I’ve always thrived on stress – the right kind of stress, that is. Workplace stress. Meeting deadlines, dealing with difficult people, getting stuff done. But parental stress is a whole different ballgame. I’m sure my blood pressure has reached dangerous levels since becoming the head of the household. And it’s all down to my kids: nagging them to tidy their rooms, shouting at them to stop bickering, worrying about them in pretty much any situation where there is an element of peril. (‘WALK down the stairs; don’t LEAP.’)
My Successful Other Half wrote about this when she was a columinst for one of Britain’s biggest women’s magazine, strapped a blood pressure monitor to her arm to test how stressful being a parent really is…
One minute the bathroom was tidy, the next there was a towel in the bath, toothpaste on the mirror, water all over the floor, and someone had put my facecloth in the toilet.
‘It was him,’ said the eight-year-old pointing to the five-year-old.
‘It was him,’ said the five-year-old pointing at the toddler.
The toddler just grinned.
As I stood there, my breathing quickened, my jaw clenched and the vein on the side of my head start to twitch and throb.
‘If you lot don’t start behaving,’ I muttered, ‘I’m going to have a heart attack.’
I made myself a cup of tea to calm down but just as I took a gulp, my breathing went funny again and I almost choked on my PG Tips.
But this time it wasn’t the kids sending me over the edge. It was this headline in the newspaper: Being a mum actually REDUCES your blood pressure
According to research, mothers have significantly lower blood pressure than childless women. This is apparently because parenthood gives them a sense of purpose and meaning which helps to reduce stress and put the hassles of life into perspective.
‘Ha! What a load of rubbish!’ I said to The Partner Who Is Not My Husband that evening. ‘Having kids doesn’t reduce stress. It causes stress. I bet my blood pressure is sky high.’
‘When did you last have it checked?’ The Partner asked.
‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘you should find out.’
But I wanted to know than my blood pressure level as I sat in the doctor’s waiting room. I wanted know if the research was right. Did being a mother reduce your blood pressure or did it, as I suspected, send it skyrocketing? So I bought myself a small home testing kit to carry around with me and record my blood pressure as I went about my daily routine.
According to the Blood Pressure Association, we should all have blood pressure at or below 120/80. At this level we have a much lower risk of heart disease or a stroke. I wondered what my blood pressure would be after a week with my three kids.
We slept in. Just as I was throwing cereal into bowls, I remembered that the five-year-old needed a packed lunch for a school trip and the eight-year-old had a swimming lesson.
I slapped some cheese in a roll, fished a swimming costume from the laundry basket, splashed milk over cornflakes and dragged a comb through three tousled manes.
I pulled on a coat, hurled hats, coats and gloves at the kids and shoved them towards the door.
‘I’ve only got one glove,’ said the five-year-old.
‘Tough,’ I said. ‘Car! Now!’
I battled with the children’s seatbelts. The traffic was terrible. It was raining so hard I could hardly see through the wipers. Another driver cut me up on the roundabout. And as I got out of the car I stepped in a puddle.
Blood pressure reading: 164/68 (high blood pressure)
The school run was much calmer but when I got home and stepped into the kids’ bedroom, I began to experience a familiar tightening in my chest.
‘Look at this place!’ I said to the toddler. ‘How do they get it so messy?’
I made beds, I put away clothes and I sorted toys into boxes. Then I loaded the washing machine in the kitchen. It was a moment or two before I realised the toddler had gone quiet.
I went back to the bedroom and let out a cry. The floor that had been tidy just moments before was once again covered in Lego, crayons, books and toys. And at the centre of it all, grinning madly, was the toddler.
Blood pressure reading: 138/79 (normal to high)
The pestering began the moment we left the school gates.
‘Please Mum, please,’ said the kids. ‘Just 15 minutes.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Ten then?’ said the eight-year-old. ‘Five? One? Thirty seconds? Please, oh, please.’
I said: ‘There will be no Club Penguin until all homework is done.’
Ever since they’d discovered the online game, my children had become obsessed with playing it. While they were online it was impossible to get them to do anything else. Especially homework.
‘That is so unfair,’ said the eight-year-old. ‘I hate you!’
The five-year-old snaked an arm around my leg.
‘Don’t worry, Mum,’ he said. ‘I still love you.’
‘Thanks, love,’ I said.
He smiled up at me. Then he said: ‘Does that mean I can go on Club Penguin?’
Blood pressure reading: 149/82 (high)
I took the toddler to the park. After a turn on the climbing frame, the slide and the swings it was time to go.
The toddler had other ideas.
He ran off to the sandpit. I ran after him. He ran to the roundabout. I ran after him. He tried to climb on the see-saw. I nabbed him. So he filled his lungs and let out a blood-freezing scream. Followed by another one and another.
Around me, necks craned and heads turned to look.
But the toddler hadn’t finished. He wriggled and jiggled and thrashed about in my arms. He slapped my face and pulled my hair.
‘Stop that,’ I said in my best Supernanny voice.
‘Stop it and I’ll give you a million pounds…and a chocolate,’ I whispered in his ear.
I wrestled him all the way home and then collapsed on the sofa.
Blood pressure reading: 165/87 (high)
I was midway through a pile of ironing when the phone rang. It was the school. The five-year-old had fallen in the playground.
‘There’s a nasty cut on his head,’ the teacher explained.
I grabbed the toddler and ran all the way to school, my heart thumping. I burst through the school gate expecting to see my child screaming and covered in blood.
Instead he was sitting on the floor playing with some bricks.
‘Ugh!’ he said. ‘What are you doing here?’
Just then my phone rang again. It was the eight-year-old.
‘Mum, it’s Friday!’ she said. ‘You forgot to pack my leotard for gym.’
We jumped in the car, drove to gym club, delivered the leotard and I relaxed. Then I thought: ‘Heavens! I’ve left the iron on.’
Blood pressure reading: 182/110 (very high)
‘See?’ I said to The Partner that evening. ‘I told you having kids gives you high blood pressure. Being a mum is tough.’
I switched on the TV and flopped on to the sofa. The kids climbed up beside me. As I sat happily on the sofa with a child under each arm and one on my knee, The Partner said: ‘Are you happy?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Then take your blood pressure now,’ he said.
I strapped the monitor to my arm, pressed the button and the cuff on my arm inflated. I waited a moment and my reading was displayed: 117/67
I checked my blood pressure chart. This was perfectly healthy, nothing like the readings I’d taken over the last five days. It made no sense.
But then, as I scanned all the readings I had taken, I realised something. The moments when my blood pressure had shot up had occurred just once or twice a day. For the rest of the time, my life rolled on fairly smoothly, contentedly even.
When my blood pressure rose it was a blip, rather than the norm – unlike the 30% of women in the UK who have consistently high blood pressure.
Perhaps the researchers were right. Perhaps being a parent did create a general sense of well-being. Trouble was I’d been too focused on the little problems to notice the bigger picture. Yes, being a mum is hard work. Yes, it is frustrating. Yes, it brings me close to tears at times. But for the most part it is the best thing about my life. And that’s not just me talking. That’s straight from my heart.