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It took me about three years, but I found the little peace I’d been looking for. As corny as it sounds, Marie Kondo helped kickstart major changes in my life a few years ago. I decluttered my home, spent one year without shopping for anything non-essential, and then worked on unravelling my mental, inner mess.

It was a lot of hard work. And last December, when I turned 40, I remember feeling truly contented. That all was right in my world. For now, anyway!

But it wasn’t always like that. I left Kuala Lumpur for London in December 2012 to be with my British husband, and it was super wonderful and super tough at the same time.

In a span of 3 years, I moved to a new country, got married, trained for a new profession (teaching), and then gave birth to my first son. Two years later, I had my second child, also a son.

The Upheaval of Motherhood

Mothers out there will know what having a baby does to you. It changes all you knew. It makes you rethink your identity, your goals, your relationships, your everything. The combination of all these big changes in my life left me feeling rootless, fragile and confused. Like Woody Allen movies on steroids.

I was doubting my choices, my friendships, my own self-worth, but at the time, I had no idea what was actually wrong. How could I feel so messed up when I was so privileged and blessed with such good things in my life?

Just what did I want in life? Wasn’t this it?

In 2016 I knew my second baby was on the way, and I knew something had to change. I couldn’t keep feeling like the ground under my feet was so wobbly.

While it was important, Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy wasn’t actually the main trigger that started me on this route. I watched a documentary called The True Cost in 2016 – an eye-opener about the harms of fast fashion and consumerism. I felt so affected that it stayed with me for weeks. And then I read Marie Kondo’s book, and everything just made sense. Everything clicked.

This was it:  I would declutter everything, and then hopefully not add back to the clutter.

The KonMari philosophy

Decluttering with a toddler around was tough, but we tried to make it a little fun for him.

To brutally summarise the KonMari method, Kondo says to declutter successfully, you have to tidy up in an order and in specific categories, take everything out in that category (such as clothes), and then only keep things which ‘spark joy’ in your life. I know most people will find the clothes folding method most helpful. Others will note that the ‘spark joy’ philosophy can also be used in other aspects of your life – from relationships to jobs and so on.

But I also really appreciated the following three points from Kondo’s method.

One was that you should be able to see things clearly and easily.

Two is that everything should have a place in your home.

Three, work on your ‘sentimental’ category – personal letters, photographs, mementos – last. It’s the hardest, so you do that right at the end.

These ideas were highly interesting to me. I would ultimately apply these when I was sorting out the mental mess in my head, after the home had been physically decluttered.

One.

To know what was wrong, I need to slowly and brutally reflect and see everything for what everything was. There’s a reason why that initial mountain of all your clothes needs to be right there scaring you – you need to see all that crap for what it is.

Two.

To avoid further ‘cluttering’, I needed to know which people and goals I wanted in my life – I needed to be assured of their place in my space.

Three.

And then finally, when I was surer of what the actual challenges, goals and priorities were in my life, I worked on the hardest – my relationships.

Knowing the What, Why, Who, Where, When and How

My wardrobe in 2017 after the KonMari process – lighter, clearer, better.

Honestly, decluttering the home may have been tedious, but my husband and I found it rather fun in the end. And that was the easy part. Once your home is all sorted out, then what?

For those who may want to do more than just declutter your home, here were the rough steps I took in 2016, 2017 and 2018:

1.   Made time (definitely more than just a day) to write down every hope, goal, fear in my head. Think about what made me truly happy, what were my main triggers for stress and anxiety, what made me boil, what brought me calm. My weaknesses, my strengths, my failures, my successes. Everything.  Like that awful mountain of clothes.

2.   Write down what I wanted to achieve by the time I turned 40. (One example of the things on my list: ‘Say sorry to everyone I need to say sorry to, and really mean it. Perhaps even be generous and say sorry to those who may not really deserve it.’)  Obviously, one can do this for any age milestone.

3.   Write down the descriptor of your dreams. An example: A mother who speaks 4 languages, owns a pastry shop and teaches calligraphy in her spare time?  What would you write if you could be and do anything? What do you need to do to make all this happen?

