleep longer, and still more wondering what, if anything, I did wrong. I start worrying about the long term effects of poor sleeping on my mental and physical health. I get jealous and resentful towards hubster because he is not up as often as me. I get frustrated with her because, to be honest, I expected a bit more sleeping to be happening by now. I see this stretching into the distance for months and years to come with no end point in sight.
Well, none of these thoughts are helping in any way and this is actually interfering with my ability to deal with the present moment. The stories I am telling myself about the future simply haven’t happened yet, so they can go. The strategies I have read about, heard about, thought up, whirl around my head, but they don’t quite fit today, my baby, my current situation, me. Get rid of them all. It’s just clutter. The theories about how this came about. The expectations about little one reaching milestones. Out you go. Good riddance. Oh, and the beating myself up for getting cranky and impatient. I will lose that, because I am only human after all.
Now, with that out of the way I find that the night-waking is not such a huge problem. I can see that she is sleeping better than she was, if not so well as her siblings were at the same age. She is also in her own room now, albeit taking me with her for a chunk of the night. That is not such a big deal because her bed is a mattress which is big enough for the both of us. I can see my beautiful baby girl will eventually sleep. There may come a point where it feels right to try and intervene a bit more, but I don’t need to worry about that today. I have confidence in own ability to be in this situation as it unfolds and figure it out as I go along. After all, success and failure are retrospective diagnoses and no one knows for sure what will work.
Take for example, what worked for helping Mr almost 3 sleep through. He had transferred to his own room in a cot reasonably well, but then separation anxiety peaked and he started waking frequently and crying at top volume. I used to go in to him, try and settle him, cuddle him to sleep and transfer him to his bed to no avail. 20 minutes after dropping off he would be yelling again. What worked in the end was Husband climbing into the cot with Mr almost 3 and holding him until he dropped off. When settled like this, by his dad, he didn’t return to his frantic waking and began to sleep much better. Then he just seemed to grow out of it for the most part.
So, what turned out to solve the problem of how to calm Mr almost 3 was not strategy or routine. We didn’t follow a plan from a baby book. We didn’t consult any forums. We didn’t discuss it, and if we had I would have expressed doubt about the cot’s ability to accommodate them both. Hubster came up with the right idea for that moment, in the moment, which happened to do the trick. Then Mr almost 3 grew ready to sleep without us.
Control is so very tempting, but it is not the answer. Surrendering to our human limitations is the answer. Letting ourselves and our families be themselves is the answer. Working with our innate common sense is the answer. Knowing that we can come up with the right idea at the right moment is the answer. Even if sometimes we get it wrong or are at a loss. Such is the nature of human creativity. Not to mention the unpredictability of cheeky wee bairns.
I really needed reminding that thoughts are just stories. Stories which tell me about what I fear and desire, not stories which predict what will happen in my own or my kids lives. Stories which have the power to shape my family’s lives, but only because of the effect I allow them to have on my own feelings. Paying untold attention to my thoughts sends me in circles, repeating the same stories to myself, when there are no answers here to resolve my feelings of overwhelm. In fact, these thoughts are creating that feeling of overwhelm.
If I let go of these stories I can open up a space for new ideas to flow in and creativity to flow out. Instead of expending huge amounts of energy thinking these thoughts I can put that energy into the business of living in the present moment.
I’m not saying that suddenly everything is easy, but It feels more straightforward. Just by giving less credence to a whole heap of thoughts on a daily basis has made me feel more sane, deal better with sleep deprivation, be more loving to my husband and kids. I feel like a perfect example of an ordinary human mum with good moments, bad moments, strengths, weaknesses, and a tendency to worry about stuff.
What are the stories you tell yourself? What do you listen to? What do you want to be liberated from?
I would love to know, so answers on a postcard/comments box. Sending lots of love to all my fellow worriers xxxx
Find out more about Nicola Bird and The Simplicity Project here