Taking shared parental leave has allowed me to experience first hand what is entailed with being the primary carer for a child. In my case, it’s three children – Tessa, who is at school, Tilly who goes to nursery a couple of days a week and has time with both Grandmas too, and Toby, our little boy who is 11 months old. The fact that Toby is our third child has in fact made life easier for me as I suppose I’m an ‘experienced’ parent. This has meant that I’ve been a little more relaxed when it comes to daily parenting life than I expect I would have been if I was a first time father.
What this experience of having time off caring for my children has shown me though, is that it would be very easy to slip into a rut so that my own well-being, both mental and physical, could come under threat. In that respect, it’s necessary for parents to fight off those little devils on the shoulder who are willing you to ignore your own physical fitness and/or to just stay indoors and do nothing much beyond caring for your child, which will in turn pose threats to your mental well-being. It’s easy to see why new parents can suffer with depression or anxiety during what is traditionally billed as a special time as you become a family. In the rest of this blog, I go into this in a bit more detail and offer some of my own thoughts as to how this impish devil can be kept at bay, which in turn, has made my life and parenting journey altogether more rewarding.
The mental battle
There’s a lot to take on board in this parenting malarkee. My previous post: “A tough gig – why parenting is like being in the SAS – well almost” – https://bethedaddy.blog/2019/03/18/a-tough-gig-why-parenting-is-like-being-in-the-sas-well-almost/ – set out why parenting is tough and the numerous things that need juggling on a daily basis. Before a birth you may do NCT classes and read a shed load of books on parenthood, but ultimately, nothing can prepare you for the day you cross the threshold of your doorway at home, carrying a car seat that contains a living, breathing human. A human that you, as parents, have sole responsibility for caring for. When you step back and think about that, it’s massive. I remember when Karen was pregnant with Tessa, our eldest, and late on in the pregnancy watching this living thing squirming in Karen’s tummy. It was only then that I truly considered the human race for what we are – animals. Raw, animalistic creatures who are creating new life in the most basic, wonderful and miraculous way possible. So when you are back home and you get through those early few weeks of visitors and finding your feet – what I call the ‘In Awe’ stage, where you just look at this little person in amazement, knowing you have created them and that you will love them to the very end of your being and your capabilities – and things start to die down a bit, the mental battle of parenting becomes a lot more real.
By this stage, the likelihood is that one partner has returned to work and the primary carer is still finding their feet. After the first few months, where survival is the key, you may feel a little more confident and be ready to try and do a little more. That said, it’s clear to me from my time off that if you simply stayed in and did nothing but spend all day with a baby who can’t talk back and limit your human interaction and mental stimulation, you could quickly begin to suffer with your mental health. Although most parents will be wary of this, the temptation when you are sleep deprived, the weather might be bad, or your little one is a bit of a terror, is to simply hide yourself away indoors at home and live a hermit’s life day by day. The position is heightened by the fact that many of the things you used to do living a child-free life will have altered. For example, you can’t simply go out for a few drinks when you please, any sporting or other hobbies may fall by the wayside or reduce, the chances of being able to read a book are slim to none and time for yourself and each other as a couple move right down the pecking order.
By the very nature of parenting, there is an unavoidable monotony that comes with the territory:
- get through the night – one or two wake ups, bottle feed, limited sleep … again.
- breakfast, nappies, for me – the school run, more nappies,
- some form of play time,
- tidy up,
- nap time,
- think about and prepare lunch,
- more play time, more tidying up, and more nappies,
- general household Dadmin – washing, ironing, putting clothes away, the dishwasher, food shops, bins/recycling out and so on,
- more nappies, play time and snacks / bottle,
- school pick up / nursery pick up, snacks, drinks,
- tea time,
- bath time,
- story time,
- bed time …. and repeat.
This list is just the basics too. On top of this parents also need to consider a multitude of other things, such as: birthday parties, presents, clothes (including school clothes), clubs and hobbies and all manner of other bits and pieces. This doesn’t even come on to general Adult Admin (I suppose Adulmin), which every adult has to deal with (I’m in the process of trying to find time to change my mobile phone provider/contract as an example!). So if all you did, day in day out, was this, you would fast become mad as a box of frogs.
In this regard, I’ve found during my time off that you have to drive yourself on – to get out of the house – go to the shops, go to baby classes, see friends and family, or just get out and even have a walk. I’ve forced myself to get out of the house each day I’ve been off and, if I hadn’t, I think I would have found my time off a lot tougher and may even have gone full on Britney Spears and cut clumps of hair from my head. It’s also helped me put in perspective what Karen has been through on her time off and all of a sudden I can understand why she was out seeing friends for coffees or lunches, rather than simply nailing the household admin that was needed in the house to its fullest. If she hadn’t she’d be half way to that bad old town ‘Nervous Breakdown’ and all our lives would be a lot worse for it. You simply can’t just do those basic household jobs all day everyday with nothing else or you’d burn out and frazzle that brain of yours!
Having fathered three children, I’m also a firm believer that children’s behaviour and general demeanour mirrors, to some extent, or at least can be influenced by, that of their parents. If you are able to be calm with a crying baby, I’ve found that the baby will settle more quickly. Likewise with a toddler in meltdown mode – if you rise to the bait (which I often do!) and become ‘shouty dad’, the meltdown will worsen, whereas if you can stay calm, there’s a chance you can ward it off and rein them back in. The ability to stay calm and measured, I find, is all linked to the state of your own mental wellbeing. If you are stressed, you’re more likely to blow up more quickly and fall into the vicious circle of parent-child arguments (not so much with a baby, but being calm with a baby makes a big difference). As a parent, with so much going on and so much balance required, your own mental wellbeing and that of your partner, can easily be pushed to the back of the queue. This is where the battle begins and you have to find time for yourself and each other to maintain some degree of equilibrium, otherwise the devil will soon be riding rough-shod over your mind and this will impact on your daily life and that of your family.
In terms of my own time off and trying to keep myself in a good mental place, on reflection, I suppose the following principles apply:
- Get out of the house everyday – in some regard this has been forced on me by the school run most days. This gives me interaction with others and also ensures Toby gets a change of scenery too. I’ll also try and get out to see people – my Mum, or other friends, just so I’m not stuck in all day.
- Go to some baby groups / classes – I’ve had a play group on a Monday (run by the Salvation Army) and a Messy Play with the wonderful Little Mess Pots (a local group to me) on a Wednesday as my mainstays whilst I’ve been off. I’m planning on doing a blog on my experiences at play groups as a Dad in due course, but all I’ll say for now is: go along, be brave and throw yourself into the groups. Talk to people and once you get past that first bit of conversation, everything tends to be ok. It’s important to be able to interact with other parents who are going through the same things you are – lack of sleep, problems with behaviour or eating and a multitude of other issues. Just a short conversation with someone going through similar issues can do wonders for your mindset and make you realise what you are going through is perfectly normal.
- Be organised and plan! I’ve done a previous blog post entitled: ‘Planning & Preparation Permits Plentiful Participation and Prevents P*ss Poor Parenting Performance‘ (https://bethedaddy.blog/2019/03/04/planning-preparation-permits-plentiful-participation-playtime-and-prevents-pss-poor-parenting-performance/). This approach has helped reduce stress and meant that I can attack each day with a vague plan in mind. As a result mental anguish, anxiety and stress has reduced and I generally feel pretty good each day.
- Have fun with your kids! This is so important and is fundamental to keeping yourself in a good mental place whilst you are the primary carer for children. Nothing is more fun and rewarding than playing and laughing with your children. Nothing is also more challenging than looking after your kids on occasions, but the rewards are so worth it and it’s vital not to lose sight of this. This is why we have children – to play with them, nurture them and watch and help them grow. So throw yourself into this and the joy you will get will help keep that devil in his box and allow the mental health angel to spread her wings and dance a merry jig!
- Exercise! This to me is essential to good mental wellbeing and the two go hand in hand. For me the two are inextricably linked and I’ve spent some time below focussing on the benefits of physical activity in your life as a parent.
The physical battle
As I’ve said, I’m a firm believer that mental well being is inextricably linked to physical well being. I’m sure there’s also scientific evidence to support this too. For me, in general terms, I become a lot more grumpy and short-tempered if I can’t exercise. So during my time off I’ve made a conscious decision to also try and look after my physical self and feel much better mentally for it.
In order to be able to fit exercise into an already manic daily routine you have to plan ahead. When I’m focussed and on point I try and roughly plan my week on a Sunday so I know what I can aim to achieve. I’ll also try and do a healthy eating menu for the week as far as possible. This isn’t easy and I don’t always have that weekly plan set out, but when I do, most of the time the week that follows is a good one. My exercise regime includes trying to get to my gym 3 times a week. I’ve joined a fantastic place in Stockport called 7 Movement, which is run by a married couple called Dave and Kate Perrin. It’s perfect for my needs – all coach led, class based sessions – including guided weights/strength building sessions, circuits and burn (HIIT) sessions. There are a lot of other supportive people there, many who are also balancing work and parenthood, and it makes for a great atmosphere and I’ve really enjoyed it. They also have a ‘kids’ corner’ where you can park your children whilst you work out. I have regularly attended a Tuesday morning circuits class where I take Tilly along. Karen is off work on Tuesdays and takes Toby to a baby class at the same time, so it’s a prime example of using my time to fit some exercise in. I’ll also try and get out for a couple of runs a week (normally as soon as Karen comes in from work) and on days where these are not possible I will try and get out for at least one decent walk with Toby.
As I’ve stated, if I am able to get some exercise in during a week, I feel significantly better. I’m more productive, more driven, more focussed, less grumpy and my mental state is vastly improved. I’m fully aware that when I go back to work it will be much more difficult to fit in all this exercise. I hope to write a blog on balance as a parent in due course where I’ll look into this in more detail, but the key is ultimately being organised and for partners to be understanding of the fact that each other needs their own time as well as family time and time together. This is another constant battle that needs revisiting over and over. The above being said, I would urge any parents to try and get involved in something for them personally. Start up a hobby again, take up something new, find something that is for you. It’s not selfish and will more likely than not improve your outlook and therefore your parenting mental state.
So that’s my take on another side of parenting. It is tough and you need to constantly re-appraise your position and your daily routine in order to ensure that you don’t drop into a rut and let your mental state suffer. This requires a degree of self-discipline and motivation and ensuring you find some time for yourself – whether through exercise, watching TV, or writing a blog! On the same note, if you know other parents who you think might be suffering, invite them out for a walk, or a drink, or just talk to them – help them put the devil back in the box and bring some joy back into their lives. Being a parent is the best thing in the world. It’s just sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that fact and to take a step back and embrace what being a parent gives to you.
Thanks again for reading and see you all soon!