4.   List down names. The names of all the people you really love, should make extra time and effort for, and who you would like to be in your life forever. This was all-important to me. Modern life is tough on our calendars and brains. Set reminders for occasions, times for touching base, and quality experiences you want shared.

5.   Think about the wardrobe you want in the long term. Draw or take photos of the clothes you have, and what else you want or need. Think about this carefully and let this be the guide for the shopping that you do.

6.   Draw a mind map or two, trying to link and make sense of it all.

An example of a mind map by S.Genovese from learningfundamentals.com.au

When you have what I would call my master mind map and the relevant notes, then here comes the easy part – taking action. I say it is easy because starting something is easy. Maintaining it and ensuring you are disciplined, however, is the hard part.

My ‘actions’ were basically not to shop for a year, buying only essentials that were not about any sort of pleasure or desire. And so I bought no new clothes, accessories, shoes or makeup for 12 months. Okay, I did falter – in a mad moment of weakness, I bought nail polish, right near the end of my year.

After that year, my purchasing habits changed significantly. I became a more mindful consumer and user of things, still very much governed by what I experienced in 2017. I think long and hard about what I want to buy, sometimes for months before getting something. When I go into a shop, it’s usually because I am going in specifically to buy something I have probably touched (and salivated over) about 3 or 4 times.  It is still hard, but I love this continuing reflection and struggle in my life.

Relationships

Turning 40 with best friends (and a clearer head) meant the world.

The ‘action’ that affected me most, however, was what I did with my relationships. Sometimes the idea of a friendship is more tantalising than what that friendship actually is. I took a long hard look at who really went out of their way for me, who clearly and unmistakably wanted me to be in their lives. If there was reciprocity, ease and warmth, I would go all in. Where there felt like forced effort, one-sidedness, dishonesty or even a slight dissonance, I would fall back.

When you try to adhere strictly to these principles, you will be amazed by how easily some things will prove themselves to you. I found that my close friendships grew deeper. Promising friendships grew easily. There was less anxiety about relationships causing me doubt, stress or heartache. Going all in was more than just a WhatsApp message once every month. I’d consciously make sure close friends knew I wanted to be involved in their lives.

People may think all this focus on relationships is a whole bunch of self-help malarkey. But I found that once I had this area clear and rock solid in my life, things just came together.

Why should it be a surprise really? Relationships and friendships form the pillars of our lives. They are crucial for our mental health.

The result was that I managed to work, play and focus on my children during quite a tough year without falling apart. Dare I say it – I even flourished a teeny little bit, despite the madness.

Principles for Life

Our house is still often a complete mess, but it is the right kind of mess we are happy to have.

Today, my house is not as tidy as when it was first KonMari-ed, that’s for sure. I don’t call my kids little tornadoes for nothing. We have quite a few drawers of ‘miscellaneous’ junk again.

But we know what to do. We still know how to fold. We still love her main principles.

As for me personally, I definitely feel less messed-up as a mum, as a woman, and a person. I feel more confident about my choices. A happier me meant a happier family too. Everything is an ongoing process and may descend into chaos and angst again. Who knows? But I have decluttered for now, and l have learned some great lessons for life.

The Dream

If you are anything like me, from the moment you found out you were pregnant, you started dreaming. Dreaming of a little baby in your arms to love and to care for. Dreaming of the smiles, the cooing, and of course the tiny feet. You’d lap it all up and love every moment no matter how exhausted you were because at the end of the day, you are a mother to the most beautiful baby in the world. You are blessed beyond words.

Photo credit: Kristy Tan

My reality

My reality was more like a nightmare. One week postpartum and I found myself curled up in my bed sobbing my eyes out. I was overwhelmed, exhausted and feeling like the most incompetent mother ever. I also knew this was part of the baby blues so I pushed on thinking it would pass. It didn’t.

I didn’t want to be alone with him.

It freaked me out.

