Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Walk out that door

One of the most challenging things about motherhood for me is that there are no breaks. There’s no day off, there’s no vacation - in fact vacation can often feel like a more difficult version of daily life as schedules get disrupted, planning for our food can get tricky and everybody’s running low on sleep. No one gives mothers permission to take a break. There’s no national program where every mom gets three hours of free babysitting every week so she can get her hair cut or go to her OBGYN alone or take a damn nap. This basically exists in France and I wish I could unread Bringing up Bebe so I didn’t have to know that French mothers get to go shopping or go to the gym solo on the government’s dime.

I think that even if I had had run-of-the-mill children, I would have sucked pretty bad at taking breaks from motherhood. But I had Ellie and she’s been hard. I have felt for a very long time like I’m the only person in the world who can care for her. There have been many times when I’ve tried to relax and let go for a couple of hours, and her caregiver ends up feeding her the wrong foods and I return to a little girl with a tummy ache. It just didn’t feel worth it. So for a very long time, I didn’t take breaks.

After I had our second child, August, I felt completely overwhelmed all over again with the demands of a newborn, another colicky baby. I figured out pretty quickly what to eat and what not to eat to keep him comfortable, but again buried myself under the overwhelming responsibility that I was the only one who could care for him. August seemed to have food allergies but it was hard to pinpoint what he was reacting to. Finally, well into his second year, we discovered he was allergic to peanuts. That scared me. Peanut allergies are not to be messed with. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone and so I did it very rarely. Perhaps every new mama goes through this phase with each new baby - that time of bonding and feeling like only mama will do is so special, and doesn’t last forever.

But there comes a time when that feeling that it’s not ok to let go, even for a few hours, becomes dysfunctional. This winter, that time arrived for me.

I started feeling resentful - toward my kids and toward this choice that I had made to stay home with my kids. I started yelling more. Even though I was around my kids almost 100% of the time, I wasn’t truly present. I was staring at screens. I was letting our afternoon quiet time go on and on because I just wanted to be alone. I wasn’t planning fun things for us to do. I was being reactive and I wasn’t happy.

I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. I became convinced that the problem was that I wasn’t well-suited to homeschooling and staying home full-time with my kids. I decided I probably needed to go back to work to be happy. I entertained the idea of a new career. I looked into programs, considered furthering my education and started making tentative plans. But that didn’t feel right either.

I backed off the whole quitting homeschooling and going back to work thing and just sat with this really uncomfortable feeling for quite a while. Weeks. Months.

And as the time passed, some things got easier. During the winter Ellie tested positive for SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth). We treated it, and magically we were able to successfully reintroduce a bunch of foods back into her diet. Her tummy aches have been much fewer and farther between and her symptoms of interstitial cystitis have also improved. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better. After multiple attempts at night weaning, August amazingly started sleeping through the night on a trip to visit family and after we returned he accepted that night nursing was over. He started sleeping through the night. I still feel like I have to knock on wood every time I say that, but it’s really true. There is absolutely nothing better than a full night’s sleep and after about a month in a row of good sleep I felt like a completely different person.

I read the book The Last Best Cure by Donna Jackson Nakazawa and the book basically changed my entire life. That’s all. ;) Nakazawa talks about the importance of mind-body work like meditation, yoga and acupuncture to heal autoimmune disease. She speaks from experience as a person suffering from multiple autoimmune diseases, juggling a career and life as a wife and mom, and feeling stuck in the place where she felt she had reached the end of the line with Western medicine. When it seemed like there was nothing else her doctors could do for her, she started a year-long experiment incorporating simple techniques and practices to bring mindfulness and healing to her body and spirit. (Spoiler alert: it worked.) In many ways this book provided the permission I had so badly been needing to step away and take time for myself.

It was like when I was little and in school and the teacher wrote me a hall pass to leave the classroom to attend to some other important task. I needed a hall pass to start going to yoga again. I needed a hall pass to get a massage.

We had been occasionally using a high school girl as a babysitter and my husband suggested that we ask her to come on a regular schedule. It’s important to me that we have the same babysitter over and over again, so I don’t need to go over the kids’ food situation each time I leave the house, which just amps up my stress about departing even more. It can be so hard to find a sitter who is trustworthy and takes instructions seriously so I count myself lucky that we’ve found one.

So I started stepping out more. I committed to a once-a-week yoga class. This did not happen effortlessly. I think it took four weeks in a row of getting dressed for class and then not making it out the door because August was crying and didn’t want me to go, my husband was stuck in traffic and not home in time, I forgot to start dinner in time, etc. etc. etc. and finally around that fifth week everything feel into place and I was able to get out the door.

I visited the sauna and got a massage. I stopped by a restaurant to have lunch by myself on the weekend. My husband took the kids to the beach by himself for the day. Sometimes I just go somewhere and read a book. Even though Ellie was nearly three when she had hear first overnight with my parents, we started sending August along starting at 18 months and he has done great. So every month or so my kids go to their grandparents for an overnight and my husband and I get to go out and sleep in and generally remember why we decided to do this whole marriage and family thing in the first place.

Thank goodness for date night.

Right now the sitter comes for three hours on Wednesday afternoons and another three or four hours on the weekend so my husband and I can go on a date. This is SO important for me - my relationship with my husband is of the utmost importance. He is my best friend and we are in a seriously intense phase of marriage with two small kids and his really demanding job.

The big lesson this past winter has taught me is that no one is going to hold my hand and walk me out the door to yoga class. No one is going to show up and say “You know what, mama? You’re doing a great job! You deserve a day off!” I needed to ask for that time, I needed to ask for my husband’s support and in turn get a babysitter’s support and I needed to hold firm boundaries around protecting that time for myself.

And the best part? I’m a better mama for it. I have renewed energy for my kids. I get to go fill up my own introverted cup and then come home and give of myself willingly, not begrudgingly. It feels nice to be the one who the kids shout with glee for when I walk in the door. And I think it’s healthy for them to see me take time for myself. Self-care doesn’t come naturally to all of us, and it’s important that I model that, especially for Ellie.

Things aren’t perfect. Things are never, ever perfect. There is no such thing. But there is more balance now, in a phase of life that is inherently imbalanced. And now, I’m off to yoga.

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