Putting the ‘I’ into Mum!

Eight years ago, I embarked on a new Olympic-sized challenge. After much deliberation and preparation, I became the single, adoptive parent of a beautiful adopted six-month-old baby. My son has brought so much to my life and to my extended family, way beyond what I had imagined. Now, I can’t imagine life without him. However, if I thought training for the Olympics had been difficult nothing had quite prepared me for the challenges of motherhood.

My own experience and that of friends and colleagues who juggle their professional lives alongside motherhood has acutely sharpened my focus on what it takes to be a mother. And while I am writing on International Women’s Day in celebration and support of my fellow mothers out there, I also extend this sentiment to all the amazing parents and carers of any gender out there. This blog applies to us all.

The four dimensions of motherhood

At Complete, the meta-frame that underpins all we do is called the 4 Dimensions (4D) of Leadership. And while it was originally conceived for leadership, it can equally be applied to the four dimensions of life or indeed motherhood. It’s the ideal frame for examining those challenges of motherhood that I, and so many others, are experiencing.

The first dimension of the 4D model is the world of IT (doing). It’s all about getting things done – either in the short term or with a future focus. In business, it’s about what needs to be done to achieve commercial performance, project delivery, revenue generation, etc. In parenting, it’s what we do to keep clothes clean, organise childcare, get homework done, put food on the table, etc.

The second dimension of the 4D model is the world of WE (relating). It’s all about our relationships with others. At work, that’s relationships with our colleagues, our bosses and it manifests itself in the way we lead, the culture we build, the teams we develop or the individuals we support. At home, it’s about how we relate to our partner, our children and our extended family or friends. It’s the time we spend together for no other reason than to be together, to support each other and to deepen our relationships.

Often, we think we are spending time in the WE – when we are with other people – but really, it’s just disguised more doing but with others!

The third dimension of the 4D model is the world of I (being). It’s very much about ourselves and how we manage our energy, our feelings and emotions and our general wellbeing. This is as relevant at work as it is at home.

Finally, the fourth dimension in the 4D model is how sophisticated and ‘grown up’ we are in each of those three dimensions of I, WE and IT.

Where are you in the four dimensions?

To understand whether we are balanced and fulfilled across all three dimensions, and how sophisticated we are in the fourth dimension, try this exercise. Reflect on the last week. Ask yourself where you spent your time, your energy and your thinking. Think about work and home and simply note down whatever comes to mind and allocate it to either the I, WE or IT dimension.

Now, look at where you’ve spent your time. I can pretty much guarantee that most of your time will have been consumed in the IT and especially the very short-term aspects of IT. Next is probably in the WE dimension and, last on the list, in fact it is often completely empty, is I!

This unbalanced experience is very common, but it can have serious negative consequences on us both as workers and as parents.

Empty pots of I

Let’s look at the I dimension in a little more detail and how it relates to motherhood. Recently, I was lucky enough to be enrolled on an incredible parenting course aimed at parents of adopted children. In week one we were introduced to a model called the Pots of Tolerance.

This model describes how at the beginning of parenting we have a bucket full of love and tolerance. At the same time, our child has very little tolerance. As time goes on, we pour more and more tolerance and love from our pot into our child’s pot. And while some children’s pots start to fill, others, for whatever reason and no fault of their own, have pots that leak. We carry on, pouring more and more unconditional love and tolerance into the child’s pot until we realised our own pot is empty and we are left exhausted. However, our child’s leaky pot means they aren’t full either and they still need more. 

At this point, with our empty pot and our child’s pot still needing more, we may start to despair or panic and the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol course through us and we find ourselves on a downward spiral.

The message from the parenting course facilitator was clear; to be the best parent you can, you have to look after yourself – you have to focus on the I. It is not a nice to do, it is a very real must do.

Why is the I dimension so empty?

Unfortunately, we often link the IT activity with the I dimension. We think that if we can just get through the never-ending to-do list, we’ll feel better and will even ‘reward’ ourselves with something that is focussed on us – a run, a cup of tea, lunch with a friend, some meditation.

The truth is, if we get five minutes between Zoom meetings, we use it to put the washing on, do a quick online supermarket shop, plan dinner or workout how to upload homework to Google classrooms!

If we ever actually do something for oursleves then we sit there consumed by ‘mum guilt’ that we really should be doing something else – something from that long to-do list. We completely undo any potential positive benefits of that ‘me time’ by feeling guilty or anxious (cortisol again) about what we’re not doing.

Well, newsflash to all you incredible but exhausted mothers out there … looking after the I (ourselves) is not a nice to do, a reward or something to do when you have finished everything else. It is essential and it’s the first, not the last thing we need to do!

Put your Oxygen mask on first!

Think about it, when you’re already feeling exhausted, hassled, and desperately trying to juggle a million things, it’s not easy to stop and have enough curiosity, patience, and stillness to sit in the WE and truly get to the bottom of why your child has had a complete meltdown at being asked to clean their teeth or stack the dish washer.

If we could have stopped, then we would have worked out that the random tantrum is due to a worry they have for the day ahead. Instead, our response is usually to reassert the ask, usually with an extra threat or consequence for good measure! Fast forward 30 seconds, the task (IT) is not done and one or both of you have stormed off (WE) and you are sitting exasperated at how all of this has happened. After all, it was only a small request to put their bowl in the dishwasher … sound familiar?

To be successful in the IT and the WE dimensions of our lives, we must have enough energy, be feeling good about ourselves and have enough tolerance in our pots.

Think about what the pilot says when you get on a plane during the safety briefing. “Should oxygen masks be required during the flight, please put your own mask on before helping others.” To be able to help others, we first must help ourselves.

Rebalancing our dimensions and refilling our pots of tolerance

If any of this has resonated with you, you might want to try using the 4D framework to work out how you can support yourself in the I dimension.

  • Think about what IT things could make your life easier. I invested nearly two hours of my time over half term planning my childcare cover for the rest of the year. It was tough to find the time but now it’s all booked I feel so relieved.
  • Next, consider who in the WE dimension energises or supports you. Who do you need more time with and who should you try to avoid? I created a WhatsApp running group during lockdown, while at first it was about encouraging each other to go running, it’s become so much more. If one person is struggling, the others lift them, and we all celebrate or are inspired into action by each other’s successes.
  • And finally, when you do something for yourself in the I, however big or small a thing it is, quit the ‘mum guilt’. Really do it, indulge in it, and know that you deserve it.

Happy International Women’s Day to all you phenomenal mothers out there – let’s all start putting some guilt-free focus on I.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for rebalancing your dimensions, please add them into the comments

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