I talk a lot about this. On my blog, my social media, guest posts and even podcast interviews. But what is this autopilot I keep going on about? What does living life on autopilot mean? Is it even a real thing?! Okay, maybe I have some explaining to do. So let me tell you what I think living on autopilot means, what it is and how we got here.
The autopilot is a real thing
It’s a brilliant evolutionary feature that our brains have developed over time. And it can serve us very well. Our brain takes up a lot of energy doing the things it needs to do to keep us alive and fully ‘functional’ in this day and age. Human beings (and mums!) are busier than we ever were. Our to-do lists and forever growing and certainly never-ending. Do you ever feel like your brain may explode if you add just one more thing into the mix? That’s because our brains literally cannot cope with so much ‘stuff’ to be dealt with at a conscious level.
So to avoid brain explosions and all that (can’t be pretty), our brains resort to autopilot. The subconscious mind takes over, and our brain essentially goes into energy-saving mode. Think about it – it’d be literally exhausting if we had to pay full attention to every single little thing that we do in our day. That’s why you can brush our teeth pretty mindlessly. And while you do that, you’re free to consciously think about the day ahead (and often have genius ideas then!) These daily habits and consistent behaviours are stored in the brain and can be carried out with little effort or energy. And that’s just perfect when you’re trying to brush your teeth in the morning.
But what happens when the autopilot takes over?
The flipside of this is that we end up with so much on our minds that we go through most of our days without even thinking about it. We’re distracted. And that’s because while we’re having breakfast or walking down the road, we’re busy thinking about something else. Worrying, feeling anxious, planning. Whatever it is for you. Some of the habits and actions we carry out day in and day out become so ingrained that we can’t physically recall doing them. Ever found yourself taking the wrong turn out of habit? Or wondering if you shut the front door because you can’t remember doing it?
The ability to leave on autopilot is a very good thing. It can serve us well. But when the autopilot extends to behaviours we shouldn’t really ‘outsource’ to this area of the brain (see driving or crossing the road) it can become plain dangerous. And even if we take that down a notch and think about things we do day in and day out that aren’t great for us (reaching for the tin of biscuits, having a sandwich because we can’t be bothered to make something healthier for ourselves, or going to bed late because we’ve fallen into a Facebook rabbit hole) then we start having a bit of an issue. Not because these things are inherently bad. But just because we do them all the time without thinking about them. We’ve accidentally created these habits for ourselves. And it’s been ages since we snapped out of this state and made a conscious, intentional decision to do something differently.
In a way, this means that we’ve lost control.
How did we become ‘autopilot mums’?
I think it’s really easy to do, and it’s definitely what happened to me over the years. It’s what slowly but surely led me to my bus accident, breaking my leg and realising it was time to intentionally slow down. It happened over time. Over the years. I became so used to the way I did things that I didn’t think of questioning them. I ended up into this cycle of being around for my children 24/7 hardly ever doing anything by and for myself (except for going to work) or with my husband. Even the fact of going back to work after each of my maternity leave periods was done almost out of habit. I mean, what else could I do? Not work?! The thought didn’t even enter my mind. I wouldn’t even allow myself to step out of the habits I had created. And that included my mental patterns – the way I was thinking. The lens I used to make sense of life.
How do other get here? How do so many mums get to this stage?
We lost the village
Us modern mums, we’re pretty much doing this parenting thing on our own. Most of us don’t have our extended families around. When I was growing up, back in Italy, nearly all of my parents’ siblings lived in the same town. If my mum wasn’t available to pick me up from school, one of my grandparents or uncles and aunties would be there to pick me up. When I was little, when my mum was a work, my grandma would look after my brother and me after school.
Like the vast majority of the other mums I know here in London, most people don’t have this. Even when our relatives aren’t too far away, having easy access to the help and support of other members of the family to look after your children isn’t the thing anymore. We live alone in our nuclear family units, often both parents work, and as the family grows and we add more children to the mix, we end up juggling children of different needs and different ages and stages. Outnumbered. Exhausted. On your own and pulled in millions of different directions.
We’ve got to ‘survive’ motherhood
As we parent together with our (working) partners, motherhood becomes a lonely business. And the isolation means we have to put strategies in place to be able to cope. Let alone thrive and enjoy, for now. There are stages of motherhood when you just have you’re going to going to do whatever you can to just survive this stage.
Just until the baby is out of nappies.
Just until they all start sleeping through the night.
Or until you get that new, part-time job.
But that day never comes. Because a phase is always followed by another one. Things getting easier on one front don’t necessarily mean things getting easier overall.
Plus, surviving motherhood (or parenthood) for that matter is the phrase that’s been branded about the most. Living motherhood isn’t a thing. If everyone else is in survival mode, then it must be ‘normal’ and good-enough, right? Every night, as we fall into bed numb and exhausted, we’re happy to have survived another day. Considering everything that’s going on, survival is a win. For now, we don’t (can’t!) put any effort into trying to do anything else. But that keeps us stuck on autopilot.
We have learned to ignore the signals our bodies and minds are sending us
We get really good at this.
Because if we still had ‘the village’, as new mums we’d be pampered and fed for weeks, if not months by the other female members of our ‘tribe’. We’d get help. Support. Physical and emotional. But our reality is a bit different. Two days after the birth of our youngest, we’re at the school gates picking up the other children. We don’t have the luxury to disconnect from the outside world as we recover and recuperate. As we adjust (physically, mentally and emotionally) to being mums. In fact, forget that. As we fly solo with our partners at work, we don’t even have the luxury to take a shower when we want. To eat when we feel hungry. And do I need to even mention the sleep?
Because when the baby needs a feed, a nappy change, or just a cuddle to go back to sleep, you get up. It doesn’t matter whether your body likes it or not. You do it. You don’t get the chance to say no. Right now, you know your baby’s needs are more immediate and pressing than yours, so you ignore your own needs. The problem is that the days turn into weeks. The weeks turn into months. And the months turn into years.
And we’re still ignoring our own needs. Prioritising our children’s. Because we’re used to it. In an attempt to cope, survive and keep our sanity in the process, we’ve switched to autopilot. Over time, we train ourselves to ignore the signals our body sends us. So we no longer know when it’s time to slow down or stop. Because our bodies and our minds need to go the extra length to get our attention. Our body starts to ‘give up’ in a more obvious way (frequent colds and infections, for example) and our mind tries to get our attention in more blatant ways too (maybe panic attacks or episodes of anxiety or heightened emotions).
How are we going to get out of this?
In a nutshell, for me, is about making an intention to change, working out how we want to feel, and taking regular steps to get there. Not easy. So not easy that I’ve just drafted a whole book about this. Because we can’t run our lives on autopilot. Or we’ll miss out on our present and feel that time is flying by and we’re not really connected with what’s going on. This is what leads us to feeling like we’ve lost control. Powerless and disempowered. Potentially resentful, unfulfilled and overall unhappy. The cherry on top is the guilt that comes with all of these feelings. Because of course, you should be feeling grateful for everything you have in your life. And yet, sometimes it’s hard to feel that way.
I believe we can change. We should try to change.
But what do YOU think? Does it feel like you’re living your life on autopilot? Or was there a time in your life when you did?