I have the right to be stressed

working parent stress

“Do you think you could be stressed?”, he asked.

Wow, for a very intelligent and super-qualified Life Coach, this man must not be listening! I mean, he works with company directors and CEOs. How can he even ask me that?

“No, I’m not stressed. I’m just busy. I’m exhausted and I can’t keep up – I feel overwhelmed.”

Nearly 3 years on, I look back at that moment and think he must have been feeling sorry for me. He knew that sitting there, across that office table, sat a very stressed out mum. She just didn’t know she was. She was in denial and miles away from doing the right thing to help herself.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

It was the start of 2016. My 3 boys were 7, 4, and 1. My eldest was in full-time school, my middle one in morning school nursery, and the little one at home with a nanny. I was working part-time (3 days a week), as a Business Analyst in a busy West London company. While I wasn’t working that far from home, it was still an hour commute each way (that’s London for you!).

Life was busy. At work, I was the part-timer. My colleagues joked that I had two days ‘off’ in the middle of the week – that I was never there. While management was super-supportive of my flexible working arrangements, I felt privileged to have the option to work part-time. I didn’t want to be seen as taking advantage of it. So I hated having to ask to go in a bit later to go to my son’s assembly or Christmas production. I hated having to leave early to go to parents’ evening. Or asking to work from home or take the day off entirely and at the last minute because one of the children (or the nanny) were ill.

I also hated having to leave in the middle of the day because I was feeling unwell. Because that year, that happened a lot. Was I all of a sudden catching every single bug going around? (Let’s blame that one on public transport!). If it wasn’t a cold, sore throat, and fever, it was an upset stomach. Or a migraine attack. I vividly remember all those days I’d be sneaking back into the house in the early afternoon while the nanny was with the boys in another room, and I’d go upstairs and lay down until 6 pm, when her work day finished. Grateful I could at least rest for a few hours.

Because I wasn’t sleeping very well either. Our youngest would still wake up in the night, and while he’d settled quickly, I struggled to go back to sleep. I’d be up feeling anxious and worried about the following day. There and then, I’d make a plan to get up earlier, be organised, get everything ready, get the house in order for the day – be on the front foot. But inevitably, I’d fall asleep in the early hours of the morning, and when the alarm went off, I just couldn’t get up.

On the days I was off work, I’d be catching up with errands and house work. I cherished being able to drop the children to school and nursery, pick them up, and take them to their after-school activities (with the little one always in tow).

Life was busy.

Oh. So. Busy.

There I was, always running around. Always on the back foot. Always running late. Feeling behind with everything. I started to feel I couldn’t keep up anymore.

Until one day, in April 2016, it took a literal blow to the head to make me realise my priorities were all wrong. Something really was amiss. I was on the bus on the way to work, buying nappies online. Because I had managed to run out and was busy giving myself a really hard time for it. How can you run out of nappies?! These things don’t normally happen to me. They shouldn’t happen to me. I should be on top of stuff. What was happening?

Well, while that was happening in my mind, real life was still happening around me. The bus started to slow down and break as it was approaching a red traffic light. But I needed to press the checkout button – I didn’t want to lose my transaction! And so I did order my nappies. But by the time I was ready to hold on, it was too late. The bus had already started breaking, and I had stumbled all the way to the front and hit my head on the inside of the bus window. In one of those moments where you literally wished the ground could open up and swallow you whole, I tried not to make a big deal and went to sit down (i.e. tried to hide away). Too late for that. It was already a big deal. I was bleeding from my left eyebrow – the bus had to be stopped, and an ambulance and the police had to be called.

An ambulance ride and a quick visit to A&E later, there I was – back home. Hiding and resting upstairs. Not at work. And when I did return to the office the following day (with a big pirate-like plaster on my eye) I felt compelled to post something on the company intranet about not being present. About not paying attention to what goes on around me. About always having my mind on the next thing on that to-do list that somehow I can never, ever catch up with.

And the messages started flooding in. People sympathised. But they also encouraged me to try mindfulness meditation, something I was familiar with but had never really tried. I vowed to be more present, and for one I did start to question things more.

  • Why was I always so tired and run down?

  • Why would my stomach often be upset, but only on the days I was in the office?

  • Why would I be sitting at my desk and feel my heart racing inside my chest?

I even went to the GP and had some tests done, but everything seemed fine. And yet, I didn’t feel fine. Not at all.

And I started to realise something had to give because I couldn’t keep up.

