You don't always come second, and nor should you have to.
I remember crying, big wracking sobs, because all I wanted was a bath. Eilish was seven weeks old, I was seven weeks postpartum unsure as to whether or not she would wake up. A ten minute soak in some warm water was all I wanted. Just five minutes, even, would do. It was a small lifeline to before, the smallest indulgence that had become an impossible task. I didn’t have one for weeks.
It’s the biggest cliche of motherhood. The demotion. Finding yourself at the bottom of the ladder, holding the bottom rungs for all others.
Drain yourself in the service of others, and you’ll have nothing left to give. I believe this, deeply. And I’ve felt it - frequently - at various points since having my daughter. Four months of a clockwork newborn who slept and fed when expected gave me a cocky sense of confidence, and I did too much. And when the all-too-predictable four month sleep regression kicked in and I continued to do all the things and she continued to not sleep, I broke. You can’t dredge anything from an empty well, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
I still fumble, I work and parent and juggle and then still try to dredge from the reserves.
I feel tired. A lot.
I get cross and angry and my patience is gone.
But I’m better; I say when I need a break. I don’t do often do things that only one of us is going to enjoy. I say no, often. I prioritise nap times over days out, because it’s my time. I treat baths as a day spa still. I read for pleasure, not parenting. I consciously eat better, because it makes me feel so much better. I cook, alone, and it feels like therapy. Small things that contribute to a whole.
Parenting is an undoubtedly difficult undertaking. And to parent in a way that is gentle and often in direct contradiction of our surroundings and own experiences is sometimes even more so. The responsibility of raising a small life can feel huge and tiring. Children don’t sleep as society tells us they should, age-appropriate behaviour can feel like pure defiance, we are often without help in ways that would have been unheard of in years gone by.
Self care is essential, but so is putting yourself above sometimes. It is not a selfish notion to be confused with ignoring the needs of your child. Putting yourself last consistently is to view parenting as a hierarchical system, rather than a circular. To give your child the attention, patience and love that you wish to give them, you need to meet your own needs and fill your own energy reserves.
I’ve often felt frustrated at some of the views held by those who hold attachment-style parenting above all else. I would wonder in those rarer sleepless nights how anyone could be expected to survive in this way, and then wondered in the mornings after something almost resembling a full night’s sleep how anyone could be told that’s not worth it. To the mothers who feel compelled to continue on 30 minute snatches, I say this; you don’t always have to come second.
There is no one way to parent peacefully, there are myriad of differing and conflicting paths to take. Parents, commonly mothers, need to be holding themselves on a level with their babies and children. And to do so, it may require taking the path unworn by those who are around you, those you follow with interest, those whose advice you may hold in high regard.
That first bath is vivid in my mind. It’s clouds of lavender and the first book I’d read in this new period of my life. I forgot absolutely everything, other than that bath, while downstairs my baby slept soundly in the arms of her dad. What a privilege, to erase the world around, to feel grounded when I’d felt untethered for an entire hour.
And it is a distinct privilege. Being able to rely on another to look after your child while you look after yourself is lucky. I do believe that you can still hold your needs in a higher place without that, but I can only imagine that it is much much harder. It may require more thought, or planning, or even a more imaginative vision of what self-care might look like.
Try to hold yourself in a higher regard. See your energy as important, as the thing that feeds gentle and more peaceful parenting. See self-care as vital. Make decisions based on yourself, and you children. You don’t always come second, and nor should you have to.