Five weeks later and the crying continued, the lethargy dragged on even after getting more than enough sleep and feelings of hopelessness consumed me. I looked at Joshua, my son and felt more guilt and shame than I did love and gratitude. I worried and obsessed about his feedings and his naps.

I didn’t want to be alone with him. It freaked me out. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

Living with Postnatal depression

I never thought I would get postnatal depression. I was a happy person generally and I didn’t think it would be my issue. But the truth I’ve learnt is that it can affect anyone. One in seven mothers are affected, and fathers aren’t exempt either.

It took a lot of humility for me to accept that I was unwell. For a while, I tried to beat it the natural way, with exercise and taking breaks and looking after myself. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t shake it.

I needed everything to stop.

I felt like I was going mad.

One night, after not being able to sleep for two days due to the racing thoughts, I had reached the end of my tether. I told Sam, my husband, to call an ambulance. I needed everything to stop. I felt like I was going mad.

Luckily there was a spot at the local Mother and Baby unit. We were living in Melbourne at the time and this was something the government had set up and I am forever grateful. This was a unit attached to a medical center that helped mothers who were struggling with postpartum illnesses such as myself. I spent five weeks there with six other mothers and this is where recovery began.

Photo credit: Bitesize Visuals

Recovery

Treatment for postnatal depression is different for everyone but is aimed at a person’s psychology, social environment and biology. At the Mum and Baby unit we were supported in all three aspects till we felt we were able to cope in our normal lives. For me, although I was resistant to medicine initially, in hindsight, I knew that I needed it.

Postnatal depression is by far the hardest thing I have had to go through and recovering from it was a slow and painful process. Every day, every moment was a battle. I struggled with feelings of guilt for not being the Mum I had wanted to be, for having this illness and for being a burden to the people around me.

Every day, every moment was a battle.

The most painful feeling was feeling like I couldn’t cope. And the truth is I couldn’t on my own. In my illness, with the mental state I was in, I couldn’t care for Joshua the way a healthy person would. Accepting that was important. I had to know that I was in fact,  sick, and I needed help.

Being Asian, I feel, made it a lot harder to accept. I come from a society where mental illness has such a stigma to it. I had to learn to advocate for myself. I had to first educate my family that what I was going through wasn’t imaginary, it was very real. It also wasn’t the end of the world – I will get better, I will be me again.

And with time and a lot of support, I did get better. The crying spells lessened. The low points were less pronounced. My interest in life returned. When Joshua was six months, I started weaning off my medication. I took my last antidepressant a month after that and never looked back.

Photo credit: Bitesize Visuals

What I learned

In many ways, I feel like postnatal depression was a thief that stole so much of the joy that was meant to be mine in the first year of being a Mum. In other ways, it has taught me so much about patience, suffering, humility, empathy and about love.

I learnt to empathise with others who struggle with illnesses both visible and invisible. I learnt how they are heroes for surviving every day.

I learnt that my worth was not based on what I could do or achieve but simply who I am as a human being, created by God. Grace will carry us where striving can’t.

I learnt that knowing my limits made me wiser, not weaker. Asking for help is humbling but healthy. Often my pride gets in the way of what’s best for me.

Finally, I learnt that I have always loved Joshua to the best of my ability, even when I couldn’t feel an ounce of that love. I learnt to shake off the guilt I carried within me as a mum who couldn’t be the mum I thought I would be. I learnt that love is not based on how we feel, but our commitment to do what’s best for a person, even in the haze of depression, hospitalisation, medication, recovery and beyond.

 

By Kristy Tan

Kristy Tan is a mother, teacher and occasional writer. Together with her husband Sam, who she has known since Standard 4, she tries to find the joy in the madness that is raising two boys under three.

Deciding to become a stay-at-home parent can literally turn whole lives around. Yet as they say, ‘Something’s gotta give!’ and parents have to make these kinds of decisions.

People often say that stay-at-home parents are so lucky to be able to spend time with their kids. However, there are many unspoken challenges and sacrifices aside from mothers just giving up their career. We found a few stay-at-home parents who shared their least discussed struggles.

