Whether it’s your first child or your fourth, taking the time to call in your village is a must. Here’s why.
Sarah Gregory needed help. Her husband John, a police officer, had made detective a few days after the birth of their son, Joseph (all names have been changed). His promotion meant longer hours at the office and fewer with his newly expanded family, which left Sarah to juggle motherhood, their home and the daily rigamaroles of life on her own.
Two weeks into her new reality, it smacked her in the head. Pushing through sleep-deprived exhaustion was challenging enough, but ongoing check-ups, grocery shopping, meal prep, mounting piles of laundry and dishes, plus a debilitating case of mastitis had her close to the edge.
“It was to the point that I was doing everything, and I was barely coherent most of the time,” she says. “John would come home from his new job, and since I knew he’d been working for years to get the position, I didn’t ask for help because I wanted him to be able to focus, sleep and do the best he could at it.”
Over time, however, Sarah became resentful of her self-imposed do-it-all role. One night, when Joseph was five weeks old, John came home and headed for bed. Overwhelmed with stress and lack of sleep, when Joseph began to cry, Sarah quietly placed him beside John with a bottle and a diaper, then left to spend the night at a friend’s house.
“Looking back, of course I see that it was a stupid decision on my part, but I needed a break,” she says. “I took on so much that I was driving myself batty, and rather than just ask John for help, I bolted.”
Shawna Busche of Peterborough, Ont. can relate. Mom to Derrick, seven, and Tyler, five, she transports her boys to and from after-school activities, attends their weekend dirt bike training sessions, cooks, cleans, helps with homework and is actively involved in her church. And she has a full-time job!
“On top of all the craziness in my life, my fiancé is not the most willing to chip in. He doesn’t like it when our dinner schedule is off or if the kids do their homework too late, and my family isn’t much better. I remember making breakfast the day after Tyler was born and while my parents and brother were sitting at the table at my house, waiting to eat, I was breastfeeding a baby while flipping eggs. It was quite the sight,” she says.
Not surprisingly, Sarah and Shawna are just two of a vast number of women who have a hard time outsourcing child-related tasks. But why are they opting to struggle alone? The reasons are plentiful.
According to Alyson Schafer, Toronto psychotherapist and bestselling author of Breaking The Good Mom Myth, while personality can play a role in whether or not a mom will call in her village, there’s also the worry of being denied help, of putting people out, or simply feeling like she should be able to handle everything on her own. “Moms today are constantly told that we should be capable. ‘Hold your own’ is the mantra in our world, and asking for help is seen as weakness,” Alyson says.
What’s interesting is that this mentality is generally unique to North American culture. “In many parts of the world that have more intergenerational closeness, help with raising a child is assumed. In fact, you would be insulting others if you didn’t let family play their role,” she says. “It would be like cancelling your baby shower and saying ‘you can’t help me because I bought everything myself.’ Doesn’t that sound rude? We’re basically doing exactly that when we turn away or don’t ask for help when others want to chip in and take care of our kids.”
So how should a do-it-all mom change her ways? To start, relinquish self-doubt and guilt and simply ask for help. Friends and family members are usually happy to lend a hand, so dole out housekeeping or meal preparation duties, have them play babysitter for older siblings, or ask them to take care of errands.
For significant others looking to help, make a to-do list for the day and request that they take on some tasks. Alyson says getting both parents involved in caring for the child is paramount, even if the process is bumpy at first.
“Learning to do simple things – rocking a fussy baby, bathing and changing a newborn – is tough for all parents at first, but investing time will build bonds and lead to smiles and cuddles, which is important for every parent/child relationship,” she says.
As Sarah and Shawna both learned, communication is also vital, as is taking time for yourself. “It’s natural that moms feel like they should be able to do it all, but it’s important that we remember we don’t have to,” says Sarah. “People love to feel needed and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you need a break. It doesn’t make you a bad mom – it makes you human.”
Know Your Limit – Stay Within It
As any seasoned parent can attest, it’s important to know when you’re taking on too much. These tips from Alyson Schafer can help you avoid burnout:
Get Introspective: It’s one thing to put on a façade for others, but you need to ask yourself if you’re happy. Stop for a few minutes every day and listen to your inner voice. Taking the time to tune into your own thoughts and feelings can be incredibly telling when it comes to finding out where you are emotionally.
Don’t Write Off Your Emotions: If you notice you’re exhausted, have lost pleasure in the things you like doing, tear up quickly for no reason, have mood swings, a short temper, general unhappiness and physical symptoms of stress (such as sleep disturbance, appetite changes, tightness in your chest), get help. Ask family and friends to chip in whenever possible, and if issues persist, see your doctor.
Time to Wave the White Flag? Alyson Schafer suggests how to get relief in these common situations.
I need help feeding my baby so I can shower/sleep: Can’t remember the last time you didn’t sprint in and out of the shower, or log more than four hours of sleep? Call in the reinforcements. Talk to your partner, or if you’re solo, call in family and friends. Prioritize where you most need help, and ask them to chip in. Cut back on light housekeeping jobs or delegate where possible to buy added shower time. When it comes to sleep, remember that it is vital to milk production when breastfeeding. Try expressing milk and having your partner or a family member share in some of the feedings, says Alyson. Keep a list of tasks posted so when people want to help, they know what needs to be done.
I need help getting my kids to after-school lessons: As your kids start developing relationships outside your home – at school and in the community – enlisting the help of other parents for kid exchanges and carpools can be a lifesaver. “It’s helpful to grow your community of families that share interests, not only for the social aspect, but so you can help each other out with carpooling,” says Alyson. In some situations, kids may not be old enough to travel alone to a lesson, in which case a group walking together or riding a bus in pairs can help participants feel safer. Alternatively, some music teachers or tutors, for example, will come to your house. “It could be a bit more pricey, but potentially very helpful,” says Alyson.
I need a night out!: Three words: Embrace the sleepover. “Parents typically wait too long to find a babysitter, so my advice is, start young,” says Alyson. “Ask a trusted aunt, uncle or grandparent if they would host a sleepover, either in your house or theirs.” Most kids enjoy the experience so much that they end up begging for repeated sessions. Another tried-and-true tip: Scan your neighbourhood for older kids who have taken a babysitting course, have youthful enthusiasm and who want to make some money. And should all else fail, if you have friends with kids the same age, try a kid swap. “Alternate hosting a sleepover one weekend at your house for the chance to go out the next weekend. That’s a great approach,” says Alyson.
Liz Bruckner is a mom of three who was never afraid to ask for help from her village. Much to their chagrin.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July/August 2015.