I felt ashamed and inadequate. I wasn’t the only working mum with 3 young children. Everyone else does it, why can’t I? After all, I was in a good position – with my husband being the main breadwinner, I could work flexibly and part-time. I had a nanny. I had things most people don’t have. Help. A break from the children during the day.

What right did I have to put my hand up and say I was struggling?

I didn’t feel I had any.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had to give. Or else. And work had started to become the obvious choice of the one thing I could shed.

So when in June 2016, the opportunity to see a Life Coach for free came up at work, I thought I’d go for it. Maybe he’d help me get some clarity.

Maybe he’d tell me what to do.

But as it turns out, that’s not what coaches do at all. I sat there, in that office, across the table from this very mature and experienced man, and I spent 40 minutes talking at him. Offloading. Explaining what was going on in my life. I literally threw everything I had at him. And he sat there, patiently. And he listened. And when I finally stopped, so hopeful for an answer – a solution – he asked me a simple question:

“Do you ever stop?”

No, I don’t. I can’t. Because if I stop, everything falls apart.

Except in that moment, everything did seem to stop. And I felt this urge to cry coming over me. All of a sudden, I couldn’t fight back the tears. He started talking to me about mindfulness (coming up again for me), asked me if I could be stressed, and questioned me around what I wanted my life to look like.

But talking was hard. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to be the woman who cries in the office in front of a man I’ve never even met before. I mean, he’s worked with all these successful businessmen (so his profile says) – what must he think of me? Once again, I felt ashamed and totally inadequate.

But at the same time, I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop crying.

At some point, he asked me to stand up. Imagine the point where I was stood was my present, he said. My now. He asked me to look at the office door. Imagine that was a time in the future when my youngest is all grown up and off to university. Then he asked me to walk towards the door. And when I got there (only a few steps later) he asked:

“How did the journey feel?”.

What I said at that moment hit me so hard: “It was quick. And I was being so careful not to trip up on the wires here under the floor that I didn’t think about how it was at all. I missed the journey.”

He didn’t need to stay anything else.

And as I write this, nearly 3 years on, this realisation still makes me cry. It hurts. It really does.

It’s not the job of a Life Coach to tell you what to do. But he felt compelled to take his coach hat off and give me some advice. He invited me to try mindfulness meditation – to really learn to make the time to do nothing. To slow down. I know he must have felt really sorry for me, and that meeting must have touched him more than I cared to worry about at the time.

I didn’t think ‘someone like me’ had the right to be stressed.

I wasn’t a nurse or a doctor. Or a lawyer or a CEO working through the night. I had a ‘normal life’ and a ‘normal job’. I was just a busy mum. I didn’t feel entitled to put my hand up and say I was struggling. Because if I was, then aren’t all mums? Then we’d have an epidemic on our hands, and apparently, we don’t (or do we?!), so no, I didn’t think I could be stressed.

But that meeting (and all the crying that ensued and that continued for days) confirmed something really had to give, so I handed in my noticed and prepared to work for the last 3 months in my current job. It was during my notice my period that, just back from a family holiday, I fell on the stairs at home while being in that state of frazzledness and overwhelm that marked my days.

I broke my right leg and spent the following 3 and half months pretty much unable to walk unaided. And while that was tough, it was the chance I needed.

To pause.

To stop.

To take stock.

To write.

To try mindfulness.

To process what had been going on just before my eyes, but that I had been unable to see.

was stressed.

But I didn’t think I had the right to be.

Maybe I had felt too ashamed of myself to admit it. Because I expected more of myself. Yes, I was putting myself under a lot of pressure, but I’d never cracked before. Why now? Why couldn’t I continue to be strong, resourceful, and able to cope? I didn’t want to be the one who was struggling. I didn’t want to let people down. To let myself down. I didn’t want people to see I was weak.

And yet, it was precisely by being unable to understand and acknowledge what was going on before my eyes that I let myself down. What good can come from pushing yourself until you break?

Two and half years on, life isn’t perfect. But it’s very different. It feels I’m living life slightly more on my terms. Not having to ask for favours from an employer when I want to be at my children’s school assemblies and Sports Days feels huge. As a high-achiever and someone with very high expectations on myself, I still have this tendency to put myself under a lot of pressure. But at least I see through it – I recognise it when it’s happening.

The mindfulness and self-care that I prioritised while I couldn’t walk have slipped into the background (more than they should have), and life has taken over again. But in a new, different way. Now I have tools that I can use when I need them. And I’m much better at recognising when I do need to slow down.

Yes, I was stressed. And it’s odd, isn’t it? That a question can be so simple, and yet so incredibly hard to answer.

At least I got to the right answer in the end.

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