How changes in your life roles provide opportunity for growth and happiness
I feel fortunate to have worked as an occupational therapist for 12 years now, and most of this time has been spent working with children and families. Currently I am working in the perinatal mental health area - a dream of mine - helping women and men adjust to the enormous and life-changing roles of becoming parents.
For those of you who haven’t met an occupational therapist (OT) before - or those of you who have and are still confused about what we do (don’t worry, we can do such varied work that often if you met two of us we would work in completely different ways!) - the goal of occupational therapy is to encourage wellbeing by helping people to participate in the occupations of daily life that are meaningful to them and support them towards optimum functioning.
This can be anything from:
Self-care (dressing, bathing, toileting, feeding)
Activities of daily living (cooking, cleaning, looking after pets)
Engaging in work, volunteering, or accessing the community
Leisure, hobbies and social participation/interaction
We look at what a person does (their values and roles), where (their environment), and their occupation (the activity requirements) to ascertain what is meaningful to them and what can be adapted or compensated to facilitate their engagement and independence to promote optimum wellbeing and satisfaction in life.
When looking at who someone is, their life roles help to gather more information about what is meaningful to them. Whilst OTs can work across the spectrum – literally from babies in the NICU unit through to elderly patients and palliative care – my focus today is on the season of life that involves starting or growing a family.
Someone might be a sister, friend, worker, student, daughter, and now they are also becoming a mother. It is quite a unique time in one’s life – and periods of great transition can bring about great discomfort as your previous life makes space for this new role, and all of the responsibilities, tasks and required changes it brings.
The framework of self-leadership fits so well in this space – the basis of positive psychology leans into a strengths-based approach to focus on meaningful attainment of goals – it just so happens the overarching goal is to now care for a tiny human!
So, for expecting and new parents, here are some strategies and resources for how to harness self-leadership as you develop your new roles as mother and father.
This has to be the most important part of parenting – as literally every decision comes back to your values. Cloth or disposable nappies? Organic food or regular? Baby-led weaning or purees all the way? Screen time or screen free? It. Can. Be. So. Overwhelming.
When there are so many decisions to make on the daily, and you can literally hunt down any information on the internet (even opposite arguments for the same suggestion), coming back to yourself and your own intuition and judgement based on your values is essential in letting go of that excess anxiety of ‘not doing it right’, and of handling the mummy judgement from others.
Knowing yourself well is also the foundation for establishing a healthy attachment with your baby – being aware of your needs, values, triggers and coping style will help you to parent mindfully in a way that is true to you, and therefore beneficial for yourself and your child.
A Resource: Parenting from the Inside out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive – Daniel J. Siegel & Mary Hartzell
A Reflection: When your child is grown, what three words do you want them to use to describe what kind of parent you have been for them?
The joys of motherhood means that there are no two days that are the same. One day you may be able to leave the house for a lovely outing with babe in tow to arrive on time (!!), the next it may be hard to even find 2 minutes for a shower (forget about washing your hair!).
It can be hard to factor in the time and energy it takes to care for another human 24/7 before you are living it. Your expectations pre-baby might be very different once home and settled, particularly if you are operating in a caffeine-fuelled, sleep-deprived phase. This can be hard to factor in at times – especially if you are used to being ‘productive’ and ‘achieving’ things.
Self-compassion and adaptability are keywords for your repertoire now! As is turning off Instagram or any other source you compare yourself to – run your own race and try to avoid comparison by focusing on your goals and values.
A Resource: The Centre of Perinatal Excellence (https://www.cope.org.au/) provides leading support for the emotional changes of becoming a parent. Subscribe to their newsletter for tailored support along your journey – it is like getting a big hug from someone who ‘gets it’.
A Reflection: Instead of thinking about tangible goals, try to reframe to the ‘intangible’ goals of motherhood you want to achieve. The washing will always be there – but emotions, moments and connections in time are fleeting – what are the ones you want to capture in your day, and how do you want to feel at the end of your day?
Our children need us to be regulated and calm, so that they feel safe and secure. Even as babies, they cue into the rhythm of our heart and skin-to-skin helps to regulate their own breathing and heart rate, leading to a more settled baby. The more we practice self-regulation and managing our own emotions effectively, the better our children will learn – both physiologically how they wire (i.e., a child picked up and hugged to be soothed will have a nervous system that calms much more easily than one that is left to scream and cry), as well as overtly how they learn about managing their feelings and emotions.
A Resource: Mind the Bump – A wonderful App developed by Smiling Mind (https://www.mindthebump.org.au/) – free meditations and mindfulness specially designed for pregnancy, all the way through to 2 years old.
A Reflection: What is a sensory cue or magnet that helps you to feel calm or relaxed. Is it a shower? Music? A hug or massage? A warm cup of tea? A walk outside? Swimming? Once you identify this, make sure you have regular access to it (do you need it daily, a few times a week etc), to help your nervous system stay regulated – the more you can help to calm your system throughout your day in preparation, the better able you will be to respond mindfully to stressful events (i.e., a baby’s cries, a toddler’s tantrums).
The more I have learnt about self-leadership, and applied this knowledge and strategies to my own life, the more I find I am able to make those day-in-day-out decisions with greater ease, leading to a much more settled, contented feeling about motherhood.
While part of me wishes I had known this stuff earlier - like before I had my first child - I also recognise the importance of self-compassion, growth and enjoying the journey. I am definitely not the person I was before this major life transition of becoming a mother - and I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn, evolve and lean into my own self-leadership along the way.
Hayley is an occupational therapist, writer and creative. She loves that all of these interests intersect with self-leadership to help others live a life of meaning, purpose and wellbeing. You can read more of her work and find her at whathayleywrites.com