Juggling a business with parenting is enough to test anyone’s sanity. So what happened when we asked one mum to swap Merlot for mindfulness?
Charlotte Philby, 33, is the founder and editor of Motherland.net, ‘for women who happen to be mums’. She lives in London with her husband and kids Rosabel, five, Jesse, two, and Xander, seven months
To any parent of young children, my usual morning routine might sound painfully familiar: wake to the noise of shouting, glance at the clock to see it’s not yet 5.30am and groan before reluctantly heaving myself from my bed.
But within moments, the mental egg-timer flips in my head, marking the beginning of another day.
Before I’ve even reached the stairs, my mind is on red alert: did I reply to that midnight email? What time is my meeting? Do we have milk? What the hell is that weird smell? Individually, each thing is small and manageable, but thrown together, tripping over one another, the effect is blinding.
By the time I reach my children’s room, ready to change the first of an endless stream of nappies and answer 97 questions involving the anatomy of dinosaurs, I’m ready to keel over. And it’s not even 6am yet.
Between the tirade of commands I hurtle at my children in a frenzied bid to get them all clothed, (breast)fed and clean in time for the school run, I hear my husband humming along to Morrissey in the bedroom. A couple of minutes later, as I desperately throw all our worldly belongings on to the buggy, having dressed and fed all three children – and myself – he casually pops his head out the doorway, languidly pointing at his legs: ‘Are these trousers OK for a meeting, babe?’
The pressure to juggle careers and raise children has left a generation of women exhausted. Soaring levels
of anxiety among female employees in the UK are particularly acute for those in their thirties and forties, who are, according to the Health and Safety Executive, 70 per cent more likely to suffer work stress than our male colleagues. Is it any wonder?
After all, let’s consider what we’re up against: the crippling cost of childcare and property, hours spent commuting as we attempt to hold on to the careers we’ve spent our twenties slogging our guts out to build, only to find that as one of the office mothers, we’re still drawing raised eyebrows for being the first to leave each day.
This is not to mention the fact that women’s careers tend to drop off between the ages of 28 and 40 in what is delightfully coined the ‘danger zone’, when the gender pay gap starts to widen. Up until the age of 29, the split of men and women in the top 10 per cent of earners is pretty equal, but between the ages of 30 and 44 this drops significantly to 28 per cent of women versus 72 per cent of men, as so many of us continue to confuse the empowering possibility of ‘having it all’ with the duty of having to do everything perfectly all the time.
Strangely, this is an affliction even the most hands-on working dads I know don’t seem to suffer from at all.
When I left my job as a writer and editor on a national newspaper to launch my own online magazine in 2014, I did so believing that as my own boss, I would become master of my own time and destiny, and a much more relaxed, more present parent as a consequence. Yeah, right. Instead, like many of my friends, I spend 97 per cent of my waking hours scrolling through emails on my phone while maniacally bouncing the baby on one knee, delousing the toddler and helping the five-year-old with her homework. And I still go to bed with 200 things left on my to-do list.
‘Have you ever thought of trying mindfulness – the art of being present in the moment?’ asks my friend Alicia Kirby, a branding consultant who, like countless mums I know, swears by the popular meditation app Headspace, which she listens to for ten minutes each morning. I’m more of a fan of the ‘rant it out with a girlfriend over a bottle of Merlot’ type of therapy, but I’m willing to give it a go. After all, I do want to be a happier, more fulfilled mother, as well as one who is less prone to spontaneously bursting into tears or outbursts of anger.
Mindfulness is currently a £7.5 billion industry. It’s been a buzzword for five years now with many tired-out execs crediting meditation with refocusing their careers. While scrolling through the 5,186 titles on the theme on Amazon, my eye falls on a passage from Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better about the dangers of ‘automation’: the negative shortcuts like predictive text which help us reduce the attention we give to any single task, encouraging
us to do too many things at once (none of them well).
Circling the neighbourhood a few minutes later on foot with my baby in my arms, I find myself trying to push back the mental expletives aimed at my husband who appears to have parked our car in another borough again. With the words I’ve just read fresh in my mind, I attempt to simultaneously focus my full and undivided attention on the baby, who returns my weirdly fixed grin with an increasingly purple gaze as he expels a poo that’s so explosive it covers him
completely head to toe. ‘I’m making my baby clean again,’ I repeat, ad-libbing, after finding my car, then changing his nappy on the front seat while fielding a call from the toddler’s nursery, who want to confirm whether we’d like to start potty-training.
Later, having stopped briefly to collect my daughter from school, I attempt to engage with her instant tirade of questions about the origins of sweetcorn without yelling at her to ‘Keep moving!’ until my concentration is broken by a teacher who reminds me that I still haven’t signed up to their new intranet. This means I’m woefully ill-informed about everything from this term’s swimming timetable to ‘dress as a letter day’.
Mindfully, I quickly duck past the parent whose party invitation I have lost, making a mental note to ask her for her details tomorrow, when I’m fully focused on remembering to ask her – and when I’m not double-parked.
