Well hello 2023!
I’m back on deck after a lovely Summer holiday and taking some time out from work to spend with my 5 month old son Tommy. Firstly, let’s not confuse those two concepts – maternity leave and holidays – because they’re definitely not the same thing!
So I thought for my first post for the year, what better topic to cover than the wellbeing lessons I’ve learnt since becoming a parent… Learnings that relate to wellbeing that are relevant for everyone regardless of whether you have kids, you work, are studying or in your twilight years… And certainly lessons that I will be taking forward with me that no doubt will influence my work.
Something that I’ve had in the back of my mind, probably for the last decade, was that children don’t typically make people happier. I first came across this idea in Martin Seligman’s book “Flourish”, where he mentions that “it is well established that couples with children have on average lower happiness and life satisfaction than childless couples”. If it wasn’t for happiness then why do people have children? As I’ve learnt, for many, particularly women, the choice to have children is about gaining greater meaning and satisfaction in life (Hansen, Slagsvold & Moum, 2009). Typically raising children isn’t all fun and games on a day-to-day basis, yet over the longer term nothing gives people more joy. This is what’s referred to as “The Parenting Paradox”.
Given this, I guess you could say that I was prepared for there to be a dip in my wellbeing as I navigated raising a child. I knew that parenting would be a huge challenge, particularly in those first few months, and probably the biggest that I’d ever faced. There would be a lot that I wouldn’t be able to control (namely the small new human) but as always there would be some things that I could (thank you Julian Rotter and Steven Covey).
My favourite saying when it comes to wellbeing is “tiny is mighty”. I knew I wouldn’t have hours to dedicate to my self-care (who does?) but when I most needed it, I wanted to do some of the small things that I knew would support me to feel good and function well (well, as well as I could given the circumstances). I’m a firm believer that everyone has some capacity to focus on wellbeing each day. Activities outside of the obvious like eating well, showering, spending time outdoors, exercising and sleeping when you can…
Before I continue, I want to assure you that I’m not sharing my reflections to boast in any way, to encourage comparisons or to make anyone feel bad. Wellbeing is subjective, so what works for one person might not work for everyone. Yet there’s no harm in learning what helps others as it might do the same for you. The best action you can take when it comes to your own wellbeing is discover what you need to thrive so those things can be prioritised going forward. And here are my top three…
Pump up the Positivity
We don’t need to look at research to know that being a parent is a mixed bag of emotions (although the science will back this up) (Negraia, Augustina et al., 2020). It’s not that you don’t experience more positivity when you have kids because you do (when Tommy giggles, my heart pretty much explodes – hello oxytocin!). It’s just that you typically experience more negative emotions too (insert sleep deprivation and its fallout here). Children are one of life’s greatest delights, but they can also cause increases in stress and anger (Nelson, Kushlev & Lyubomirsky 2014). Particularly at 3am…
Unfortunately, we’re all surrounded by negativity in our days, it’s everywhere we look. We’re also hard wired to focus on what’s wrong, so we’re drawn to it and even seek it out. Yet because negative emotions cause anxiousness, we want to try and reduce them as much as possible. Lately, I’ve been unfollowing those on social media that frustrate or sadden me in some way, I’ve limited my exposure to the news and am trying to not let the small things stress me out… Yet to compensate for the negativity we experience, we also need to ramp up our experience of positive emotions. And unfortunately, it’s not a 1:1 deal.
Researchers have uncovered that we need three positive emotions to counteract one negative (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). So, to spark more positivity, I’ve been choosing to watch feel-good shows particularly during those overnight feeds (like Ted Lasso, Derry Girls, Hacks etc.), I’ve been seeking out funny memes or Jimmy Rees clips, playing my favourite songs ridiculously loud in the car (when little ears aren’t around), laughing at my parenting fails, and of course looking at cute photos of Tommy once he’s gone to sleep… I know these are what help me to feel better and they can also undo the negative effects of stress too!
Acknowledge all Accomplishments
Feeling like we’re achieving our goals or the things that matter most to us is an important component of wellbeing. Typically work is where many experience a sense of achievement regularly. So, when your job is put on hold, these feelings can dissipate. As a way of feeling like I was still achieving whilst on maternity leave, I had the grand plan of finishing my book and writing regularly this blog. I envisaged punching out a few paragraphs, you know, when the baby slept… how naive! Instead, twice a week for no longer than a few minutes, I managed to write two short LinkedIn posts. This helped me stay connected to my network, to keep abreast of the latest research and to stay on top with what was happening in workplaces. And I also got to experience a lovely hit of dopamine when I clicked “post”.
When I complained one day to a friend that it was already midday and I had achieved nothing at all, she reminded me that I was raising a human and keeping them alive each day was a huge accomplishment. Just as teaching them to eat, drink, roll or play with toys is.
So now I regularly mentally high five myself at the end of the day when my son is safe, well, fed, happy and sleeping in a clean bed. Often, we celebrate the big things like finishing big projects at work, reaching financial targets or completing a degree, but it’s important to recognise every achievement no matter how small they may seem!
Build the Bonds
When it comes to wellbeing, relationships are one of the most important ingredients. As humans, we need others for support and ultimately for survival. I don’t think that’s ever been truer than when you’re raising a newborn. That’s why mother’s groups exist. They’re a safe place to groan and moan, seek advice and be vulnerable. Being honest and real about what’s going on, encourages others to do the same, which strengthens the bond between people. This is why for many, the relationships formed at mother’s group last a lifetime!
As an extrovert, I also need others for energy. Typically, this would happen for me first thing each day at the gym, then throughout the day when seeing clients. But these interactions were now on pause. Instead, I committed to seeing one person a day no matter how crappy, ugly or smelly I felt. Even though I felt exhausted in the lead-up, I knew spending time with someone would energise me. And it did. Friends would say that they were just “briefly popping in” or “leaving something on the doorstep”, but there was no way I was not getting the energy hit that I needed. So they were brought inside and forced to stay at least an hour!
I know this isn’t the same for everyone particularly my introverted friends. Yet, everyone needs those people that they can turn to for advice, or someone just to listen. They can be found at work, at the gym or at the local playground, and you know you’ve found them when you don’t ever feel judged or criticised but rather like you belong!
It’s a cliché but one full of truth, I have to be at my best, if I want my son and loved ones to be at their best too. The same can be said for leaders, teachers, doctors, and the list goes on. It’s easy to forget about you when time is limited, but “tiny is mighty” when it comes to wellbeing, and the small things when done repeatedly over time will make a big difference!
For those that may be struggling with a new baby, please know there is lots of support available and my first port of call is always the Maternal and Child Health Line.