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"By trying so hard to be a good mum, I was making myself a bad one" - Poppy O'Neill on letting go of perfectionism and championing self care

Author Poppy O'Neill shares her experience of embracing a guilt-free approach to self care and how breaking the cycle of self sacrifice inspired her new parenting book, Mother Power.

By Poppy O'Neill | Last updated Feb 8, 2023

A mother and a daughter resting on a bed.

I used to think I knew what it looked like to be a “good mum”. Making sure everyone was fed, clothed, bathed and sorted - then being on hand for anything else they might need. Constantly scanning for ways to make my family’s lives easier and smoother. I used to think that inconveniencing others - my kids, family, even complete strangers - would place me firmly in the “bad mum” category. Good mums inconvenienced only themselves, and once everybody else was well looked after, there might just be a bit of space left for me to look after myself. 

For a while, I did OK at self-care: weekly pilates, meeting up with friends, getting out in nature,  long bubble baths - all the cliches. Paired with handling everything for my kids and working part-time, I had a pretty good balance. 

"When the country went into lockdown in 2020, all the scaffolding that was helping me hold everything together dramatically fell away."

With no school to provide some alone time every day, no family available to fall back on when I needed childcare and not even a community centre pilates class to escape to, I had to go back to basics. Mothers were expected to pick up the slack in the most overwhelming way. I was lucky enough to have my partner move in, but I realised that I had no idea how to advocate for and take care of myself when the kids were around. When you become a mother, it’s incredibly easy to start putting yourself second (or even third or fourth).

Despite our best-laid and most feminist plans, babies are born completely dependent on us, and remain so to some extent for the best part of two decades. As a result of this huge responsibility, getting into the habit of neglecting yourself often starts early and is hard to break. Add to this the way our society praises self-sacrificing behaviour in women and girls from an early age, and you have a recipe for disaster. Every time we do the washing up instead of taking a desperately-longed-for nap, or hold that wee until the baby’s asleep, we’re strengthening the pattern of prioritising everybody else over our own most basic needs. During lockdown, I realised that to be a genuinely good mum to my children, I was going to have to be a “bad mum”. With so little time and energy to go around, I had to make sure there was some left for me. I started setting limits and boundaries - with my kids around how long bedtime could last, with the school around home schooling, and with myself around my own perfectionism. 

By neglecting myself in favour of striving for perfection for everybody else, I had been depriving my children of a calm, well-rested mother.

By trying so hard to be a good mum, I was making myself a bad one. What’s more, I noticed that it was in the moments my children were being “bad kids” that they needed me most. 

I had no choice but to throw out the very idea of a good or bad mum. I took the pressure off myself, leaned on my partner and asked for help when I needed it. In short, I prioritised myself so that I could be calm when my kids weren’t. 

The most powerful change I made was tiny - I started to pause. Instead of rushing to fix an argument, a tantrum or a worrying child, I took a breath. It sounds simple but it was the difference between bringing my own anxieties into the situation and bringing a calm mother to guide my kids through. 

I also started to pause before beating myself up for being an imperfect mother. I paused before saying “yes” to another responsibility. It buys that little bit of time to choose your response, rather than acting out of anxiety or stress.

The idea for Mother Power came to me during that miserable lockdown of January 2021. I knew I’d be using these skills and ideas even after the threat of Covid-19 had passed, and as a writer I wanted to share what I’d learned with others. I’m best known as a children’s mental health author, so I know how much kids are influenced by the emotions of adults around them. In Mother Power I’ve combined my knowledge of mental and emotional health with the feminist ideas that had helped me understand my own perfectionism and low self-esteem in context.

The world was (and is) chaotic, frightened and frightening - it makes perfect sense that our homes, relationships and mental health sometimes feel this way too. On our own, it isn’t within our power as mothers to change the world. But it is within our power to choose how we treat and advocate for ourselves.

Mother Power by Poppy O'Neill is out now. 

Mother Power by Poppy ONeill