Being a parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but not for the reasons I thought.
When I discovered I was pregnant with my first child, I was over the moon! But as with most first-time mums, the list of worries soon started to grow.
Well-meaning friends and family would repeat the usual phrases:
“Get as much sleep as you can now, cos it’ll be sleepless nights soon!”
"Are you all ready for the big arrival? Have you got much left to do?”
“Check out this video of kids puking on their parent’s faces. That’ll be you soon lol!”
“Say goodbye to your tidy house!”
“Kids are so expensive! Have you got a plan career-wise?!”
So understandably, pre-baby me thought the biggest challenges would be things like…
The lack of sleep
Having all the right equipment, tools and clothes
The snotty noses / vomit / poop-splosions
The constantly messy house
The tight finances
Throughout my pregnancy, I fretted continuously about being “ready” for the baby’s arrival…
Being financially ready - having a big enough house, a secure enough business, being able to provide the activities, experiences and schooling we wanted.
Being physically ready - having all the stuff we needed. The right cot, nappies, feeding equipment, baby monitor, car seat, pram, clothes, wipes, creams etc. etc.
What I should have been focusing on is getting mentally prepared to be a parent.
Because for me, the hardest part by far has been the outright assault on your mental health that comes with raising a small human.
All the stuff I was worried about was an absolute breeze in comparison…
The sleepless nights? Passed by in a blur.
Having the right equipment? We didn’t need half of the stuff I bought and anything we didn’t have, we got as we went along.
The bogies, dribble, puke, pee and poo? Got covered in it daily and it didn’t phase me in the slightest.
The messy house? Kids make mess! It’s usually just a sign they’re playing happily.
The finances? Yes it’s a pressure, but you get by and reprioritise your expenses.
Finding the time and peace required to get your mental wellbeing in order is almost impossible and, at the same time, the triggers you normally do your best to avoid, bombard you on a daily basis...
The daily tests of your patience
The constant challenge to keep your cool when all hell breaks loose
The expectation to feel (or at least appear) happy every day
Trying to “style it out” at a job for which you have zero experience
Getting used to putting your own needs at the bottom of the priority list
Dealing with isolation and loneliness
Coping with that constant niggling voice that you’re not doing a good enough job
So if you haven’t yet started this journey, please DON’T WORRY about the small stuff. You will figure all that out as you go along.
Stop stressing about whether you’ve bought the right equipment or if your house is clean enough. It’s FINE! Trust me.
Instead, take the time to build your mental fortitude and work on the techniques you’ll need to get through the challenges.
Because, believe me, there will be challenges!
Here are my top 5 tips for building a solid mental foundation before having a baby...
1. Don't Wait To Seek Help For Pre-Existing Mental Health Issues
Navigating parenthood without any methods for dealing with pre-existing mental health conditions can be a real challenge.
I was an anxiety sufferer for years before we had Lula, but never sought professional help as it would come and go so the urgency to sort it would fade.
But trying to manage anxiety whilst looking after a baby/toddler was infinitely harder. It's often made me snappy, withdrawn or just sucked the joy out of moments that should have been precious, and I'll always regret that.
Whilst you might not be able to completely "cure" any existing mental health conditions before becoming a parent, it's a good idea to find therapies that help you to manage it, whether that's medication, meditation or anything in-between.
Whatever works for you!
2. Develop Coping Strategies For On-The-Spot Challenges
If you struggle at all with mood swings, losing your temper, maintaining patience or feeling stressed or anxious, be prepared for your child to push all the buttons that can trigger those unwanted reactions or emotions!
Having techniques in place that help you to maintain control is vital.
Some examples might include tapping, mindfulness exercises, deep breathing etc.
Personally I like the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” method for coping with rising anxiety:
Acknowledge 5 things you can see around you
Acknowledge 4 things you can touch around you
Acknowledge 3 things you can hear
Acknowledge 2 things you can smell
Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste
End with a long, deep breath
3. Build Wellbeing Habits Before The Baby Is Born
With all the chaos of having a baby, schedules can easily go out the window and your own priorities often get pushed to the bottom of the pile. So trying to create any kind of daily wellbeing routine after your little one has arrived can be challenging.
Implementing some new positive behaviours is much easier to do before the baby is born and if you practice them daily until they become habits, you'll be much more likely to keep them in your daily routine.
Be realistic though - 3 hours of meditation and yoga probably isn’t going to happen, but you can schedule in a 15 minute mindfulness exercise or commit to a daily walk in nature, both of which are brilliant practices for pregnancy as well.
4. Plan Your Support Network
If you’re like me and don’t have much family support around you, take some steps to build a support network you can rely upon once the baby is born.
Join an NCT group to make some friends who are expecting at the same time as you.
Schedule regular catch ups with mum friends.
Research play groups in your area and get your name down on any waiting lists.
I didn't do any of these things before having Lula and then lockdown hit just a few months after she was born, so the first year of her life was really just us at home, which was really isolating.
I now have a weekly schedule that gets us both out of the house several times a week, allowing her to socialise with other kids and me to mix with some other mums or just get a little respite and it makes all the difference in the world.
5. Try To Find YOUR Happy
As we all know, happiness is internal. It’s feeling grateful what you already have. It's finding a sense of purpose in what you do. It’s maintaining inner peace even when things are not going your way.
Whilst some mums I know have told me they found their happiness or sense of purpose in their kids, many (myself included) have not been gifted with the immediate sense of joy you hope it’s going to bring.
(I’m terrible for seeking happiness from external sources - “if we just lived in a bigger house”, “if my partner wasn’t as grumpy”, “if I just had more clothes”, “if I was thinner”, "if we had children" etc. etc. But of course none of it has ever brought me that sense of inner happiness I desired).
So my final piece of advice is: if you’re not currently happy, do as much work as you can to find a sense of inner peace, before having kids!
Whether it’s seeking therapy, reading self-help books, changing career, getting out of a toxic relationship, repairing a rift, committing to an exercise regime or just practicing gratitude daily - work on it as much as you can before bringing that little one into the world.
Because the happier you are internally, the better parent you'll be.