Mental wellness while parenting a high needs infant
I’ve noticed recently that I have been getting very frustrated at my husband. He seems to find time to read novels, watch movies and play his guitar. Now it’s not like my husband isn’t busy; he works full time, is studying Law and is a great help with our family. The difference between my husband and I is that he is able to bring himself into the moment and be present. He must have a to do list as big as mine with all he is juggling and yet he is able to set this aside and do something for himself, something that brings him joy and refills his cup. I on the other hand run around in a constant fluster, flapping my arms trying not to drown in my never ending to do list. I can’t tell you the last time I read a novel, watched a movie or even managed to watch TV where I wasn’t also folding washing, making up nappies or prepping welcome packs.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I don’t allow myself time to fill my cup? The boys won’t be little forever; I will get my time later. At least that’s how I used to think but recently I have found myself growing more resentful of my lack of ‘me time’. I can’t remember the last time I woke up and felt refreshed and rested because I still parent all through the night. I envy my husband for going to work and being able to focus on that one task uninterrupted, where I juggle everything I do with the boys. He gets alone time and I don’t ever! Well unless Tobias is asleep and we all now that is easier said than done with a reflux toddler! But the other thing I realised that I was growing resentful of was the time my husband spent playing with the boys because again he was in the moment with them; he was 100% present and they must be able to feel that because I knew I could. Even when I tried to play with the boys I was running through what needed to be done next, asking myself what we would have for dinner, growling myself for not putting that load of laundry on, dreaming of my next cup of coffee – my only life line. It was then that I realised I had to change how I was doing things not just for myself and my own mental well-being but so I could be a better Mum and wife by simply being there with them mentally sometimes! But how and where to begin? I thought I would share with you what I have recently learnt and started to put into practice – well some days at least!
1. Rest or Relax when your baby or child rests
I remember my Plunket nurse telling me this as a new Mum and I almost scoffed. Of course I don’t rest if by some magic I had managed to get Peter to sleep not on me. I spent that precious time running around doing all the chores I had buzzing round my head as quickly as possible before he awoke. And this is probably ok for a while but it isn’t sustainable. Admittedly I have survived like this for almost 3 years now and it has taken this long for the cracks to really show but the toll on my mental health has been huge! I am surviving my boy’s day to day rather than enjoying them and that breaks my heart because they bring me so much joy, it’s just that I have forgotten how to experience that. So the first thing we have to do is stop when they stop. Take some time to do something for you! It doesn’t have to be yoga or a breathing exercise (but those things can be great). It can be coffee, chocolate bikkies and a trashy magazine because they are great too! But the most important part of this time is that you shut off that never ending to do list in your head, and here’s how.
2. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness has become a common word into today’s world which is awesome because it is a really powerful tool. Some may think in order to practise mindfulness we need to be sitting crossed legged, chanting with incense burning but you don’t! Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing your thoughts into the present moment. Now the concept is simple but the practise isn’t always. But the trick is to practise it during everyday tasks, so it doesn’t become another thing on your to do list.
For example, practise whilst brushing your teeth, cleaning both your teeth and your headspace:
- Apply the toothpaste to your toothbrush.
- Begin to brush. Breathe through your nose, slowly and deliberately.
- Relax your neck and jaw.
- Loosen the grip on your toothbrush. Feel the bristles moving over your teeth and gums.
- Taste the toothpaste, bring your awareness to it, really taste it.
- As you rinse, breathe deeply through your nose. Notice your clean teeth.
- Feel gratitude for your teeth and all that they allow you to do – chewing, smiling, speaking… Which also brings me on to my next suggestion.
3. Express Gratitude
Ok so thanking your teeth may seem a little odd but the concept again is actually really powerful at turning around your head space. When you have a baby screaming for a large part of the day or a tired and emotional toddler attached to you needing you it’s really hard to see the positives. But they are there, I promise. Take a few moments at the end of the day to find one or more positive moments from your day, write them down if you like. They don’t have to be big events, something small like a giggle from your little one while playing peek-a-boo might be your moment of joy during a day filled with grey. What is important here is that you take your focus away from the negatives and move it to the positives. Our thoughts are powerful and will change our experiences. Which brings me to the next thing I learnt.
