In the midst of the early parenting years, our bodies and minds can seemingly be overtaken by our offspring. Feeding squirming babies, carrying them in slings, jiggling them through arsenic hour and then piggybacking three-year-olds home from the park leave little chance for your arms and your emotional health to rest. Our urge for personal space has to be balanced with the needs of our children, which means it can be difficult to keep yourself calm while keeping your little one happy too.
Sarah McMahon, 37, was an independent, social butterfly before taking on her latest role as mum to Thomas, now an inquisitive, chatty 20-month-old. The adjustment wasn’t purely emotional; Sarah had to contend with the physicality of parenting as her new life unfolded before her.
“Having breastfed since day dot, with my little lad refusing expressed milk from a bottle, meant significant physical attachment – sitting for lengthy periods feeding, feeding, feeding, rocking, feeding, then rinse and repeat,” she says.
Sarah was grateful her son didn’t have feeding issues like reflux or colic, which require almost constant physical comfort, but those long periods during witching hour, or those lonely moments of trying to establish feeding, made the shift in the new definition of personal space obvious. Some days, she says, made the “relentless attachment of a small person all consuming”.
Dr Bronwyn Leigh, a clinical and health psychologist, agrees that redefining personal space is a complex transition to make as a parent. “Caring for a newborn is physically demanding: you can experience sore boobs, sore feet, sore arms, sore back, all while recovering from pregnancy and labour,” she explains.
While those early experiences bring significant moments for physical closeness, that need for proximity extends much later into the parenting journey. Even though the desire for constant closeness may lessen, being on call for a hug or long periods of your child sitting on your lap mean it may be some time before reclaiming space as your own.
“Mums talk about feeling ‘touched out’ from the physical demands of parenting,” Dr Leigh says. It’s perfectly normal to crave physical space and privacy after all those hours of ‘giving’ yourself to another person – and at the end of a long day, the opportunities for connection with others, such as your partner, can be difficult to navigate when you’re physically and emotionally spent.
Kristen, 42, has raised her children Mirabrook, 8, and Whiteley, 5, encouraging closeness and connection. As an attachment parent, Kristen didn’t actively seek out ways to divert their needs when her children needed touch. “It was simple – it was just a matter of addressing the issue, seeing what they needed and then giving it to them. I acknowledged that they wouldn’t move on unless I satisfied their need,” she says.
Although the constancy of the early years are now behind her, she still finds that personal space is something both she and her children have to work at. “We have systems in place now they are older,” she says. “We’ve actively focused on ways to offer the kids opportunities for space that gives us, and in turn them, a chance to chill.” Now, Kristen regularly sets up play scenes in her children’s rooms – water painting, or partially constructed Lego battles to explore, to help them build on the idea of being physically separate from her, with her still being close by.
So what ideas of self-care might be useful for parents where every available personal space is lovingly consumed? Finding ways to delight in the joy that children can bring can help parents move through those quirk urges to hide in the bathroom away from the children.
In addition, Dr Leigh advises, “It’s important to find ways to remain calm while in the presence of your baby, and while on the run throughout the day, slowing yourself down can help your baby slow down too.”
Sarah and Kristen found that taking things slowly worked for them as well. “Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself and the immense job you’re doing keeping this human being alive and happy,” Sarah shares. “And, if you can, sleep within minutes of your baby going down!”
As her children have grown, and with the increasing amounts of space she has slowly regained, Kristen has found that the way she approaches the need for closeness is all in the mind. “The way I treat my children is the way I treat myself, and they are an extension of who I am,” she says. “Yes, it is hard work but they are part of me, so I’m happy to respond to what they feel they need.”
Connect with Sarah Wayland on Twitter.