Monday 8 July 2019

Avoid playgrounds and eat the last biscuit: How to keep your sense of self as a parent

Remember when life wasn’t all packed lunches and soft play? It’s time to get that person back

I am currently working away from home, abandoning my family to selfishly pursue my own interests – or at least, that’s how I felt the week before I left. During that time, I couldn’t simply look forward to the prospect of some time alone doing the things I love – time being myself. No, instead I was overwhelmed by everything I thought I needed to do, because although I am an author, a Jilly Cooper fan, a collector of vintage china, a nail-biter, a bad applier of fake tan and a country music lover, I am also a parent. And, like so many of us, I sometimes forget all the other parts of who I am and lose sight of me.

So it was that, as I packed, I found myself sobbing hopelessly because the mother part of me tends to take over all the rest, and instead of thinking about the exciting work I would be doing while I was away, what Jilly Coopers to take, if anything could be done about my gnawed nails and bad fake tan, I was focusing on all my failings as a parent. A parent who was abandoning her children to go gallivanting.
 ‘Anything that helps you keep hold of the fact that you are a person, not just a parent, is good.’ Illustration: Giulia Neri/The Guardian
Would their father cope? Would he do packed lunches properly – what if he ran out of yoghurts and juice boxes? What about the fact that I was missing sports day and prize-giving? What about the parties he would have to ferry them to and the pick up/drop off arrangements with other parents he’d need to keep track of? How could anyone other than me possibly manage?

But eventually I thought about things more clearly. My husband has experience of managing quite complex projects. He can cope. And, actually, our family would not fall apart without me and that, sometimes, I needed to go away and do things for myself – as a person, not just an extension of my children – because I am more than just a parent, and I should make more of an effort to remind myself of that.

The crisis passed, but left me wondering what I could do to keep hold of that idea of self we tend to bury when we have kids. Here is my checklist.

Remember Shirley Valentine
It’s easy to forget who you really are when you are caught up in the day-to-day grind and you seem to be the only person in the house who can find the clean socks and the missing homework that is, in fact, right in front of them.

I was only 12 years old when Shirley Valentine came out, and my mother and her friends adored it, but I just didn’t get it. Why was it so funny? Years later, when I was a mother myself, I watched it again and I totally got it – it all comes down to that moment when she wonders where Shirley Valentine has gone. I think most mothers have had moments when they look up from the drudgery and think: “Who am I? Where did I go? When did folding pants and Googling ‘How long can a child not eat vegetables before they get scurvy?’ become my life? Why aren’t I dancing on tables and changing the world?” and then we understand exactly why Shirley left a note saying, “Gone to Greece, back in two weeks.”

So remember, it doesn’t have to be Greece (it could just be a night out sans kids at a Greek restaurant) but you do need to get out of the house. On your own – or at least without children.

Soft play is not an adult destination
But hanging on to your sense of self doesn’t need to involve time away from your children. If you can’t or don’t want to leave them behind, there is no reason why they should dictate every day’s activities. Instead of soft play centres and playgrounds, take them to art galleries or castles, if those are your thing, even if they complain – and don’t they complain about everything anyway? My own cherubs have an encyclopedic knowledge of Stirling Castle, rather against their will, courtesy of frequent visits due to my desire to get my money’s worth out of my Historic Scotland membership and sneak into the dressing-up room to pretend I was Mary, Queen of Scots, to their mortification.

Be selfish – your kids will be better people for realising you have needs, too
Mothers have often felt the need to put themselves last, even if it means losing sight of who they really are, but social media has taken that to the next level. I saw the most depressing “motherhood” meme recently. It said: “Once you become a mother, you stop being the picture and become the frame.” Yep, motherhood apparently means you now exist only as an accessory to your children, and you yourself are insignificant and inconsequential.

Parenthood can make you feel invisible at the best of times, but when it’s reinforced in this way, it’s not just harmful to us, it’s not actually terribly good for children, either. I had a brief stint as a Cubs leader and it was immediately apparent that many of the children there were completely unaccustomed to hearing the word no. They were nice enough kids, but they struggled to grasp the concept of waiting their turn, not getting their own way or doing anything for themselves – because their parents were so present, so involved, to such an all-consuming extent that you wondered whether they even had a life beyond their children.

People quite often ask me for my top piece of parenting advice (which is terrifying, as it implies there are people out there who think I know about parenting) and I always say that just because you would die for your children, it doesn’t mean you have to live for them. So put yourself in the centre of the picture once in a while: tell them to find whatever it is they’re looking for themselves (or do without), eat the last biscuit because no one is going to be thoughtful enough to leave it for Mum, and forge your own sense of motherhood – one that doesn’t mean you disappear as a person and reappear as a social-media platitude.

Stop talking about your children
Anything that helps you keep hold of the fact that you are a person, not just a parent, is good, but one of the best things you can do is spend time with friends with whom the basis of your friendship is not your kids. Of course, those parental friendships are great, too, and get us through many a tough day when our darlings are tiny, but nothing anchors us to our sense of self like an adult conversation that doesn’t centre around kids.

Remember those people with whom you have things in common other than children? They are the ones who will really help to bring you back to yourself by offering a precious few hours (or moments, even) of being you. They won’t define you as Someone’s Mummy or Daddy, they will be able to discuss subjects other than whether John Lewis vouchers are a suitable teacher present (yes – worst-case scenario, they can spend it on posh gin in Waitrose), and you won’t have to shout, “I said no hitting!” every 30 seconds.

Sometimes, there isn’t time to keep up these friendships in person. Old friends move away and you’re lucky to see each other once a year, but email, texts and Messenger mean it’s easier than ever to keep in touch, and real old friends will be able to pick up where they left off. And if you’re really lucky, as you pass out of the haze of the soft-play years, you’ll start making new friends for yourself again. Maybe you’ll even find that some of those people you started talking to only because the other option was to smash yourself in the face with a maraca to take away the pain of the baby music class, have actually become real friends in their own right.

(Source: The Guardian)

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