What bad habits do you have? Are you someone who develops habits easily – and once established, do you find them hard to break? I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. With my superb combination of high functioning anxiety and a touch of neurodiversity, I tend to cleave to habits and routines; this is not in itself a problematic thing. After all, from whole nations to family units, we all have our routines and rituals. In fact, with me, the primary irk for a long time was that it masked my bad days, as I could fumble through and still function – rather than my habits ruining my day, they were a support strategy.
Unfortunately, there is one habit I just cannot shake; I’m an evening-hermit. Once the Childe’s bedtime is done, I find it extremely hard to go downstairs again, even to watch TV or read a book. I even have intrusive thoughts about it, from mice scampering over my feet to discovering intruders. So I stay upstairs. What do I do there? Waste time: stare at my phone, watch terrible TV and generally stagnate like some kind of duvet dwelling grub.
I know exactly where and when I developed the habit, too. At the height of my postnatal anxiety, I was convinced my baby would succumb to SIDS or have emotional scars if I left the room for a moment – even to pee – after bed time. I was also convinced that she wouldn’t sleep downstairs or with any noise or any light whatsoever.
So I sat in the dark from 8pm till bedtime, alone, for 6 months.
6 months is plenty long enough for a habit to form. To make it clear- this was several years ago. There’s no need to be up there now. I know it’s a compulsion. Even at the time I was haunted by a noisy ghost, rattling my chains to the tune of ‘this is crazy – put her to sleep downstairs or do shifts with your husband’, but of course, the easiest way to exorcise the voice of reason was to query on the most U OK HUN? parenting board I could find. There, women (either verbose with a PHD in everything printed on Boden patterned paper, or writing in 90% abbreviations with no spellcheck) assured me that if I so much as left the room to get a drink something would happen and I’d never forgive myself. Seriously, there’s a lot of good work going on out in the webz for maternal mental health, but in my opinion the number 1, simple, easy thing that could be done would be tight moderation with a safeguarding or concern focus on certain better known parenting websites. Just someone who knows the difference between ‘strong opinion’ and ‘intrusive thoughts – does the poster need help or are they stirring the pot?’. Safeguarding is, quite rightly, a priority right now – but I see things on forums which genuinely concern me (having been there, albeit not in defensive high dudgeon about it being ‘just my opinion’) and have found moderators not always confident in terms of what to do, or aware that the strong opinion seems to be held in an extreme, fearful way (or the victim is clearly terrified and being frightened further). Anyway, that was a massive digression. I ended up graduating from sitting in the dark to … sitting in the light. With the TV on. And I can’t seem to get further than that bar the odd day like Christmas when everything’s different anyway.
So … what am I going to do? It’s got a bit beyond the ‘make a mental note to go downstairs’ stage. That won’t cut it, especially on a rough night (last night, mid-writing this, Childe had a tantrum due to not being allowed to get up and have milkshake at 9pm – good resolutions were at the very forefront of my mind, yet afterwards I could not bring myself to go downstairs. For now, I’m going to focus on building up, using tasks. Tasks are useful because they offer both a reason and a distraction; I’m not going to feel chilled out down there for a while yet. I’m also going to be realistic about building up time. Much habit-advice seems to advocate switching then doing it ‘at least three times’, as if three times will magically switch your mind. I’ve come across it in pedagogical and personal advice – but never, ever, in school, work or home life, has doing something flat-out three times changed anyone’s deep seated habits.
I can’t even tell you right now how it’s going to work out. What I do know is, I only get about 150 minutes a day where I’m not actively working* or parenting** and it would probably be enriching not to spend it staring at my wall. Which is, of course, in dire need of redecoration which I haven’t got round to doing yet. Bring on the mundane tasks!
*Less if I have marking or planning.
**Less if I have life admin.