There is a richness to being alive, to being a person, that poets and artists seek to reveal. The subjective gaze, the inner landscape, the wonders of being aware, of being conscious not only of the world around us but also conscious of the fact that we are alive and enjoying all of this. All these and more contribute to the wonder of living fully. And yet as soon as we become parents, all this is temporarily forgotten, put aside, as we focus on meeting the overwhelming dependency of our young. Of course we must relinquish our personal desires to keep them alive, but in our society where families – and often specifically mothers – are left to sustain this tiny living being alone, the awesome responsibility can be hard to bear.
As a result, we often feel guilty when we need something for ourselves. Attending to simple bodily functions becomes impossible as our babies are distressed at the separation. In empathic parenting, the adult mirrors the baby, becomes attuned to their ways, becomes immersed in the life of the infant so they can more easily function in the world around them. Neurobiology teaches us this is how we are designed and our nervous system responds to the distress of a child in a way that helps child brain development. In other words, we become distressed at our baby’s distress and experience huge guilt about going to the loo.
Even as children get older and more independent, they often rely on us in significant ways, and may even revert back to an earlier stage of dependency when they feel frightened. There is no sudden release of responsibility, rather there is a constant back and forth of being needed and set free, in ways that can be jarring and unexpected. And so when we do find ourselves with time on our hands, we are so unaccustomed to the experience it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten what to do.
As this stage can occur over years, it is really important for us to start to become skilled at taking those moments, of reclaiming them for ourselves. We need to recognise ourselves as individuals again, people who have opinions, desires, interests, passions and a deep capacity for experiencing and learning more about life. We can start to look for those activities we can dip into at a moment’s notice, preparing ourselves for what enriches us and lights us up. We also get the opportunity to be really present to the side of ourselves we normally don’t like to see. When our moment of pleasure is interrupted and we snap, or our child resists us sitting down quietly and we give in even when we know we need a few more moments, or when we’re frustrated at our partner and just want to scream and leave all the work up to them.
Parenting gives us an opportunity to know the fullness of who we are, both the things that light us up and the things we would rather not know at all. And in fact, with the pressures we have to navigate, it is essential we get to know both. We have to dig deep inside to find the inner resources that will get us through, but more importantly we have to remember who we are, as a growing, developing human being who also has their own life. Digging deep and clinging on to our sense of self can be a survival strategy, but we can also use it as an exploration of our subjective world, which can be a path to finding our own strength and a certainty about who we are that enriches our experience of life and reminds us that we matter as much as our kids.
For some gentle strategies to remind you how much you really do matter, check out our 3 simple self-care solutions here.