I recently discovered something I do that never fails to put me into a bad mood.
The laundry basket conundrum
It starts like this:
My husband usually has more clothes in the wash basket than me or my boys. He changes his clothes more often, and while that is most likely a definite plus from a hygiene point of view, it means that his clothes, being dumped in there more regularly, tend to take up the space at the top of the basket, while items of mine languish at the bottom.
We both do washing. We would probably both say we are always doing washing. But when my husband washes, he grabs the piles from the top of the basket, (more of his than mine), often not getting to my underwear/top/jeans at the bottom. Then later or the next day he adds more clothes. So the next wash, if taken from the top of the basket, again contains more of his clothes and my stuff remains still unwashed at the bottom.
It take the clothes so long to dry!
So when I put on a wash, see, I empty everything out and try to split things into piles. Whites (everyone’s), kids clothes, my clothes, and husband’s clothes. And because the pile of the husband's clothes is bigger, I usually wash his stuff first to get it out of the way. And then because we live in soggy Leitrim and don’t have a tumble dryer, it can take ages for things to dry - either because they’re on the line through three rain-showers or because it just takes a while to dry clothes on a dryer/clothes horse in the kitchen.
(There’s a point to all this… I’m getting there).
So when I was on laundry duty, I was washing my husband’s clothes first, then the kids clothes (because dear god they also generate massive piles of laundry) and then mine, and frequently because of the drying situation, I was only getting around to the first two over a couple of days and then I would be waiting for others to dry so there was room on the drying stations, and putting off doing my own.
Last in (the clothes) line
With the result that my clothes were always last to get washed and I was getting SO bloody resentful of the washing situation and would be fuming at my husband because it was his fault my clothes were the last thing to get washed and how was it that my stuff was less important than his, or theirs etc etc (see where I’m going with this?).
You see, somehow I decided that my clothes belonged at the bottom of the pile (literally and figuratively) and despite this causing me fury, I continued with the pattern for months.
Do your own clothes first
Until a few weeks ago, I was, fuming, trying to organize the clothes and had a revelation.
I could just do my own clothes first.
So that I would have clean, dry clothes.
And eventually (probably?), everyone else would too. But with less laundry rage on my part.
And it got me thinking, where are there other areas in my life when I do the same thing? Put my own needs and wants way down the priority list. And then fume about it at some future point, with a "nobody is looking after my needs" story.
So that story might feel true sometimes, but here’s the thing.
I can’t control whether someone else looks after my needs.
But I can control whether I look after my needs.
Things like this happen.
The kids are hungry, so am I, so I make their food first and by the time I get to sit down, I’m feeling harried, hangry and taken for granted. Sometimes, if we been out, I don't even take off my jacket or go to the bathroom until I've organised their stuff first.
I plan to do a short yoga session or meditation, but only feel like I have license to do it after I’ve done some household chores or some activity with my boys. And the household chores expand to infinity, and I’m resentful pretending to visit a pretend shop via a pretend elevator to buy pretend food in between tidying the kitchen and making snacks, and nobody is happy, least of all me. And then suddenly it's dinnertime and no yoga has been done and the resentment builds and builds towards a crescendo sometime after dinner.
The self-sacrificing mother
Any of this ring a bell? The idea of the self-sacrificing mother is alive and well in our minds and perhaps in society’s expectations. We all know the idea of putting on your own mask first, or “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, but what does that mean for us in practice?
What if you really believed that you were the most important thing?
Does that feel like a stretch? To believe that? Even for a bit?
It’s true I think that in the very early weeks and months of mothering, many of your own needs and wants take a backseat to the needs of a tiny baby. Some of it's necessary. For the survival of the baby and their mental well-being as an adult. But it has to be balanced. A mother’s mental well-being and physical health is crucial. The extent to which you can prioritise your own needs and wants (let’s acknowledge that wants get to be prioritised too) will change as children get older and more independent, but even when they're tiny, you will run into burnout, resentment or rage, if there isn't some time in your day, or your week where you come first.
I’m not saying there isn’t some sacrifice involved in parenting - there definitely is. And it can feel good to priortise someone else, to give of yourself in service to some one or something else like you do in mothering. I’m not saying you drop all of the things your family needs, your job requires, just that you consider where you’re relegating your needs to the bottom of the pile and try to redress the balance sometimes.
Believe sometimes, that you are the most important thing.
Where are you on your to-do list?
Could you give that some thought? Maybe jot down some answers to the following questions.
Where do I put other’s needs and wants before mine? List some small and bigger ways.
Where do I feel resentful about this?
What do I believe about putting my needs and wants first?
What would it mean to believe I was the most important thing?
What would it look like to put my needs and wants first for a change?
Name one need or want you have right now – how could you satisfy that right now? (what could you shunt down the list so that you could do that?)
I have just returned from a solo trip to Germany where I got to put my needs first (writing, music, dance, nature and meeting new people!) for a whole week and it felt delightful and delicious and spacious. It also felt a little strange and unmooring to be out in the world for so long without my family, but I believe I've returned to them lighter and more whole and a better parent as a result. I'm not saying you need to go away for a week (I know for many years even a night away would have felt epic - but opportunities change as they get older), but a planned chunk of time according to what's available to you can make a huge difference to your happiness and your mental state. Consider the prompts above and let me know - where and how will you priortise yourself this week?
PS - A couple of related resources that may be helpful: