LAST month, I spent three days away from my three-year-old twins. I had a grand (mostly guilt-free) time at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. I missed my husband and babies but really enjoyed myself meeting children’s picture book authors, illustrators and publishers as well as learning interesting new things.
Three days sounds short but it was the longest time I had been away from my kids. While they have been busy growing up, I have also been taking baby steps to rediscover the “me” that existed before marriage and motherhood.
The small holiday from my family left me refreshed and ready to resume my daily responsibilities. It reminded me how important it is for mummies to take a break from our routines and devote time to nourishing ourselves.
Motherhood is often the most amazing thing to happen to many of us, but it is easy to get lost in the experience. Becoming a mum makes up so much of who you are and changes you in deep ways. It puts you on a totally different path to the one you used to walk as a childless, carefree young thing.
As one mummy blogger put it, “while the swim is precious, beautiful and life-giving, I’m not sure how to find my way to the oxygen-filled space that I used to occupy. You know, that time, that space, where you had room to breathe? When life wasn’t all sleepless nights, diapers, potty-training and responsibility.”
I am always grateful that as a writer, I was able to make a transition from a full-time to freelance career very easily. Yet, working from home is not always the easiest thing to do when you have two active toddlers. It is not only work deadlines that make demands on my time. My “work” (writing and creative projects) tends to be seen by others as “some spare things” I do when I am not performing my mummy duties.
Living in an apartment, I do not have the luxury of “a room of my own”, both a physical and mental space, which I can retire to when I need to clear my mind, and pour out and pen down my thoughts and ideas. Like most mums, I am on call for my family 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I have no regular off day, like my domestic helper has, nor a “door” I can close when I want to switch off and be alone.
At best, I can enjoy 10-minute showers in the mornings and evenings, not always without interruption from little fists banging on the door asking to be let in or decisions that need to be made for the day. Decisions like what to make for dinner, what to prepare for a trip out – mostly mundane things, but things that matter when holding a home together.
Mostly, I am quite cool with my new role and am maturing into it but, like everything else, balance is important. As a “midlife mum” (I was 40 the year our twins arrived), I had very few regrets going into motherhood. I have had (and am still trying to have) a rich and full life with many wonderful experiences as well as various personal growth and self-discovery opportunities.
When my children came, I felt I was ready to dedicate my time to them, to simply enjoy their childhood because I already had so long to prioritise my own needs. It did not feel like I was giving up something better.
Yet, more and more, as I gain experience and greater confidence being a mum, I strongly believe that instead of subscribing to some maternal ideal of being selfless and self-sacrificing, you do need to continue cultivating a very strong sense of self.
Motherhood can be hard and heartbreaking. As one mum put it, it is not a job where one hat can be taken off and another donned. It is a job where hats are stacked on hats. So, it is not surprising that many of us forget – or even disregard – the need to take care of ourselves and to grow as individuals. Sometimes, we need to be selfish in a healthy way to avoid feeling resentful and becoming an unhappy parent in the long run.
Remind yourself that motherhood is not martyr-hood. Put on your oxygen mask first because if you go to pieces, everyone is going down with you. Fill your cup, so that everyone else can drink from it. Make it a habit to make yourself a priority, change your mindset to make it happen. Know yourself and what works for you. For some of us, it may be carving time out for some exercise. Often, we are so exhausted that we find it difficult to motivate ourselves to exercise regularly.
Last year, when I was slowly going down a slippery slope of stress, induced by sleepless nights and feeling sorry for myself, signing up for yoga and personal training sessions helped me get out of the rut. Small children are high maintenance and require a lot of daily engagement. Exercise can give you the physical stamina needed to keep up with them, and help release happy hormones and endorphins to elevate your mood.
For others, maybe meditation, music or a massage may provide that much-needed mental boost. It can be a cup of coffee in the morning or sitting down for a proper meal instead of grabbing your food on the go. Get a new outfit or lipstick, dress up, wear some make-up even if you are just at home (as someone who spent the first few months of motherhood staying in pyjamas till teatime, I know how difficult even this can be).
Ask friends and family members to pitch in when needed. They can babysit when you and your partner have a date night, when you go for a movie with a girlfriend, or bring you dinner when you are stuck at home with a sick child. Choose a hobby, sign up for a class to learn a new language or, like me, take a few days off to attend a festival focusing on a cause you care about or a topic that you love.
Know that if you feel fulfilled and good about yourself, you are going to be a more patient, present and loving parent. If you enrich yourself, you will have so much more life experience to draw upon to share with your children. Remember too that our children watch, listen and copy. When we neglect ourselves, we also teach our children that pleasing others and what others think of us is more important than being true to ourselves.
So, celebrate yourself regularly and stay whole. Do something solely for yourself today to put that spring back into your step.
Li-Hsian Choo left a career in corporate communications to become a freelance writer and full-time mum to her twins. She also works on projects to curate creative experiences for children. She has co-written three children’s picture books and currently co-leads the Art Discovery Tours for Tots and Kids at the Ilham Art Gallery in KL (http://www.ilhamgallery.com/programmes/2016-feb-june/batik-art-discovery-tours-details). Her column, Mummy Moments, is about her journey as a mother. It will be updated once a month.