After the birth of my son (oops! I mean our son), my partner kept telling me I’d changed; that I was a whole new person and he didn’t know me anymore. I vehemently disagreed: “I’m the same person I’ve always been! I’m more myself now than I’ve ever been! I’m being a mom! This is what mothers do. You just don’t know how to make the sacrifices of a parent!” Never mind that he was a single parent to his six year old son before I met him. Never mind that he knew me before I had a baby. Never mind that we used to have intelligent conversations about adult things. Clearly, he was wrong and he just didn’t understand me. He just didn’t understand how important and special my (our) baby was. He didn’t get how important it was to eat the right food, choose the right toys, provide the right experiences, censor out the inappropriate influences… He didn’t understand my need to be the perfect mom.
Now, in my defense, I was probably a little (or a lot) “postpartum-ish.” I had hormones racing through my body. I was sleep-deprived. I was in the throes of that genetically programmed survival-of-the-species, must-protect-baby-at-all-costs thing (I learned a lot of clinical language in graduate school) that happens to new mothers. Add that to my own I-can-do-everything-by-myself, I-don’t-need-anyone attitude and I’m sure I was a nightmare to live with. It would have been fine if he didn’t insist on having opinions about things. If he could have just understood my inherent “rightness” and his obvious “wrongness” we would have had a blissful time in our relationship. Unfortunately, he could not get on board with that program. So, we hit a lot of bumps along the way. But, here we are.
Looking back, I can see that maybe, he was a teeny bit right (don’t tell him I said that). I had changed. Not in my attitudes toward motherhood. I was exactly the kind of mother I thought I’d be. I was not particularly surprised by the amount of work, the lack of sleep, the shift in all my priorities, the sacrifices I needed to make. Many women are caught off guard by the demands placed on them by motherhood, but I felt (somewhat) prepared for this (though I believe that there is no way to fully understand the experience of motherhood without being a mother). I still had my basic personality – with heightened emotional reactivity. But what happened to all the parts of me that were active before motherhood? Who was I before I was a mom? Before every waking breath was about meeting the needs of my family? Before my name became “Blake’s mom” or “Von’s step-mom?”
Quite simply, and perhaps selfishly, before I had a family my life was about me. Before family, I was on a quest to deepen my knowledge of myself and others. I sought experiences that stretched my comfort level, challenged my intellect, inspired my creativity and deepened my understanding of human nature. I took classes, read books, watched people, traveled when I could. I sang, danced, meditated, hiked, created art and spent time in nature. I enjoyed philosophical debates. I went to the theatre. I lived a juicy life.
So what happened? Where did all of that go? Is it not important anymore? I spent over 10 years in academia because I love learning. Now my mental workout consists of keeping schedules straight, helping with homework, and trying to figure out how many ways I can camouflage broccoli.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love being a mom. I find it immensely rewarding and I truly believe it is the most important job on the planet. My children never cease to amuse and amaze me. And in many regards, my life is fuller than it has ever been. But I still wonder if I’m not missing something. I wonder if I have achieved the proper (and ever elusive) “balance.”
There are two things I know (well, I’d like to think I know more than that – but two things of relevance to this particular conversation):
- Children learn first and foremost by example.
- It is easier for me to be generous of time, energy and spirit when I feel happy.
These are the two biggest arguments I can think of to support the need for a mom to take care of herself – I mean, beyond the basics. It is not enough to be fed and sheltered. Mothers need to tend to their hearts. They need to nurture their happiness with as much care and attention as they give the scraped knees and hurt feelings of their children. Tending to my own well-being is supremely important to the well-being of my children.
Ok, so now what? How do we take this from theory into action? First of all, let me start by saying that I do not have this all figured out. Plenty of days I can be found disheveled and disoriented dragging my kids through the grocery store and screaming at them to stop touching everything in sight and to give me a moment’s peace so I can figure out what to cook for dinner because we are all starving. So, I have not yet achieved maternal enlightenment. But I do have a vision of something better.
I know it has to start with the basics and expand from there. If I am hungry for nourishing food (note “nourishing” – that means protein, vitamins and all that other good stuff), thirsty (our bodies need water – diet coke does not count!) or tired (ok, I know this is a tough one, but we really need to try) I am not a fun mom. Without taking care of those basic things, I am short-tempered, easily annoyed, have no energy and definitely do not want to go for a walk or play a game of Uno. So, first we need to take care of our bodies. But we can’t stop there. We must also tend to our hearts.
It is true that mothers must sacrifice much of themselves for their families. But we can’t give it all away. It is imperative to find ways to replenish ourselves. Now, a day at the spa or a weekend retreat might do wonders for our sense of well-being. But it is not always practical and is next to impossible for most new mothers and mothers of young children. I am talking about a need to integrate self-care into our daily routines.
A few years ago I was at one of those home parties with a sales rep selling skin care products. As I was sniffing lip balms and trying creams I commented on the futility of me spending a bunch of money on anti-aging skin care because I would never take the time to use all the products. The sales person looked at me said “if you can’t take six minutes for yourself every night, you have a much bigger problem than skin care.” Now, I know she was trying to make a sale, but she spoke volumes of truth. I may not be able to spend a weekend getting pampered, but surely I can find 10 minutes a day to do something nice for myself.
In You Are Your Child’s First Teacher (1989), Rahima Baldwin Dancy suggests a few important ways to increase our vital energy: sleep (I know I already said that, but it is worth saying twice), creative activity, contact with nature, meditation and/or time alone. My challenge to you (and me) is to take 10 minutes for yourself today (I will challenge you again tomorrow – but start with today). First, make sure the kids are safe and occupied. Get yourself a drink of water. Find a (relatively) quiet place to be alone (lock yourself in the bathroom if you have to). If you really want to splurge and feel special, light a candle and put on some tranquil music. Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Exhale as slowly as you can. Relax. That’s it. Just 10 minutes of quiet time. If you find yourself making lists in your head of all the things you have to do, that’s ok. Just gently remind yourself that you can tend to your list in 10 minutes. Then bring your attention back to your breathing.
Now, I know this is not a magic pill. This will not end world hunger, fix broken marriages or solve child-rearing dilemmas. But do this, or something similar, every day and I’ll bet something changes inside you. You will be one step closer to living the life you imagined for yourself back when you had time to think and daydream. You will be one step closer to showing your children how to live a fulfilling life. Isn’t that what you want for them?
I know what I want for my children. I want them to be actively engaged with the world. I do not want them to live passively while watching other people have experiences on television. I want them to live enthusiastically with curiosity and gratitude; to feel deeply, to love fully, to search for truth and to savor every moment. The best way to ensure that happens is to show them, by example, how to do it.
So, I ask you: “what is important to you? What do you want for your children? What do you want them to value in this world? What experiences do you want them to have?“ And most importantly, “Are you teaching them, through your example, how to be happy?”☺
First Published 2007