Sometimes both of my adorable children have a leaking diaper at the same time. Sometimes both are crying. They are like extra appendages—almost always with me, they teach me to move in new patterns. To prune the bushes with the shears at a weird angle because I have a baby strapped to my chest; to feel my way down the stairs with a snail’s caution because I have a child in each arm; to wiggle sideways out of bed so as not to wake the sleeping infant; to get the toddler out of the high chair with one arm instead of two.
The physicality of pregnancy and labor was merely boot camp for this. I’m definitely more buff than I once was (you may have heard the term “pumping baby”).
Most of the time I don’t mind living, Geppetto-style, inside the belly of the parenting whale. There’s a definite sense of accomplishment in helping a 23-month-old bake muffins without covering the kitchen in eggs and flour while simultaneously getting his fussy three-month-old sister to sleep in the Ergo, or to slicing up a pear with one hand while holding a spitting-up infant in the other. I’d like to see Ironman do that.
Besides, my kids are pretty amazing. My toddler has just started to play with toys as characters, and now his favorite stuffed lamb likes to do all the same things he does. My baby (when she isn’t screaming at me for having the effrontery to put her down) coos at me in the most adoring way. Who wouldn’t love these two? Parenting makes me feel strong, competent, and very blessed.
Like All Moms, Sometimes I Can’t Take It
Except that sometimes, it doesn’t. Even with a supportive husband, it is sometimes—without apparent warning—too much. Funnily enough, a while ago, I started writing an article about how mothering two little ones really isn’t anything by which to be intimidated; and then I had a bad week.
During the good weeks (these coincide with more sleep) I usually forget about the hard weeks—which, not so coincidentally, usually correspond with less sleep. You know those mornings when you shed a tear or two at the realization that you’re going to have to get out of bed even though you’re so tired?
The line between “Parenting is wonderful” and “I will die if I can’t spend half an hour away from this baby” is surprisingly fuzzy. This realization leaves me thinking about cultural ideas on the need for “me-time.” It is often tied to a strange fear that motherhood will diminish one’s self, or steal one’s identity—as if serving others instead of prioritizing one’s own dreams is to betray truth and goodness.
Yet it is also undeniable that the whole family suffers if mothers’ own genuine needs are unmet. As Jenny Jordan, a blogger, said in a recent article, “As women, we are born to give, to care, to nurse, to love unconditionally. It is our great gift from our Creator. . . . But every gift is damaged by the Fall (save that One Gift, our Second Adam). And so our giving, caring, nursing, and loving make us weary, scramble our days, and become burdens rather than the joyful vocation they are meant to be.”
Don’t Stress the Small Stuff
I’ve been wondering how I ought to think about caring for my own needs, and how I ought to identify my real needs versus my selfish preferences or my misguided expectations.
It doesn’t help that much of the popular advice on this score is impractical for me. A lot of it seems to stem from an effort to periodically pretend that one isn’t a parent—to take an overnight trip without a nursing baby, go regularly for a mani-pedi, or demand large chunks of child-free leisure time.
To claim that regular, long breaks from one’s children are necessary to mental health is to fight the reality that the season of one’s life has changed. We don’t need to think of this as a loss any more than we need to weep for summer at the sight of autumn colors. It is better to sip our pumpkin spice latte, rake up the leaves, and revel in the season which we have been given.
What, then, are we to do? Surprisingly enough, I found encouragement in a Washington Post article entitled, “What Gen X Parents Need to Learn About Taking Care of Themselves First.” The author says,
If only Gen X parents understood self-care not as extravagant pampering that requires large chunks of time away from children, but as tending to our physical, mental and spiritual needs in small ways – like a quiet bath with tea, a solo walk or run, coffee with a friend, or prayers before bed – then our children might learn it, too. Instead, so many of us have convinced ourselves that our children are so special and so deserving of our attention, that we will tend to their needs before tending to our own.
The author’s categories of “physical, mental, and spiritual” are worth considering. You don’t need me to tell you to sleep when you can and to eat nutritious food even if the baby must cry while you snatch, chop, or saute it.
Refresh Your Mind
The second category is more tricky. There aren’t many universal recipes for mental rejuvenation: it’s a very individual thing. Back when I was feeling that mothering my new baby was too much, my husband took the kids for a long walk so I could write. Being able to focus on nothing but words and ideas made me feel like a person again, rather than a mere milk machine. It let me start that new week with renewed strength. I don’t think this need of mine is selfish. I think it is simply part of how I was made.
It is good to pay attention to the things that give us the equivalent of food and sleep for our minds. It is different for different people, but I think that almost all of us draw more real energy from creation than consumption. The joy from making of beautiful things tends to last me longer than the fun of watching another show on Netflix.
To prioritize making something—to knit a hat, practice piano, garnish a meal, embroider a pillow, arrange a bouquet, redecorate a shelf the children can’t reach, write an article for Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife—is a goal worth letting the laundry pile get bigger. Sometimes we simply can’t do anything that requires two hands, but we can always make a Pinterest board of the things we’ll craft once the baby learns to nap in her bed. Not, ahem, that I’ve ever done that.
Discovering which things truly feed us requires that we also acknowledge which fun things we can safely put on hold, then put them on hold as cheerfully as possible. We can put nearly everything on hold if we must.
Realizing that we do so as a conscious choice, a deliberate investment in our children and husband, can be liberating. When my son was a newborn, I would find myself saying that he “wouldn’t let me” do things; and I felt better once I admitted to myself that I could have put him down to scream, but that I chose to prioritize his happiness in that moment over my desire to do my thing.
Loving What’s Good, and Being Loved by It
Embracing our choices (which, of course, are really privileges) only works if you allow yourself to believe the truth that what we do at home is good. Blogger Rebekah comments in this post that perhaps the fate we millennials “fear above all else” is of failing to reach our full potential. We think that we must be mothers plus something else (something more “impressive,” something more valuable, something that the world can see) in order to glorify God. Yet God is the One who gave us this family, these children, this life. We are being his mask to our children. Our work is quite big enough to be getting on with.
Another aspect of this mindset is learning to find refreshment and creativity right amongst the daily tasks as well as in breaks from them. I end each day more happily when I make a point of noticing how cute my children are, of periodically engaging with them fully instead of trying to multitask all of the time, and of choosing to enjoy activities that involve them.
Leaves and rocks can become quite interesting when you are hanging out with a toddler. Focusing on pieces of gravel doesn’t always come naturally to me, but I’m working on it. I uninstalled Facebook from my phone yesterday, so that should help.
I appreciate the Washington Post author’s acknowledgement of spiritual needs. As a Lutheran, I rejoice in the gift of word and Sacrament. I am blessed to be the recipient of God’s grace in this way. How joyous it is to know that when I arrive in church or open my Bible at home, God is accomplishing his good work in my soul. He saves me, feeds me, sanctifies me, and makes me whole. I’m glad that even though I’m not as good at paying attention in church as I was before a certain two little people were born, that doesn’t matter. I am given what I need.
Raising little ones is consuming. Fortunately for us, we don’t need to cling to “me-time” as our armor against losing ourselves. Down here in the belly of the parenting whale, I am finding whole new angles of myself that didn’t used to exist. New strengths, new weaknesses, new needs for chocolate.
I am growing up rather than sacrificing my true identity. That is a good and blessed thing. Sometimes I forget how good it is, but the beautiful thing about life is that the rhythm—the ebb and flow—continues. Lovely days follow the headaches. Baby kisses follow toddler tantrums. Fuzzy as the line between happiness and insanity might be, I am grateful to live this life. Especially when I get to write articles.