I have written previously about the need to look after ourselves when parenting a child with SEMH, or trauma and attachment needs ( Self-kindness, Self-Care, Parental Mental Health) . Recently, on a much needed date with my husband, I realised I’ve written little about the need to also look after your relationship.
Modern life is pretty challenging. It’s busy, people work hard, hours are long and the bombardment from e-mail and social media is constant. Long-term relationships are tricky enough within the context of passing like ships in the night, or when one or both of you are glued to a screen, without the additional challenges brought to the table by a small person constantly screaming your names at the top of their capacious lungs. Sometimes, it all just gets a bit much.
I think within a stressful life (late home/work pressure/deadlines/personnel challenges/financial concerns etc. etc.), it is all too easy to turn tensions inwards – to become tetchy or short with your partner; to not give them the time to offload their stresses; to consider your path difficult enough without whatever they have going on too. Add into that mix the usual concerns about running a home, running cars, remembering birthdays, booking holidays etc. and things can start to fray. Add the parenting of any child into the mix and there is immediately a whole other layer of logistics, concern and juggling. When the parenting of any of the children is relentless, difficult, keep-you-up-at-night-worrying, unremitting in its challenge to your emotions; you can quickly approach the ledge between stress and the end of your tether.
Now, some people are not doing this crazy parenting thing from within a relationship. Some are doing it alone, and as usual, I salute them. I’m sorry, if that’s you, this post won’t really be relevant, by my goodness I do take my hat off to you.
I wrote – a long time ago now – about My partner in adoption . And I fully stand by what I said. Grizzly really is a crucial cog in the survival of this machine. He is often not here for weekday bedtimes and sometimes he goes away for a couple of days at a time. He’s often out the house for longer than twelve hours and obviously he can’t be at home every day of school holidays. But those things don’t really matter, because if I Whatsapp him to say I’m being driven insane or one of them has done X or I’ve been called into school again because of such and such a thing or one of them is fully doing my head in or one of them did x AGAIN and I honestly can’t understand what possessed them, he will unconditionally understand. I can say far worse. I can voice the deepest, darkest, most unpalatable thoughts I might have about parenting at any given time and he will not judge me. The things you can’t say out loud, to anyone, I can say to him. And him to me.
I can’t really overstate the importance of that in maintaining ones sanity.
Despite his hefty workload, Grizzly does school-drops offs and pick-ups where he can. He prioritises school meetings. He is more than happy to take the kids off my hands at a weekend to give me a break. He doesn’t necessarily wait for me to ask – sometimes he’ll say I Iook tired before spiriting them off somewhere. He’s a good egg.
Earlier in our parenting career, I’m not sure we had that many breaks. BB was a terrible sleeper which made it difficult, then LB struggled to be left/ made life for whoever was looking after him very difficult and consequently we felt a weighty guilt about escaping.
More recently, I think my attitude has changed. I’ve come to realise that aspects of our parenting life are arduous and unrelenting and anyone would get tired. I’ve written before about how self-care and self-kindness are important, not just for your own wellbeing but because they inadvertently make you a better parent too. When you’re worn down and shattered, you haven’t the same resilience to deal with difficult behaviours, or to be calm no matter what, or as therapeutic as you’d like. Keeping yourself topped up makes sense for all involved. And now I’m given to thinking that your relationship deserves that TLC as well.
I don’t want the long hours and the daily irritations to erode our relationship. I don’t want those issues to turn inwards because we’re too tired or too stretched or too distracted. This family requires a well-oiled parenting team to function the best it can. Perhaps I mean it deserves one. Either way, it does mean that Grizzly and I need to ring-fence regular time that is just for us.
I think you don’t always realise you aren’t connecting the best you can until you go out, have fun, relax, and remember what your relationship was all about in the first place. We’re pretty good at keeping the lines of communication open in our daily lives, but inevitably, when everyone is tired after a long day, no one is particularly keen to discuss the relative merits of this home-improvement project over another or how big birthdays almost a year away should be celebrated or to go into anything but necessary detail. It is only when we go away and are not rushing back for pick-ups that these conversations tend to happen.
Not only that, but although our family time is fun and raucous and a little crazy, I probably wouldn’t describe it as relaxing. There is very rarely a moments’ peace. Any adult chat is constantly interrupted by an urgent, loud, attachment-needing voice. Even if we are engaged in something supposedly fun, like a game, we still need to heavily manage the situation to make sure everybody copes. Which does tend to reduce the fun element. We both find early mornings quite intense, woken as we are most days by the heart-rate raising noises of dysregulation and potential imminent meltdown.
One night away every couple of months is a surprisingly welcome balm. Fun can be had without worrying how others will cope. Conversations go uninterrupted. Meals can be long and relaxed. We don’t even drink. It is not as though we want a night on the tiles and a child-free hangover. It is just so refreshing to have a little space to be us.
We haven’t been as good as we should have been about booking such things in – it is another thing to add to the long old to-do list after all – but as we are just back from a mini-break, I have renewed enthusiasm for making it happen. Not just because it’s lovely but because I can finally see the necessity of it. I used to feel tremendous guilt for leaving the children, even for a short time, as though I were shirking my responsibilities. I also worried about the grandparents, who could be having a testing time. But now, I see that we need it. I need it, Grizzly needs it and as a parenting-team, we need it. The children didn’t even miss us this time, so I suspect they needed it too. We forget that the getting fed up of each other thing works both ways – a night with grandparents in charge is probably a lot more fun than usual.
We have happened on an ideal scenario for minimising fallout too. We now take the children to school on a Thursday, then go off on our travels, returning for Friday pick-up. This way, grandparents are only on duty for an evening and overnight and can lie down with a cup of tea at 8:45 am the next morning if they feel the need, duties already complete. I think it gives us longer than the brisk 24 hours we’d allow ourselves on a weekend and the children don’t notice we’re gone in the same way, as we’re here for Saturday and Sunday. It works for us, anyway.
Now to get the next one in the diary. I’m finding that having something to look forward to helps with trickier days too.