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How a simple mindset shift made me a better parent (and human being)

Being a new parent, while rewarding, can be extraordinarily challenging. I am writing this almost four months into the journey of being a new dad, and by far the toughest aspect of parenting at this early stage has been being emotionally available to our little one while simultaneously being significantly sleep deprived. It’s not something you can really comprehend unless you have had children yourself, or taken the time to really listen to what other parents have experienced.

Sleep deprivation is known to damage our most prized relationships, as we become less empathetic and more focused on self-preservation. Staying calm and collected becomes more difficult as our nervous system puts us on high alert, making noises more acute and more difficult to manage. Essentially, at a time when our hyper vulnerable child needs us the most and is crying out for our love and support, we can become a lesser version of ourselves and less able to provide them with what they need.

Yet, while we are often reminded of the detriments of not getting enough sleep, the impact that sleep deprivation has on us can vary widely. A recent study found that those who believed that sleep deprivation would hamper their performance later that day, saw a much more significant drop in their performance compared to those who believed that sleep deprivation would have little impact on them.

However, when it’s the middle of the night and your little one is crying relentlessly with no sign of respite, it can be all too easy to enter into self-preservation mode, where we become the centre of our universe, and we ponder why we aren’t able to simply get the sleep we so desperately crave and need. In those moments, we risk becoming the victim of our circumstances which can all too easily risk undermining the fragile bond we have with our small child.

I read a really helpful article that reminded me how a newborn child experiences the world - having spent the best part of nine months safely cocooned with in the womb of their mother, they enter this completely alien word where they feel utterly alone and helpless and simply crave love and nurture. Yet, it can be hard to remind ourselves of that view point when all you can think about is how desperately you crave sleep.

What I found much more helpful was a subtle shift in my mindset that gave me back a sense of purpose and which brought the focus firmly back, not on any sleep deprivation I may be experiencing, but on what my child needed in that moment. Professor of Behavioural Science, Paul Dolan, talks about the importance of purpose in his book Happiness by Design. He weighs up that while we may find pleasurable activities, well, pleasurable, they don't necessarily fuel our happiness if those activities are devoid of purpose. Equally, just because something isn't pleasurable doesn't mean it won't boost our overall happiness, as long as the activity is purposeful. We need to find the right balance.

Being woken up in the middle of the night certainly wasn't pleasurable, but it had the very real possibility of being purposeful, thereby improving my overall wellbeing rather than detracting from it. However, I had been struggling to pull myself out of the downward sleep deprived cycle which had been accumulating over several weeks and months, which meant that the 2am, 3am and 4am wake up calls felt anything but meaningful. Even though I had a wealth of wellbeing knowledge, the answer didn't come to me straight away, but when it did, its simplicity brought a smile to my face.

In psychology, when faced with an insurmountable problem which we simply don’t feel equipped to solve, we are asked to step outside the limitations of our own mind and embody the mind of someone much wiser than us. It has been shown to enable people to coach themselves out of challenging situations which may have otherwise kept them stuck indefinitely. I hadn’t thought of using that technique to improve my parenting, until a couple of weeks ago, when I became acutely aware of my lack of empathy for my distressed son in the middle of the night, being instead far more focused on my own sleep deprived discomfort.

Yet, when I asked myself how I could be, not the best version of me (even the best version of me wasn't a great parent, yet), but the best dad our little one needed in that moment, something inside of me shifted quite dramatically. Suddenly I found myself channeling my inner Liam Neeson from Love Actually and Bill Nighy from About Time and felt a renewed sense of why I was there in that moment, to hold and support my vulnerable son who was relying on me to provide him with the love and support he needed to feel safe and nurtured.

When we are fuelled by a sense of purpose, we can overcome almost anything. We can move mountains (or at least climb them more readily). We can endure more pain, not least because the pain we experience becomes subjectively less (experiments have shown that our pain threshold doubles - we release more endorphins - when we feel a sense of shared purpose and connectedness to others, which by attuning myself with my son's needs I achieved).

Of course, it's not just in parenting. When we contribute to something greater than ourselves, in life or at work, we supercharge our sense of purpose and, with it, our wellbeing and our ability to overcome (almost) anything.

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