‘Why we shouldn’t al­ways put our kids first’

Mother of three He­len Rus­sell lives in Den­mark and has been learn­ing how Scan­di­na­vian par­ents do things dif­fer­ently…

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Headaches, dizzi­ness, nau­sea, aching limbs and a throat like bracken meant I’d been sub­sist­ing on Day Nurse and Night Nurse for weeks. I wor­ried that some­thing was wrong and so, ear­lier this year, I went to the doc­tor for a check-up. She was sym­pa­thetic but told me that, no, I did not have late on­set glan­du­lar fever or a hith­erto undis­cov­ered sub­trop­i­cal dis­ease. ‘ What you have,’ she said with a wry smile, ‘is three kids and ex­haus­tion.’ She re­minded me of a pop­u­lar lo­cal phrase: ‘ You should put your own oxy­gen mask on first,’ cau­tion­ing me to pri­ori­tise my needs and take it easy for a while. Be­cause just as flight at­ten­dants on a plane in­struct you to put your own oxy­gen mask on be­fore help­ing oth­ers, Vik­ings know that you have to look af­ter your­self be­fore you can look af­ter any­one else – mean­ing that moth­ers shouldn’t al­ways put their kids first.

Be­fore I had chil­dren of my own, I was cer­tain I’d worked out what par­ent friends were do­ing wrong. Then I be­came a mum my­self and re­alised that, in re­al­ity, I knew noth­ing. It was a bumpy road to get there and I felt lucky to have chil­dren at all af­ter years of fer­til­ity treat­ment. I still do a lot of star­ing in won­der at my twin tod­dlers and their big brother, con­sumed by a heav­ing love like no other. The twins’ lat­est trick – of ap­plaud­ing me when­ever I en­ter a room – makes me feel a lot like Bey­oncé. Par­ent­ing is ace. But it’s also re­lent­lessly tough.

I spend ap­prox­i­mately 56 hours a week cook­ing, clean­ing, sweep­ing (that’s right: like ac­tual Cin­derella), step­ping on Lego bricks, deal­ing with myr­iad bod­ily flu­ids, or ad­min­is­ter­ing hugs, kisses and Min­ions plas­ters. And that’s just dur­ing the day. Once ba­bies of­fi­cially ‘sleep through the night’ (new par­ents, look away now) they still wake, on av­er­age, every other night, re­quir­ing some­thing or other. So with three kids, sta­tis­ti­cally, I’m wo­ken up at least once a night, every night. I know that if I don’t get eight hours’ sleep, I have a ten­dency to­wards de­pres­sion – but I haven’t had eight hours’ sleep in four years. As a re­sult, I use ev­ery­thing in my re­silience toolkit to keep my men­tal and phys­i­cal health in­tact – and I still ended up at that doc­tor’s ap­point­ment ear­lier this year feel­ing some­thing dras­tic was wrong. I have a part­ner who knows his way around a nappy and great Scandi child­care, for which I check my priv­i­lege daily. But my other half is also away a lot, and then it’s all on me. So if I break, ev­ery­thing breaks. One in four of us suf­fer from men­tal health prob­lems and we can all ex­pe­ri­ence what neu­ro­sci­en­tists call a ‘down­ward spi­ral’, lead­ing to feel­ings of hope­less­ness and de­spair. Stud­ies have shown that the tun­ing of our brain is down to three forces: ge­net­ics, early child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences and life­style. We can’t con­trol the first two but the third we can – and should – by putting our own oxy­gen mask on first.

To start, we need to ac­cept that the way we par­ent is good enough just as it is. There are 50,000 par­ent­ing books on Ama­zon, each sell­ing a dif­fer­ent reg­i­men we’re en­cour­aged to fol­low rigidly, oth­er­wise it could all go a bit We Need To Talk About Kevin. Yet psy­chol­o­gists have found that in­ten­sive par­ent­ing ide­olo­gies of any per­sua­sion make moth­ers sig­nif­i­cantly less happy and three times more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence de­pres­sion. So­cial me­dia is great for seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion but it can

also lead to feel­ings of in­ad­e­quacy and com­pe­ti­tion (why are In­sta­gram chil­dren never cov­ered in stains? Where are all the eye bags?). Real life is sim­i­larly rife with par­ents bang­ing on about their painfully gifted off­spring – at one birth­day party I at­tended re­cently, a child was forced to scrape out a ren­di­tion of Happy Birth­day on the vi­olin while her sis­ter sang in Man­darin. But he­li­copter par­ents have been proven to make chil­dren more anx­ious. The laid-back Vik­ing ap­proach to hav­ing kids seems al­to­gether health­ier: love them, read to them, feed and clothe them, and tell them to stop if they’re do­ing some­thing dan­ger­ous or un­kind. Other than that? Let them ex­plore and be there when they need you. This isn’t ‘ne­glect’ – it’s free­dom.

Work can be an added pres­sure for many but for me it’s a re­lease – and time when I can feel like my­self again. I en­joy my job and I’ve never wanted to do less of it just be­cause I hap­pen to have had a busy uterus. Re­search shows that more than half of moth­ers who work feel guilty about leav­ing their chil­dren but, for the most part, it’s un­founded. In Scan­di­navia, the ma­jor­ity of moth­ers work, and 85% of Dan­ish moth­ers are back at work be­fore their child is one – but Danes aren’t all scarred for life. Stud­ies from Har­vard Busi­ness School show work­ing moth­ers are more likely to raise suc­cess­ful daugh­ters and car­ing, em­pa­thetic sons. What’s more, work­ing women to­day spend nine hours more play­ing with their chil­dren each week than their non-work­ing 1960s coun­ter­parts. Work­ing means that I feel cre­atively ful­filled, and every spare mo­ment I get to spend with my chil­dren is trea­sured. I’m also try­ing to get bet­ter at carv­ing out a third space for this strange new phe­nom­e­non I’ve been learn­ing about called ‘re­lax­ation’. And that’s be­cause I love my fam­ily too much to mess this up. I’ve re­alised that I have to take care of my­self, or there will be noth­ing left of me to give. So I’ve taken up pad­dle-board­ing and power nap­ping and, every cou­ple of weeks, I book a babysit­ter and make dates to see friends who feed my soul. Once a month, I’ll pack all de­pen­dents off to day­care and have a day to my­self to read undis­turbed, or go for a re­ally long walk. When­ever I can, I make time for a bath with­out Du­plo or rub­ber ducks in it. And, although we lis­ten to our fair share of Nurs­ery Rhyme Time in the car, some­times I play some­thing I might en­joy, too. The Guilty Fem­i­nist pod­cast works for all ages, I’ve dis­cov­ered.

Look­ing af­ter your­self just as much as you’re look­ing af­ter ev­ery­one else is the only way to par­ent sus­tain­ably – some­thing I learned the hard way, three kids in. Put your own oxy­gen mask on first so that you’ll be around for as long as pos­si­ble – happy, healthy and ( hope­fully) sane.

We need to ac­cept the Way We par­ent is good enough just as it is

He­len pri­ori­tises time for her­self and friends (be­low) to bet­ter en­joy her days with the twins (op­po­site)

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