How I reclaimed my ambitions and hopes after having my kids
You don't have to lose sight of your ambitions and hopes because you're a mother, writes Olivia Willis
Becoming a mother changes everything.
I remember flicking on the kettle after a sleep-deprived argument with my husband when it hit me. Somewhere between having my second baby, the non-eventful row, and the kettle on my worktop, it occurred to me that I had lost myself. The serious lack of sleep, the dark circles under my eyes, yesterday's clothes covered in spit-up, the tight jeans and the muffin top I'd never gotten rid of after my first born were more than little reminders that I was so far removed from the woman I was before I had children.
BC (before children) as I comically refer to it now, I was cool, confident, my clothes were freshly laundered and hung neatly in my wardrobe. I wore good perfume. My hair had no split ends, was shiny and smelled good. I was funny and I think I may have even been fun. I loved my own company yet I think people loved being around me. That night in my kitchen, the doubts I had about myself grew louder and I wondered if I would ever be more than a mum again. Did I have to accept my mum identity and let that ambitious girl with dreams and personal goals go, and spend the next decades of my life being "just a mum"?
These are possibly the most honest, and soul-bearing words I have ever written, but bear with me when I say "just a mum".
From as young as I can remember I always wanted to have children. Once when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied: "A mother." I also remember telling people I wanted to be a journalist, a teacher and a lawyer.
I wanted to have an exciting career and not be diving into my umpteenth load of laundry with a visible lack of enthusiasm. I wanted to have financial freedom and a life not just dominated by everybody else's demands and dirty shorts. I always wanted babies. But I also wanted a career, success, money, holidays, a big house, and great hair and, and, and…
So I asked myself, can women have it all? No. No one can have it all - that is a fact of economics; it's called opportunity cost and a truth of life. First and foremost I wanted to be a mum and I am so grateful to have been given the chance to be one.
But I also wanted more and I think those early years of motherhood had made me forget that. So why couldn't I strive to fulfil just a few of my other dreams? Baby brain didn't have to take over my sense of self-esteem or rob all my ambition.
So I made myself a promise to go looking for that funny girl who looked after herself and made plans for herself. For her, not just for others.
Being a daily chauffeur, cook, cleaner, career woman, nurse, adviser, lover, referee, mediator, and decision-maker can take its toll and so it was important to rediscover the "me" underneath all these responsibilities. I decided to leave the past in the past and conclude that my experience with motherhood has brought about a deeper awareness of myself and who I am today and who I wanted to be in the future.
I joined a gym, but not to melt off the muffin top. I now go to the gym to get away from the kids, turn my music up loud, and reconnect with my body. I work out to feel more comfortable in this body that has given birth to two amazing children so I can keep up with them on a daily basis.
I signed up for a class. I have always wanted to learn another language. I take the class to make time for myself and made a vow to put it to good use for when I travel abroad. That also became part of my bucket list, by the way. Having kids doesn't mean that you can't travel and see great places - you just have to move it up the list of priorities and perhaps sacrifice other material things (if you can afford it).
I promised myself I'd connect more with my friends; no one can understand mummy burnout like your besties. Around your girlfriends, it is okay to be irrational and they know how to guide you back to an emotional balance and a dose of reality.
In doing little things to care for myself, I am able to better care for those around me - so I feel like I kind of have it all.
So what's my advice if you see a little of yourself in my words? I don't think I'm alone. Honestly, I think many of us struggle with this.
1 Consider yourself important too: If you don't find the time to take good care of yourself then you risk being overwhelmed and will suffer eventual burnout. It may seem like multi-tasking and juggling everything is allowing you to manage it all now but you're paying a high price for the constant on-the-go mentality by ignoring your need for a little recreation and personal ambition. Remembering that you matter is a key element to ensuring that you remain in good mental health.
2 Stop the guilt: The truth is that motherhood often comes with a strong dose of guilt. We feel guilty when we don't spend enough time with our kids. We feel guilty when we spend too much time with them and not enough time on other things like housework or cooking. We feel guilty for working. We feel guilty for staying home. We feel guilty for being too strict. We feel guilty for giving in. And sometimes we feel guilty for pursuing our own dreams and ambitions because it might mean we can't also meet the standard of the perfect mother that we've set out to be. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret: none of us is Superwoman. Nobody can do it all, and the ones who pretend they can are probably lying. We all get the same 24 hours, which means that no matter what we do in life, we will be faced with choices. If you choose to put a little bit of ambition into your life and make plans to fulfil your dreams, do not feel guilty.
3 Use your time well: Because pursuing a passion may mean more time away from your family, make your time together count. Give your family the gift of fully engaging when you are together. Turn off your phone or whatever distraction has captured your focus and give them all of you. Be intentional about setting aside time that is just for them.
4 Stop comparing. It is easy to look at your friends and think their life is somehow better than yours. We watch our career-minded friends rushing off to their great jobs, looking all stylish like they have it altogether. Stop. Comparing your situation to someone else's serves no purpose except to make you crazy with self-doubt, so just don't do it. Your path is your own and no one else's. It belongs to you.
5 Own your decisions: Every action has a consequence, that's how life works. But remember that because you select one thing it means you are not choosing something else. So own that decision. If you really believe that you can't fulfil a certain dream or ambition, don't waste time on regret. But also understand that when you make a choice to pursue a dream, you are also making the decision to leave something else behind. It's the only way you can be content with yourself. And that's okay. Because none of us can do it all, but we can still make time for us and the things that make us happy in addition to being "just a mum".
Whatever you decide, make peace with the choices you've made. And in the end, you'll be happier for it. I am.
Olivia Willis is the co-founder of familyfriendlyhq.ie, an Irish family website with information for parents, things to do, daily blogs, reviews and expert family advice