‘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…
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)