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Am I alone in Mummy Martyr stakes? (Why are parents so bad at looking after themselves?)

Whether it’s standards, expectations, or good old-fashioned Irish Catholic guilt, most parents are guilty of putting their kids’ needs ahead of their own.

Claire Micks

SO I WAS at the GP’s last week. Again. This time, about yours truly. Who has managed to pick up the mother and father of all bugs from her kids, which she just cannot seem to clear. You know one of those kiddy bugs, which they bounce back from within 24 hours of the amoxicillin entering their system, but which leave you floored for weeks.

And he started asking me about whether I was looking after myself? Was I getting enough sleep? Was I eating properly?

That would be a no, no and no. Through the fault of no one really other than myself.

Wearing ourselves thin

I think about our fridge and its contents. Lots of overpriced punnets, high in Vitamin C and other ‘good stuff’, which my kids hoover up at a rate of knots. At €2.50 a go. But which I never, ever consume – because they’re too bloody expensive to keep replacing.

And the fact that I sit on our landing every alternate evening for 20 minutes at a time after they have gone to bed, waiting for them to fall asleep. Because they’ve developed an unhealthy habit of wanting one or other of us in view before they’ll be gracious enough to eventually head off to the Land of Nod. And neither of us have had the energy to break it and reclaim that precious half hour of time to ourselves each evening.

I think about the fact that whilst both our kids were sick a fortnight earlier, my pharmacist, my mother-in-law, my boss – all those women who are a little older and wiser then myself, who see me and my hubby running ourselves ragged trying to keep these two little people healthy and happy – regularly enquired as to whether ‘mummy was looking after herself?’ through all these household illnesses.

I think about the fact that I did not listen and soldiered on regardless. Because obviously I am Superwoman. And can do everything.

If you run around on empty, you will eventually keel over

Until I caught their same said bug. And felt like I’d been hit by a train. And then proceeded to promptly pick up anything else that was in vogue a la creche at the time. Tonsilitis? Conjuctivitis? Stomach bug? Bring it on. The mothership’s defences are down, and it was party time for the pathogens.

And what made it worse, what really bugged me as lay on bed for days on end, was that I had brought it on myself. I had voluntarily hung myself up on that maternal cross. Kept going and going and going without a break. And expected too much of myself. And, turns out, if you run around on empty for long enough, you will eventually keel over. Without the reserves to pick yourself up when you do.

And your kids look at you bemused. Unsettled. Angry, even. When they realise one morning that, no, actually, Mummy isn’t getting out of bed. And they can’t get it. Mummies don’t get sick. That’s not what they do. Mummies look after us when we’re sick. And then work to keep us healthy the rest of the time. Mummy getting sick? How does that work? And poor Dad shepherds two upset little beings out of the bedroom and downstairs, where every bribe known to man in wheeled out in a effort to keep them quiet and appeased and not hysterical due to Mummy’s absence. ‘Twas not a happy household.

Do we relish the martyrdom?

It’s like that standard flight safety announcement about attending to your own oxygen mask ahead of your children’s applied to everyday life. It’s absolute common sense that if you’re unable to function yourself, you won’t be able to look after your kids. So why are us parents, and mothers in particular, so bad at looking after ourselves? And are us Irish mother’s, in particular, the worst of all offenders?

There’s a joke about how many Irish mammies it takes to change a lightbulb. Answer: ‘Oh, that’s okay. I’ll just sit here in the dark…’ Perhaps we relish the martyrdom just a little bit? Perhaps we expect it of ourselves, and of each other? Perhaps us mammies judge each other if we ever – shock, horror! – take any kind of decision which puts self ahead of offspring?

Perhaps we model ourselves off our own mothers? The traditional Irish mammy who would have been renowned for living her own life through that of her children. And putting their needs above all else.

Perhaps we cannot avoid that inherent Irish Catholic guilt? That tells us it’s our job to always prioritise our kids over ourselves? And that the world will end, and that our kids will end up degenerates in later life, should we dare to occasionally take a decision that puts our own self interest ahead of theirs?

Perhaps our standards, our expectations, are just too damn high, and we periodically exhaust ourselves in the process of trying to reach them. Whilst our children just look blithely on, blissfully unaware and unconcerned as to whether they have the consumed the correct proportion of fruit and veg that particular week, or whether the 30 minutes allocation of telly time has been exceeded.

Do you give yourself a break?

Perhaps us parents just need to give ourselves a break, and lower the standards a bit here and there. Learn to live with that ourselves. To actively, and consciously, position that change within our own heads as being for the benefit of our children, and square that rationale away in advance, to avoid the inevitable guilt that will follow the two-year-old taking a complete fit because we dare to leave the house of an evening.

Perhaps I’m alone in Mummy Martyr stakes? Perhaps other mothers are more balanced, less demanding, better at allowing themselves more time out to recharge than I typically would. But I have a strong sense that I am not alone.

And that, there are many, many other women out there who have similarly sat opposite their GP in recent weeks, and felt distinctly uncomfortable as they were questioned about whether they have been intelligent enough to bother actually looking after themselves.

Anyone else out there willing to give themselves a break?

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read her columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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