One recent Friday night, after a particularly challenging week where my over-tired children seemed to do nothing but tantrum and argue, I told Cardiff Daddy I was heading to Tesco to do the weekly shop because I needed a bit of ‘me time’.
And so, once all three little ones were fast asleep, I grabbed my shopping list and reusable bags and headed out. I bought food for all the family meals I needed to make that week, birthday presents and cards for a couple of children’s parties we had coming up, nappies for my baby and new school trousers for my three-year-old.
I messaged a friend something along the lines of it being funny what constitutes ‘me time’ these days and what a luxury it is to be able to go to the shops without having to get multiple children in and out of the car and entertain them around the shop. She said she knew exactly what I meant and thinks of the weekly shop as ‘me time’ too.
I got home and Cardiff Daddy had been watching a film with a beer. The next night, a beautiful sunshiny evening, he went out for a ride on his bike, while I sat at my laptop with work to do (the joys of self-employment).
And that’s when it hit me: I seem to have lost the ability to take actual proper doing-something-for-myself-me-time; I have become entirely incapable of putting myself first.
I can’t remember the last time I did something that was just about me. It might have been a long over-due hair cut in January where I had to bite me tongue when the girl shampooing my hair told me what a waste of a day she found sitting in a salon having her hair done. Oh, you have no idea, I wanted to tell her.
Shopping on my own might be less stressful than when I do it with my children, and it might give me a welcome break from the house where, as the stay-at-home work-at-home parent, I spend a lot of time. But it’s a household chore for the benefit of all of us. Me asking my husband to take the children out for an hour so I can blitz the housework doesn’t count either – it’s the cleaning, for goodness sake, not a spa break. I’m insulting myself by calling it ‘me time’.
The worst thing is, I’m a yoga teacher and I’m constantly reminding the people in my class how important it is to put themselves first so that they can be at their best for all of life’s other demands. Taking time out to relax and nurture yourself is so important to recharge your batteries and switch your body off from the flight-or-fight stress mode. It’s like the air mask analogy – when you’re on an aeroplane, the flight attendants tell you to put your mask on first and then help those around you, because if you’re gasping for breath you’re no good to anyone else.
I used to do an hour of yoga practice a day. It’s not so easy now I have three young children and a job, but I practice when I can and I still teach. I’m always joking that I feel as relaxed at the end of the class as my students. And I genuinely do but, let’s face it, I’m the only one in the room working. Long gone are the days when I would regularly head off on yoga retreats and exist in a blissful bubble for the rest of the week, not to mention girlie weekends with my friends, shopping trips, a whole afternoon reading a page-turner of a book.
I’m not trying to make myself out to be some kind of martyr but why do I find it so impossible to give myself time just for me? Cardiff Daddy often jokes that we’d be screwed if I was out of action because I am the glue that holds the family together. I’m not one to blow my own trumpet but he has a point. If I allocated me time, I’m just not sure I’d even get it. Last week, he took the kids to the shops while I was at home – and called me three times to ask questions about the shopping list we’d already discussed. I’m pretty sure he could have figured these things out for himself. As it happens, I was doing work, but if I’d been doing what most normal people do with their ‘me time’ – having a hot bath or painting their nails or reading a book – it would have been a real intrusion on that time.
I guess I’m in a different position to a lot of mums in that although I’m a stay-at-home mum during the day, most nights as soon as my children are in bed my laptop is on or I’m teaching yoga. I accept that’s a decision I’ve made because I want to spend my days with my children, not to mention the costs and logistics of child care and school drops offs for three, but it means life is so busy – and I’m just not sure I’m striking the right balance at the moment.
I know I’m not the only mum to struggle with the concept of me-time. I’ve talked a lot to my friends about this – well, as much as you can when you’re at soft play or the park and your kids are running off in all directions – and so many of them say they are exactly the same in calling a solo trip to the supermarket me time, or that they value an uninterrupted shower as much as they used to a massage or a manicure. So many of us say our husbands will go out and play golf or for a bike ride or watch the football in the pub with their friends, whereas when we get down-time it’s almost always about the house or the children in some way.
In fact, a study last year found that the average mother gets just 17 minutes to herself a day. That’s less than an hour and a half of waking time to herself a week. I don’t think I even get that much. We women do 78% of the household chores and while I admit Cardiff Daddy is better than a lot of men around the house, he can ignore a floor covered in toys in a way that I can’t.
And even when we do get proper ‘me time’, we’ve become so unaccustomed to it, we’re not quite sure what to do with it. Once the kids are in bed, the telly might be on and there might be a glass of wine nearby, but for a lot of my friends, they are making packed lunches for the next day, hemming school skirts, ironing clothes, sewing on Rainbow or Beaver badges, filling out school permission slips, arranging play dates for their children, doing an online grocery shop or any number of tasks. The same survey found that three-quarters of mothers said, even in quiet moments by themselves, they can never fully relax if they know there are things to be done. I am definitely guilty of this.
My friend Laura recently had a couple of days of annual leave that needed to be booked from work. With childcare and school already in place for her two children, rather than doing the cleaning or the washing or the shopping, she bought a train ticket and headed to Bath for the day with some vouchers she’d had as a birthday present to spend. She very nearly didn’t tell her family this is what she was doing because she was so felt guilty for being so desperate for time on her own.
But, she says, being on her own was strange.
“I found myself having to force myself to firstly slow down and not rush in and out of shops. I have lost the ability to browse,” she says. “Secondly, I found it hard to go into a shop and look for me. I was tutting at just how expensive clothes are because I tend to shop in supermarkets. Thirdly, it was really odd to just follow my feet. I went into the cathedral this morning and just wandered to a museum/gallery this afternoon. I nearly stopped myself going in then I remembered I wouldn’t have two chatty bored children.
“That said, I did miss them more than when I’m in work and I bought them a book each.”
A cheeky mid-week day trip is out of the question for me, with two of my three not yet in school or any other kind of childcare. But. But – I have booked myself a place on a yoga afternoon. And I’m planning a spa day with some friends. I’m going to get back to my daily yoga practice, even if it’s only a few minutes a day. I’m going out with some mum friends this weekend and we’ve decided to go out early and leave the dads to put the children to bed. I don’t think I’ve missed a bed time since my baby was born 13 months ago and now I have finished breast-feeding, there’s absolutely no reason why Cardiff Daddy can’t do it himself. He loves being the parent in charge – so I’m doing him a favour too.
The fact that three-quarters of the 2,000 mothers questioned in that study felt they lived their lives entirely for other people made me cry. I’m making a commitment to get myself out of that statistic and into the other quarter who think about their own needs once in a while too.
After all, if I don’t put myself first, then who will?