A question I often ask other mums, when I’m interviewing them on Not Another Mummy Podcast is ‘How do you juggle everything?’ It’s got to the point now, where I often apologise for asking the question, because it feels like such a cliché. And it’s rarely a question that men get asked, isn’t it?
But it’s a question that I continue to ask, because whether we like it or not, the majority of mums are performing a juggling act, day in day out.
I remember when I was in my 20s, someone telling me that if your life is divided into three areas – Job, Relationship, Friendships – then you will usually be doing well in two of those at any one time, but rarely doing well in all three. Throw babies and kids into the mix, and it feels like an even bigger challenge.
And just as there have been days when I smugly feel like I’m nailing it – laundry drying on the line at 9am, older child deposited at school, breakfast dishes cleared away, fridge full of nutritious food, work deadlines being met, babies going down for a nap easily, laughing as I share a joke with Mr P, posting a birthday card on time to a friend and remembering to buy loo roll before we run out – there are days (many days) when I feel like I’m doing everything badly.
One of the worst times for feeling like this is when you return to work after having a baby. I remember it so clearly eight years ago when I started work again – doing three days a week in the office – after having my eldest. I’d leave work at 5pm, ready to do the sweaty, stressy dash back to collect her from nursery, praying the trains wouldn’t be delayed and cause me to be late. I felt guilty for leaving work early, like I was a bit of a crap co-worker (“No, I can’t make that meeting on Friday, I don’t work Fridays”) and a crap employee (“No, I can’t get this piece of work to you tomorrow, I’m not in until Monday.”) I’d sit on the train sending emails, trying to cram in that last little bit of work that I could, and then I’d pick up my baby from nursery, whose face would crumple as she dissolved into tears when she saw me, like she’d just realised that I’d left her ALL DAY at nursery and how could I do that to her? The whole thing was enough to make me want to sob and vomit and sob some more, out of awful gut-wrenching guilt.
I recently started working again following having my twins seven months ago. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work from home now, so rather than me take a full maternity leave, we decided to swap over – I returned to work after just a few months off, and Mr P is taking a break from his primary school teaching job to be at home looking after the babies and the eight-year-old. It’s brilliant because it means, like everyone with small babies, we have one income coming in, and I can work flexibly and be around to help with the babies too.
But in the last few weeks, there have been times when it has felt like all of those balls that I’m juggling in the air have come crashing down. I recently had a mini meltdown to Mr P. “I just don’t feel like I’m doing ANYTHING well,” I wailed at him. “It feels like I’m not working hard enough or spending enough time with the family.” Even though I’m working from home, it was the same familiar feelings I’d had, eight years ago. Mr P was on his way out the door (because I like to time my mini meltdowns well…) and he sent me a series of texts, reassuring me that I’m doing brilliantly.
I reckon it’s something that happens to all of us at some point or another. Whether we’re dealing with a baby and going back to work, or we’re settling a child into primary school and juggling work with half day settling in sessions, or we’re dealing with two consecutive cases of chicken pox just as a big work deadline is looming, or even if we’re just struggling to cover the school holidays when we only get 20 days of annual leave yet most kids get around 65 days off school every year. And it’s not even restricted to parents who work – I know plenty of stay-at-home-parents who have moments of panic as they feel like they’re dropping balls left, right and centre. Whether you work or not, life is busy and there’s often a lot of demands on our time and attention.
So what can we do about it?
Here are some tactics on dealing with these feelings when they arise..
- Work out why you feel like you’re failing. For me, a couple of weeks ago, it was down to a number of factors: the 8-year-old was on half term so needed to be kept busy and happy and our boiler broke so I had the extra stress of waiting in for an engineer when I had two screaming babies that I wanted to pop in their pushchair and take out. Sometimes, once you recognise that there are actual reasons for the extra pressure or stress, it can immediately feel a bit better.
- Focus on the small wins, not on the negatives. Write them down if it helps. So if you came up with one great work idea, or you got the washing out on the line by 10am, or you remembered to buy more tea bags before you ran out completely – just one of those things means it’s a good day. So allow yourself to feel good about it.
- I love a tactic that I got from Anna Mathur – try flipping around that negative thought. Instead of me thinking ‘We’ve run out of milk and bread – I’m such a failure – and I’ve got to get the babies ready and into their buggy so I can walk to the shop’, I should think, ‘I’m so fortunate that I have the money to go and buy milk and bread, and that I have a shop just a short walk away,’ And instead of thinking ‘I’ve missed that work deadline and I’m going to have to work until 11pm to get it done’, I should think, ‘I’m so lucky that I can work flexibly and have the ability to work around my children – and I got to play with my kids today which is brilliant.’ Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t always magically ‘fix’ how you’re feeling, but it can snap you out of wallowing in self-pity and self-loathing, and remind you of things to be grateful of.
- Just like the advice I got in my 20s, I think it’s OK to have times when you focus on one area of your life more than another. It’s OK if you’re not firing on all cylinders at work, if you’ve got extra pressures at home. Likewise, if you’ve got a big work project on, it’s OK if you’re not baking cakes and building huge Lego towers and collecting your Mum of the Year award. It’s all about balance, right?
In fact, that should probably be your main take away from this blog post – stop trying to juggle. And instead, try to balance. If you’re trying to juggle, it means you’re trying to keep all of the balls in the air, all of the time. It’s just not possible, and sooner or later, a ball is going to drop. So, instead of juggling, if we try to balance – focusing on one thing at a time – we’ve got more chance of success. And by success I just mean feeling happy.
For me, I think I can achieve this by deciding on any given day what I’m going to prioritise. So telling myself, ‘Today, I’m going to focus more on my family and not on the housework’ or ‘Today I’m going to work really hard on clearing my work email inbox and not feel guilty about it’ or ‘Today, I’m going to put my energy into getting through the dirty laundry, change the bed sheets and get to the supermarket to buy what we need’. Of course, it’s not always possible to just have one focus each day, but I can try. And if it stops me from beating myself up for not DOING IT ALL, EVERY DAY, maybe it’s a winner.