Dolly's blog: Who comes first?

The children come first.  Don’t they?  Isn’t that just…a fact? I now think not. 

Several years ago (with two kids under three, a husband away fighting in Afghanistan for eight months, a dying father-in-law and newly promoted into a management role) I unexpectedly found myself having panic attacks and sat in a chair opposite a psychiatrist who looked a lot like David Walliams.

Dr Walliams (not his real name) asked me when I had last done something purely for myself. This was a disconcerting experience for multiple reasons.  For starters my brain was stuck on the fact he looked like David Walliams.  Also, how on earth had I (as someone I’d previously considered to be the personification of resilient) ended up needing a psychiatrist?

But above all I had no answer to his question.  There was nothing.  Literally nothing.  Like the frog in a bucket who doesn’t realise it’s being slowly boiled to death, I’d sleepwalked into a situation where the person that came first was never me. 

My homework was to do something for myself that week (we agreed I’d go for a swim).  That didn’t happen (I was too busy…) and I couldn’t face admitting that failure on top of everything else, so I never made another appointment.  Clever huh.  It took me a while therefore to claw myself back to happiness, but I never forgot the question, even if I didn’t initially heed the advice implicit in it. 

Like many city parents, the over-achievement impulse in me is pretty hardwired and I’d approached parenting like my education and my career.   But when you keep adding layers of pressure like that, it’s no wonder if the house of cards falls down.  Just look at how many super able people drop out of working in the city each year.   

What to do about it?   Hey, what do I know, and I certainly won’t pretend I’ve nailed it, but here are 3 suggestions: 

Do something enjoyable, just for yourself.

One of the early things I did for myself was apply to write this blog.  “I’m too busy”, I told Mr D on the night of the deadline.  “Just do it.  You’ll enjoy it” he said.   And he was right.  It provides a creative outlet (I use that phrase lightly…!) and it’s cathartic.  Other (not very radical) strategies include always making time to read one weekend broadsheet, podcasts, a Grazia magazine habit and exercise (the last one having taking the longest to accept the importance of). The bit I’m still rubbish at is keeping in touch with friends.  Sorry friends. 

Drop the guilt.

Seriously - the kids will be just fine if they stop one of those after-school activities we seem to have convinced ourselves are essential for their wellbeing.  It’s harder for my kids to be happy if I’m not, and it’s reassuring to read all the recent research that it’s actually good for them to get bored and have to use their own initiative to address that.  It’s also I think the case that unhappy managers, and those teetering on the brink of burn out, are going to find it harder to do a great job leading others.  And who really wants to be in a personal relationship, marriage or otherwise, with someone whose constant focus is the little people?  That way divorce lies.  Better to apply the flight approach to health and safety, put your own oxygen mask on first, and value that for the shrewd move it is. 

Analyse your motives. 

This one’s even more controversial.  But dare I say that some (definitely not all, but some) selfless acts of child prioritisation are not, really, about putting the kids first.

I once spent an hour creating cheese on toast in the style of a snakes and ladders board, with a two-tone cheese chequerboard, a snake made of tomato and a ladder made from cucumber.  It was amazing, but frankly unnecessary.  It briefly made me feel like A Good Mother, but really it was less about the kids and all about me being influenced by a parenting article I’d inadvisably read and proving to myself that I could hold down a city job and still be one of those parents.  Beware social media, and the risk of being pulled into “I’m a great parent” virtue signalling.   

My conclusion is that the “kids come first” mantra is in reality risking a generation of over-parented kids, parental burnout, frazzled managers and relationship breakdown.  So I say put yourself first more and I’ll wager you’ll be happier, your kids will be no less happy, you’ll do a better job at work and your personal relationship/s might just improve to.  

Right, I’m off to pour myself a glass of rosé…

After 19 years of fee earning, Dolly now works in a management role in a London law firm. Working four days a week she is supported by a wonderful (though often absent) husband as they attempt to bring up three children aged 13, 11 and 9. She’s currently mourning the charismatic dog who kept her sane but can’t talk about that right now.

Category: A Citymother's Diary

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