These were the top 6 responses to a poll I ran through my Instagram Stories on the question ‘what do you struggle with most as a Mum?’:
- Spreading myself too thin
- Managing all the things I juggle
- The constant-ness of the daily grind
- Being the default parent
- Sensory overload (too much touching & noise)
- Being present
The highest ranking response unfortunately didn’t come as a surprise.
As a recovering Queen of spreading myself too thin, I’d like to share a snapshot of my story about this and what I’ve learned along the way.
Like most farm kids, I grew up understanding that work was a way of life. My siblings and I had a wonderful childhood on our farm and absorbed responsibility and work ethic without really needing to be taught it.
Baling hay on school nights, feeding poddy calves, shifting irrigation spraylines, cattle work on weekends – it was all just part of a lifestyle that I loved. We worked as a family team, which was really special. I will be forever grateful to my parents for what they taught me about the power of hard work, and teamwork, and for giving me a go on the farm as a female, because it gave me great self belief that has set the foundation for my life.
My individual problem, due largely to my nature, was that I learnt how to work but not how to relax. Always wanting to achieve and please, I’d forever be thinking of the next job to be done and feel guilty if I wasn’t doing something. So began my addiction to ticking boxes.
Through all the stages of my life I’ve set goals and, through hard work, prided myself on my ability to achieve them. I’ve always believed in the notion that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. This willpower and self belief has seen me accomplish many things I’m proud of, and have incredible life experiences, but it’s come at a cost.
It’s 1998, I’m in my final year at Murgon State High School. I’m the school captain, holding several other leadership positions, playing sports in and outside of school, helping on the farm, going to parties like everyone else, and I have a pretty serious boyfriend. I’m studying intently because my goal is an OP of 1… though an OP of 2 would be okay. I now cringe at the insane amount of pressure I put on myself… and it really was all my own pressure.
I’m sitting my third term exams. I get halfway through my biology exam and my mind goes blank. It’s my favourite subject, I’m well prepared for the exam, so I don’t understand what’s happening, though looking back I should have read the warning signs. My heart is pounding, I cannot think, I cannot feel, I cannot speak. After what feels like an eternity but was probably only a few minutes, I take my exam paper up to my teacher at the front of the class, hand it to him and say “I can’t do this.” At first he looks at me in shock and then acknowledges my pain, as if he can see right into me. I walk straight out of class and out of the school grounds, not to return until after the school holidays. I drive home to the farm in a semi-hysterical, semi-frozen state and go straight to bed, where I spend most of the next few days in a kind of numb haze. I am shattered and unfeeling. For a long time I described this period of time as a nervous breakdown but I now know it was burnout.
Fast forward to my fourth year of University in 2002. Very similar scenario. I am a residential tutor at College, in leadership positions within College and University, am playing representative soccer, completing my honours thesis, partying, and in a long term relationship that has become stressful. During this year I had a number of what I would call mini-breakdowns when I just could not function. When that happened, I would have to go, get away for a day, two or three.
Fast forward again to 2010. Another breakdown. This time I am running my business in Gunnedah and am absolutely stressed out and consumed by it.
Burnout again in November 2012 after a pregnancy loss and our 4th failed fertility treatment in the midst of multiple stressors in our lives. People talk about hitting ‘rock bottom’ and I now know what that looks like. When you’re an achiever and you just can’t achieve the one thing you want more than anything (a baby), it’s an incredibly hard pill to swallow.
We are given lessons until we learn them and apparently I am a slow learner! I’ve been through burnout in motherhood twice more since then.
Notice the recurring theme? I’ve had a tendency to push myself to the brink and then beyond it. Eyes on the prize, I’d work as hard as I needed to, ignoring any or all boundaries to achieve the goals I’d set myself. I thought I could ‘work’ my way through whatever state I was in. I’d miss or ignore the warning signs – a clouded mind, inability to relax, unable to make clear decisions, highly anxious, irritable – I’d push through them without regard for my well being, thinking I didn’t have the time and there were things to be done. I can hear my Mum’s voice even now: “slow down Benita.”
I had some brilliant sessions with a life coach years ago and she alerted me to something that hit me like a ton of bricks. In one session, after watching and listening intently to what I was saying, she said: “do you know how many times you used the word “work” just then?” I was shocked when she proceeded to tell me. This was the first step for me in beginning to reprogram my language, my thinking and my ways.
I’ve done a lot of self exploration, had coaching and therapies to help me understand why I do it to myself.
It comes down to a long-held belief I have about myself that I’m not valuable unless I’m working. I’ve discovered that I attach my self worth and value to doing, and achievement. I also have a tendency towards anxiety, and for a long time I didn’t recognise, understand or know how to manage stress.
Now that I’ve named it and claimed it, I’m working on changing it at the root cause. I do my best to make my wellbeing my highest priority now (and to stick to it!).
Helen Keller said that ‘character cannot be developed in ease and quiet’. She should know and I totally agree. For each of these trying times I have bounced back a more resilient person and I’ve learned something more about myself along the way. My breakdowns have been platforms for my breakthroughs. They’ve shaped me and ultimately led me to my purpose.
The incident way back in high school was a huge wake up call for me and our school guidance counsellor was the first professional to help me learn to cope with spreading myself too thin. I distinctly remember him telling me I needed more of a balance in my life. I’ve heard it more times than I can name, mostly from my beautiful Mum.
So here’s the thing. I do not like the term work/life balance. I don’t know about you but I feel pressured when I’m told that. It sets off a constricted feeling in my chest and a chain reaction of less-than-useful thoughts about all the ‘shoulds’.
A definition of balance is: a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.
Are any of our lives in a state of equilibrium with an equal distribution of weight?
I prefer to think of a work-life blend. Work-life blend is a philosophy and it means blending all the various elements of your life in a way that is right for you and taking the pressure off yourself to find a balance. I love teaching about this.
We all have our own unique blend that stems from making conscious decisions about what’s important to us. It’s about creating your life by design and loving it! There is so much I can share on this topic (I run whole workshops on it!) but here are four tips as a starting point:
- Listen to your body. We as women are so good at ignoring what our body is telling us and putting others first! Don’t! Take heed or pay the consequences – mentally, emotionally, physically.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. The greatest way to carry guilt around is to not be clear on your expectations of yourself. Know what is ‘enough’ for you.
- Stop putting up with stuff. It is realistic to have a toleration-free life. Write down everything you’re putting up with that’s sapping your energy (maybe not your kids) and make a decision on each thing to zap it or accept it.
- One word – PRIORITISE! Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.
My Illuminate coaching program is a safe space for you in motherhood. If you are feeling lost and ready to find your spark again, it is the space for you. Over 12 weeks we walk together from stuck to shining and you become part of a space where you are always seen and held. You can enrol with me anytime. You are worthy! Visit https://benitabensch.com/illuminate