Someone’s Gotta Give

For Sherry Tjandra who has been an overachiever her whole life, leaving her career as an executive marketing manager was not a calling that came overnight. But there had been a tipping point that made her decide to take a step back.

Stressed from having to juggle between being the top-gun in her company and a highly functioning mom and a wife, the challenges became too much to bear.

Her biggest challenge was the rat-race against time, where 24 hours was not enough. “I should say that my relationship struggled the most when I was trying to be all 3 at once.

On top of that the kids often fell sick, there was a time where they were sick for months from dysentery and repeated typhoid. It got so overwhelming, we (the marriage) nearly lost it. In the end, I decided that I need this – the kids and husband come first!”

For Pete Teo, the story was not quite the same. After losing his mother, who was always the one caring for his children, he decided to be a stay-at-home parent.

“Alice is a higher earner and although it is rare for a father to stay back with the kids, by the end of the day, RM6,000 will see us through the month, compared to me earning RM3,500.”

It was a lot for him to digest initially, but having had a bad experience employing a domestic helper, he knew he wasn’t going to risk his children over his ego.

The Struggle with Image & Expiring Talent 

From being a pharmacist to a stay-at-home mom, Mandy loved every single moment caring for her kids and family.

But she remembers the personal struggles.  “It has been 8 years. I guess the toughest was during my earlier years. There is a struggle about image, especially when we go out and people often ask what I do for an occupation.

“This was quite a challenge to get used to but I am blessed with a supportive husband, close-knit family and friends who do not pass judgments.

“But now, however, my challenge is different. I often feel concerned that my talent is expiring as a license pharmacist, I am no longer hireable. All that, from time to time, will creep up and haunt you once in a while to make you feel insecure. Other than that I completely love being a stay-at-home mum.”

The Social Struggle

Pete, however, was not so lucky. He felt like the whole society raised an eyebrow when he told them he was a stay-at-home dad.

“For a Malaysian, if you tell people you are a stay-at-home dad, they will immediately think you are lazy or a loser of a man who can’t find a job.”

The relationship with his wife remained great. Yet the social stigma was often the factor that got him down – sometimes so much so that it consumed every ounce of positivity in him.

“My wife is okay with this, but the rest of the world sees it differently. The hardest times was during a family or company gathering. It really affected me when people (intentionally or unintentionally) passed remarks on who was wearing the pants.”

Being a stay-at-home parent is often second-guessed, especially if you’re the father. Societal expectations, particularly from Asian cultures, can be tough. But Pete is determined not to lose out.

The Financial Struggle

Up until the moment he was retrenched, Andrew Kit never thought he would be the one staying home with the kids. He found himself venturing into the homemade food business to earn some income. “It was depressing at first. The financial struggle is the greatest challenge, not being able to be the breadwinner and provide enough kind of consumes you.”

Panda (not her real name) fell into depression for a period of time. “I was literally a stay-at-home mom! Baby was still small (not schooling) and I refused to go or meet anyone.”

The combination of a financial and long-distance relationship-communication struggle took a toll on her. Despite her normal functioning appearance, she had to go through series of counselling and had medication to help her cope and brave through the time.

“The stretch became tougher – having to settle as a single-income household, I felt helpless with no close family to help out. There was no so-called self-owned money to spend. I felt powerless, plus my husband was working away from us. It was a dark and lonely place to be, although it looked like I had it all figured out.”

To Be Seen

There are often great and wondrous praises for a stay-at-home-parent, but many still actually fail to see how underappreciated they are.

Many stay-at-home parents may not have the courage to share this openly, but to them, they just want family and friends to be supportive of their decisions and understand their struggles, big or small.

They may rise above the challenges they go through, day in and day out, and sometimes without a word or complaint. Sometimes a sincere ‘How are you?’ can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes, they just want to be seen.

 

Related Posts:

5 Reasons Why Stay-At-Home Mums Too Deserve Respect

How to Be a Stay-At-Home Mom Without Losing Your Marbles

5 Things to Consider Before You Quit to Be a Stay-At-Home Mum