Two little words. What if?
Two little words that can mean optimism, hope and excitement. Words that speak of a future that looks bright, engaging and all you would ever want it to be. Two little words that can mean doubt, negativity and anxiety. Words that speak unkind thoughts, tell you it won’t work out and make you feel that nothing you do will ever be good enough. What if?
I have lived most of my life in the shadow of these two little words.
I have spent more time than I care to think about, shackled in the negative side of the “What if?” conundrum. It was how I lived my life, right from an early age.
What if I fall off the swing?
Or, what if my friends don’t like me?
What if I don’t do well at school?
And, what if I make an idiot of myself in front of people?
What if people think I am a geek? I fail this exam? I don’t get the job?
The list could fill a page.
I developed a ‘coping strategy’: perfection
Over time, I developed a coping strategy. I found a way to protect myself from all the uncomfortable feelings that came with the “What ifs?”. By working hard; I planned, I prepped, I wrote list after list after list. I went the extra mile to make damn sure that everything I did was as close to perfect as it could be so I didn’t fail. It wasn’t an option.
Perfection meant that there couldn’t be a negative what if because I had all bases covered. It came at a price, the sleepless nights, the weight loss and weight gain, the silent tears, but the price seemed worth paying. An impressive academic history, outward recognition of whatever I turned my hand to followed. I was winning the what if game and that was perfect.
Becoming a mum
I had not even considered the what ifs about being a mum.
My career and life experience meant I had a good understanding of child development, education, learning and play. I had looked after lots of children, was a qualified teacher of 5 years and, as the oldest of 4 siblings, felt I had probably seen and heard enough parenting strategies to last a lifetime. I mean what else could I possibly need to know to raise a little human?
But the what ifs started not long into pregnancy, manifested heavily during labour and birth, and impacted considerably during the first year of my daughter’s life. I went through the motions, she thrived, but every night was spent worrying about the what ifs.
Worry consumed me
And this was worrying on a whole new level. It consumed me. I felt it physically, I felt it mentally and it began to take over my life.
The strategies I had employed before no longer seemed to work. No matter how many parenting books I read, or videos I watched, the advice didn’t feel right and my half hearted attempts to follow the “expert” advice didn’t seem to be working.
Leave her to cry they said, don’t pick her up too much, she will want you all the time, for goodness sake do not let her into your bed, she will come to expect it, the famous “rod for your own back” comment rang out in my head.
I had backed myself into a what if corner. What if I ignore the advice and cuddle her to sleep? Or if I let her sleep on my chest and carry her as much as she needs? What if, by doing these things, I was causing long term emotional damage?
Head vs heart
My head said I was doing the wrong thing but my heart felt differently. Outwardly, I followed the mainstream. I didn’t have the confidence to challenge the ‘perfect’ ideals of parenting. Why would I?
What if people thought I was weird and they judged me as an unfit parent? What if they thought I wasn’t good enough at the one job I had wanted to do all my life? I had begun fighting a battle that deep down I already knew I couldn’t win. But then I had always liked a challenge.
Fast forward 4 years, life had ticked on and I had developed some new ways of protecting myself from the what ifs? I found that sharing my “film reel” on social media was a great strategy for promoting the perfect mum ideal and ensuring that the what ifs remained in check, at least publicly. (No one needed to see the 50 photos taken and deleted because “what if” they made me look like I didn’t know what I was doing!)
When I found out I was expecting our second child, the intense what iffing came back like an old friend. Other events happening in my life meant that the pressure grew and I felt like I was clinging on by my fingertips. Something had to give and eventually it did.
Mental health support
I couldn’t cope and was eventually referred for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy linked to Generalised Anxiety Disorder and perfectionism (who even knew it was an actual mental health condition? Not me!)
Accepting that what I was experiencing was a mental health condition was hard. The what ifs that come with acknowledging that you have a mental illness are crippling because society hasn’t caught up with the prevalence of it….yet.
But, fast forward another 4 years and my negative what iffing days are over, my anxiety is under control most days and my outlook is positive.
My what if days are over: What’s changed?
Well I can’t wait to tell you…
This time it is just one word.
A word I learnt through my experiences with CalmFamily and the journey it has taken me on.
To be trusting of yourself and others, you have no choice but to what if in a positive way. You have to what if and take the risk. Do it anyway. You have to what if and still be true to you, warts and all.
What if people don’t like me? Ah but what if they do?
What if I don’t get the job? But what if you do?
What if the baby starts to expect cuddles all the time? Hang on……I actually couldn’t think of a negative what if to that statement or to many of my parenting anxieties. That was certainly a revelation.
My parenting confidence began to soar, I began to take all the negative what ifs around being a “perfect” mum and throwing them away. I followed my instincts and went with what I felt was right. Over time, perfect became “good” and good became “good enough”. Knowing that I had evidenced based research that supported my choices as a parent gave me even more confidence. Suddenly, I was full of what ifs but in a hugely positive way!
What if I trust my instincts as a parent? Where could that lead?
What if I meet temper tantrums with empathy, love and compassion?
What if I treat my child as a human being; one with equally valid in their emotions and thoughts?
What if I cuddle my little one to sleep until they tell me not to? Who could that harm?
What if I respect the choices my child makes?
What if I listen, really listen, to hear the emotion behind the words?
There wasn’t a negative outcome to any of these what ifs! Just pure love, joy, playfulness and a desire to give my children a childhood that helped them thrive and grow.
For me, the more I practise what iffing in a way that is true to myself, the happier I become as a parent, a partner, a friend and a colleague. CalmFamily has given me the confidence to know that what I am doing is good enough for me and my family and I wish more people knew this secret!
Trusting the journey
During the last year, trusting the journey I am on and what iffing in a positive way has seen me begin training in a new career and develop my own parenting and wellbeing support service, with the love and support of CalmFamily.
I have met inspirational people who have literally changed my mindset and changed my life. After years of striving to be perfect, in a bid to shush away the negative what ifs, it would appear that perfect for me was there all along. I just needed people to show me how to trust my own mind, believe in my own journey and turn the what ifs into what next.
Michelle Carter-Grogan- CalmFamily Dorset and Calm.Connect.Grow.
Michelle is an inspiring woman who wants all parents to know that ‘good enough’ is absolutely brilliant, and is passionate about empowering parents and helping them erase the guilt of unachievable expectations from ourselves and society around parenting and raising children. She is a mum to two and a step mum to one.
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