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Lessons From a Highly Sensitive Mother: Empty Your Bucket, by guest blogger Amanda van Mulligen

It is my pleasure to introduce to you a fellow blogger and very active member of the HSC community. Amanda van Mulligen is a freelance writer. British born, she was whisked off to the Netherlands on a promise of a windmill wedding and now raises three sons with her Dutch husband. She writes about expat life, about living life in a second language and an alien culture, about all things parenting and on the topic of highly sensitive children over on her blog Happy Sensitive Kids. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter (@AmandavMulligen).

When I first read Amanda’s post, I felt like I could have written it myself. Nothing can prepare a new mother for what comes after her baby is born. The drastic lifestyle changes; the non stop feeding/cleaning/changing cycle; the pain; the blues; the crying (by both baby and mom); the questions; the doubt; the sleep deprivation. Ah, the sleep deprivation. And yet, it’s a whole other ball game when the mother is a Highly Sensitive Person with an extremely demanding child. I only wish I had found communities put together by people like Amanda to get the support I so desperately needed.

Enjoy this beautiful post!


When my first son was born he cried a lot. Every evening around six o’clock for four or five hours, unless he was being held in exactly the right position. You could set your watch by it. And he wasn’t exactly a quiet baby during the day either.

There were days when he wouldn’t lie in his bed; he wouldn’t take a nap lying down at all. He would only sleep upright on my shoulder. Sometimes even holding him wasn’t a foolproof solution.

People around me called it colic. The Dutch around me said it was stomach cramps. And when his brother was born we had the same ritual, except the continual crying already started in the afternoon.

I now know my eldest is a highly sensitive child. And, in learning that, I discovered that I too am highly sensitive. That means I need down time. I need alone time. Without it I get cranky. Without a break from people, noise and the daily comings and goings of our busy household I get stressed and tearful.

But I didn’t know that then, whilst my sons cried for hours at a time in my arms. I thought I was a terrible mother, one that got incredibly frustrated when her three-month-old baby failed to comply with the unwritten rule of nap times in his own bed.

I felt on more than one occasion that I wasn’t cut out for motherhood because internally I raged when my son wouldn’t lie in his bed for his needed sleep, not even for ten minutes during the day. Sometimes I even externally raged.

When I couldn’t put him down at all during daylight hours, when my only respite from a baby in my arms was my husband coming home in the evening I felt guilty. Guilty for not being able to cope. Guilty for feeling so upset. I was frazzled and wiped out and it made me feel like I was an unfit mother. And that made me feel even more helpless.

But over the years, watching my eldest son grow up with all his sensitivities, I have learnt to understand myself too.

I’ve learnt I wasn’t a bad mother seven years ago; I was a new mother who barely knew herself.

I know now that the reason my sons’ nap times were so important to me was that it was a physical necessity for me to sit alone, even if it was just for ten minutes, during the day.

When my son was five we started explaining his day in terms of filling a bucket. Every experience, every sound, interaction, smell or touch he has during the day goes into the imaginary bucket he carries around with him. It all goes in unfiltered. His bucket fills quickly, some days quicker than others, but as the bucket gets heavier and close to spilling over we see it reflected in his behaviour. He’s quick to anger, quick to shed a tear, he’s tired, feels stressed, has feelings he cannot explain or understand and generally feels drained and overloaded.

When we know his bucket is filling fast, or we are too late and it is already full, he takes some quiet time out and plays with Lego in his room or in a little camp he makes on the sofa with cushions and blankets, or he listens to classical music or a children’s relaxation CD and he empties his bucket out. When there is room in his bucket for more he joins the world around him again.

That’s when the penny dropped. That peace and quiet at lunchtime, that sacred time when my children napped, that was my moment for emptying my bucket out. Without that time when my babies were sleeping my bucket got dragged around with me for the rest of the afternoon, slopping over with emotions, happenings and the noise of a baby’s relentless cries and my accompanying feelings of helplessness.

In a moment of clarity my guilt, self-doubt and fears about being a fit mother evaporated.

I need quiet time at some point in the day. That’s a fact. Like I need to eat and drink. Like I need interaction with other people. Like I need to breathe. Without it I stop functioning at full capacity.

And now that I know it I build it in to my day, despite being a mother to a seven, four and two year old. My home is a long way from being a quiet sanctuary with three growing boys in it, but one period of quiet time a day is an absolute rule in our home these days. Whilst my youngest sleeps at lunchtime my eldest is at school and my four year old quietly builds or plays, draws, uses his LeapPad or watches TV at a low volume.

During this time I make sure I sit alone. I enjoy the silence. I write. I read. I work. Whatever I do, it is something quiet where I can be alone with my thoughts. I empty my bucket out.

And without this space the rest of the day is a write off.

I just wish I had known all this seven years ago, and avoided the feelings of confusion and guilt. Newborns are hard enough for any new mother, but for a highly sensitive mother the trials of early motherhood somehow hit harder. So be kind to yourself. Give yourself breathing space. Look after your own needs too. Make time to empty your bucket. And most of all let go of the guilt.

Lessons from a Highly Sensitive Mother Sensitive and extraordinary guest blogger

– Amanda van Mulligen


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