4. Change your internal dialogue
If you are anything like me when things are ‘bad’, your internal dialogue includes “I can’t do this”, “I am failing as a mother”, “I should be doing …”, “Everyone else seems to cope except me!”
It’s so easy to get into this trap in challenging times but the problem is this internal dialogue becomes your truth and so inevitably comes to pass. Now imagine if on the days where it all feels a little helpless we told ourselves.”. “Today is really challenging but you are getting through it”. “You are strong”. “Just take it one step at a time, you can do this!” “You are enough”. “You are a great Mum.” You can even have these positive affirmations written down and posted around the house as gentle reminders to yourself.
When you become your own cheerleader you change your headspace. There are things we can’t control. Reflux in our little ones is one of these things, sadly. But we can change our response to the situation.
5. Ask for help!
This is something I am notoriously bad at! I think a lot of Mums are but its ok to ask for help; it’s not a sign of weakness; it actually takes great strength to reach out for help and I see that in each new Mum who joins us. Help may be in the form of asking for a meal, it may be putting your toddler into pre-school for a few hours a week, and it may be going to your GP and saying I need help with the way I feel.
Reach out to us; we are here for you. You are not superwoman and you do not have to do this all on your own! Which brings me to my last point.
6. Share the Mental Load
I’ve been reading a lot recently about the mental load of motherhood, I know for me it’s the hardest part, especially when you have a child with a medical condition. The burden you carry can be crushing. But on top of these big things we are also carrying all those other little burdens which on their own are very small but put together become as large as a mountain. It’s that dreaded to do list again: dishes, laundry, groceries, doctors’ appointments, birthday presents, and the list goes on and on while one job simply leads to another so your list never actually gets any smaller. See it’s a mountain!
If your husband/ partner is like mine, he is more than happy to help but I give step by step instructions and so the mental load of the task is actually greater than if you had just done it yourself. But that is what I was doing wrong! I was managing my husband where I needed to give him a responsibility not only to complete a task but also to know when and how to do it, so I could remove this task from my list. This may be as simple as putting out the rubbish, or perhaps paying certain bills or dinner on Thursdays.
For those single Mums I know this burden is a lot harder to share and I hope you have some good support around you whether that’s friends or family to share your mental load with.
I recently had my Mum come to stay. I have never asked her for help before, worrying it would look like I’m not coping. I’ve always wanted to prove to my parents, I’m a good Mum. But after several hospital stays with Tobias for his Epilepsy, I was burnt out and feeling a bit broken by the medical system. We don’t have any family nearby to give us hands on support. But Mum travelled from Paihia to Cambridge and spent 10 days with us cleaning, cooking (even ironing!!) and doing the garden and it was a huge weight off my shoulders and gave me the breathing room to pick myself up again, reassess how I’m doing things and look into making these positive changes that I thought I would share with you, in case you need to make some changes too.
Remember I am not a counsellor or psychologist; I am simply a Mum sharing my experiences on what has helped me in the hope it may help you too.
This article is not meant to give or replace medical advice and if you are concerned about your current mental health make your GP or Plunket Nurse your first port of call; they are there to help.
Below are a list of related links and resources you may find helpful.
One of the risk factors for post-natal depression, is ongoing stress. A baby who spills a lot, vomits, screams or is otherwise unwell is an ongoing stress and shouldn’t be underestimated.
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa say this on their website “Parents who get the support and help that they need with parenting are more relaxed and better able to look after their children. If the mother or father is mentally unwell, extra support is essential to help with their recovery, and we encourage anyone to seek advice from a GP, Midwife, or Plunket nurse in the first instance.” https://pada.nz/national-helplines/ – Jenny and Roslyn
© Jenny Overwater, National Coordinator and Crying Over Spilt Milk Gastric Reflux Support Network New Zealand for Parents of Infants and Children Charitable Trust September 2020