Practise, practise, practise
‘Initially you feel like it’s a waste of time to meditate. But when you stick at it, it weirdly makes you more efficient and focused,’ explains my friend Alicia the following day, when I express reservations about whether I can genuinely schedule mindfulness into my already overburdened life.
I’m finding myself begrudging the time I have to sacrifice in order to mentally scan my body in ‘a posture that is dignified’ before breakfast, when I could be clearing the 20 new emails in my inbox, doing an online shop or addressing the mountain of unwashed clothes. Then there are the logistics of trying to find a corner of solace in which to meditate (aside from my usual hideout – the loo!) in which to channel my Zen in a house brimming with people.
Ruth Whippman, mother and author of The Pursuit Of Happiness And Why It’s Making Us Anxious, agrees. ‘The pressure to be constantly focused on the present moment without ever switching off can actually become just another thing for mothers to feel guilty about,’ she says.
I discover the practice of fully ‘being’ with my children when I’m with them is a minefield. Rather than blowing raspberries at the baby while he happily pulls apart my desk, as usual, I find myself freaking out about the best way to pass time meaningfully with a seven-month-old, until I find myself questioning everything we do together, and why.
It also means I spend hours in the evening catching up on work. It’s nearly midnight by the time I fish out my meditation CD, which promises to be ‘as effective as antidepressants, with none of the downsides’. What I really want to do is spend a few minutes scrolling through Instagram while my brain turns to mush.
Instead, I slip into the living room and press play on the laptop before spending several minutes splayed on my back on the floor feeling slightly uncomfortable. Finally, I begin to relax as I focus on all the things I’m grateful for, rather than the all-consuming question of whether or not we should move to the country to save the kids from lung disease. I realise I’m beginning to actually enjoy the sensation of my body relaxing until I’m suddenly interrupted by the sudden need to grab a towel as my dutifully relaxed boobs start to lactate. Moment shattered.
The perfection trap
‘Just stop trying to be perfect!’ says my mother, who is putting the world to rights with a friend over a midday glass of wine. I arrive at her house in tears two days into my new regime, wailing, ‘It’s just too muuuch!’ (which admittedly has become something of a regular in the past few months).
I’m exhausted from having to leave the house almost an hour earlier each morning so I can properly interact with my children on the school run without rushing them. One of them wanted to scoot backwards while the other insisted on pushing the baby in the buggy across several busy roads. ‘It’s just not my thing,’ I sigh. ‘I’m too bossy, and too weak.’
My mum’s friend nods, sympathetically: ‘I had three under five. I know just how you feel darling, it’s terribly hard’. ‘How did you cope?’ I ask. ‘A nanny and Prozac.’ I’m pretty sure she’s not joking. Perhaps that really is the crux of it: you do what you have to do to survive.
Five days into mindful mothering, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany. The problem with mindfulness is that it’s all about looking inside you for the solution: introspection. Whereas the moments that are truly joy-bringing, genuinely life-affirming – the moments I think of when I’m remembering what makes me feel grateful – are those spent with my friends, my kids and my husband.
The five minutes gossiping with other mums at the school gate, or nattering on the phone as I attempt to spoon mouthfuls of horribly un-gourmet meals into the baby, or hearing my kids falling about laughing when one of them does a loud fart at the dinner table. It’s not Zen, but it is good.
For sure, the process of stepping away from my situation in order to see what is happening, what I want, and what I’m prepared to sacrifice to achieve it, has given me food for thought. And I can totally see why mindfulness works for some people, but the overriding thought for me is whatever happened to muddling along? What happened to survival? For one thing, I genuinely don’t know how to parent three young kids without occasionally reverting to bribery.
One of the big markers of the millennial generation is that we have very high standards. We know there’s a big shiny world out there, we know there’s a hell of a lot of competition, and we want our piece. We are also desperate to be happy – really happy, – as well as fulfilled. We’re also adept at troubleshooting. The problem when you become a parent is that you can’t troubleshoot a child.
It’s also really difficult to feel blissfully happy and fulfilled when you’re sleep-deprived, persistently undermined and never more than 30 minutes away from another human’s excrement. Step into any bookshop and a wall of parenting books, offering totally contradictory advice, will claim to hold the key to perfect parenting.
But the truth is, as any parent who has googled ‘When will my six-week-old baby sleep through the night?’ at 4am, while weeping, will know: it doesn’t work like that. Being a mother is amazing and brilliant, and it’s also utterly exhausting and mind-bending. It’s always been that way, and always will be. Rather than constantly seeking the best possible outcome, surely the only sensible response is to shrug your shoulders, roll with the punches and wait for tomorrow.
‘So how did you do it?’ I ask my mum, a single parent who returned to work as a teacher when I was just three months old. It’s the end of my experiment, and I’m pretty sure mindfulness just isn’t me. ‘Well darling, I just got on with it because I had to,’ she shrugs casually. ‘I think the trick is to care less. Who wants to be perfect anyway?’
And in that very moment, she nailed it. From now on, I’ll be aiming for mediocre.