The Care and Keeping of Me

IMG_0672One whole shelf of our bookcase is dedicated to parenting books. There’s Babywise and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child – reminders of the sleepless first 10 months of my son’s life. Without fail he would wake up two, three, four times a night, despite my best efforts to keep him asleep. I read them frantically, devotedly, sure they held the key my sleep-starved body was longing for. (For the record, none of the tricks worked, but he’s now five and sleeps like a rock from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night. Solidarity, tired mommas.)

Next to the sleeping books that beget very little additional shuteye in our house, you’ll find the What to Expect set – a misnamed series if ever there was one. Most of pregnancy and the first year of motherhood were muttered oaths followed by why didn’t anyone WARN me?!?

Holding up the end of the shelf is a behemoth from the American Academy of Pediatrics that only gets consulted when a weird rash pops up at 2 a.m. (because that kind of thing never happens during office hours), plus a couple of “humorous” books received as gifts.

The books on that shelf purport to hold the answers to all of my parenting questions. If the books somehow fail me, there’s the whole wide world of Google. I can find out the right dose of Tylenol for a teething five month old and watch YouTube swaddling videos. There’s a seemingly endless fount of information on how to make, birth and care for a baby, right at my fingertips.

But what about me? Where are the books and the experts who can tell me how to take care of me?

Almost two years ago, I was staring down the last few days of a maternity leave that just wasn’t long enough. Ellie still wouldn’t nap anywhere other than on my chest. Her eating schedule was every hour and a half (two hours on a really good day) and she hated bottles, so it was all me, all the time. We’d also just found out she had dairy and soy allergies, which meant my diet was reduced to apples and water … or so it felt. Postpartum women are known for their dramatics.

Compounding the realities of life with a hard baby, I’d taken Ellie by my office that day for the obligatory meet and greet. After a conversation or two, I learned that literally nothing on my “please do while I’m out” list had actually been done. The number of projects, hugely overdue and awaiting my return, was daunting. Frustrated and overwhelmed, I cried the whole way home.

That night once Nathan was in bed, Jon and I had a deep, heartfelt marriage talk. Just kidding; we had a preschooler and a newborn. Deep and heartfelt weren’t exactly in our wheelhouse at the time. I believe the conversation actually went something like this:

Me: It was awful visiting work today. I don’t want to go back.
Jon: Well … then don’t.
Me: Seriously?
Jon: Seriously. Quit your job. We’ll make it work.

So I did. And we did. It wasn’t easy, especially those first few months. Not only were we a dual income household, we were a 50/50 income household – which meant we had just slashed our budget in half. The belt tightening felt more like a corset. We ate spaghetti every week for a couple of months and it was an extraordinarily lean Christmas, but we managed. By January, I’d landed some regular part-time work for a non-profit and Jon had gotten an unexpected raise, which built a little breathing room into our budget.

But what our budget gained, my sanity lost. Every morning I was up at 5:30 or 6 to feed Ellie, and the marathon was on. I pushed on through a full day of occupying an infant and a four year old; balancing feedings and fort building, trying to prove that I could do this stay at home mom thing. I managed to get both children’s naps overlapping for one hour of the day, and I used that hour to tackle the mountain of laundry or do a little cleaning. Then came the whirlwind of dinner, bath and bedtime, followed by working another few hours and finally crawling in bed at midnight. Between my highly-restricted diet and a daughter who nursed all the freaking time, the baby weight dropped off quickly. It kept dropping though, and within a few short months I was down nearly 30 pounds from my pre-pregnancy weight. I was the thinnest I’ve ever been, with everyone complimenting how “great” I looked. But I was also exhausted and lifeless. The tears came regularly and over the silliest of things, but what worried me more was the rage I would feel sometimes. It felt like I was hanging on by the thinnest of threads. I went to see my OB/GYN, but she insisted it wasn’t postpartum depression. In desperation, I reached out to a nutritional consultant. I was still losing at least two pounds a week, and with another six months of nursing on deck at a minimum, something had to be done.

The consultant was wonderful. She asked gentle questions about what I was eating and how much, and how frequently Ellie was nursing.

“It sounds like you’re not replacing everything that’s going out,” she told me. “You’re trying to operate from a place of depletion, and your body can’t keep up with that for very long.”

I knew she was talking about calories and proteins and healthy fats, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. Because she was talking about my life. I finished the conversation in a daze, promising to put avocado on everything and eat peanut butter and almond butter by the spoonful. She gave me a recipe for a protein shake with a calorie count that bordered on the ridiculous.

I thanked her profusely, and when we hung up, the tears came again … but without the rage. I knew what would eventually heal and restore my body would do the same for my soul. I realized that I needed to slow the blur of life a little. I started carving out time for coffee with a friend. I let the housework and laundry go and started working during naptimes so that I could get in bed at a decent time. I needed more sustenance, and I committed myself to finding it. Maybe I couldn’t change what was demanded of me, but I could work harder at pouring more into myself so I could meet the challenges without losing myself so completely.

Today, things are better. I’m not so skinny anymore, but that’s because I’m not starving. My house is only tidy on Thursdays, because that’s cleaning day. Once a week, I leave the bedtime routine to Jon, and I head out to dinner with friends or to Starbucks by myself for a few hours. I make time almost every day to do a devotional, to write, to read. I commit myself to reaching out once a week, via email or text, to a friend I haven’t talked to in awhile. We have the kids enrolled in a preschool program two days per week, so I have dedicated time for working. It sounds a little indulgent when I string it all together like that, but the truth is, it’s what I need. It fills me up and makes me whole, and my children deserve a healthy and whole momma.

There was no book or three-day method to guide me in figuring it out. There was just rock-bottom, and clawing my way back to a life that I could live in. I think that’s why new moms tug on my heartstrings so. When I drop off a meal or stop by for a chat, I whisper the words to them that I finally learned to say to myself:

Take care of you.

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Numbering the days

DSC_0508We have a chalkboard decal in our kitchen. I bought it and put it up with the intention of changing it out weekly with Bible verses, notes of encouragement and silly sayings. Turns out, I’m not very good at keeping up with that kind of thing though. We mainly use it for countdowns: 12 days until Christmas, 10 days until Ellie’s birthday, and so on.

Right now, it’s counting down the days until Nathan starts kindergarten.

Six. That’s how many days are left. Nathan, per usual, is playing it all very cool. Oh, he shopped with enthusiasm (and a mind-numbing level of deliberation) for his new backpack and lunchbox. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve told him we cannot yet open the new boxes of crayons or glue sticks that have been purchased. He gets a little quieter, though, when we talk about his new class, new teacher, new routine: all unknowns. The uncertainty of the unfamiliar balances the exhilarating newness, until he is neither excited nor nervous.

His 2 year old sister does not share his ambivalence. As we walked through the halls of his new school today to finish registration, I noticed her wide eyes taking in the bright posters and boisterous kids.

“This is Nathan’s new school,” I explained, trying to help her make sense of it all. “This is where he will go to kindergarten next week.”

“Yes, me too,” said Ellie, nodding confidently. All summer, she has been his shadow. Of course she would come too; she knew no other way. I tried to break the reality of the situation to her gently.

“No baby, this is just Nathan’s school. You won’t go here yet.”

“Ellie too?” A question, this time. Uncertain. She looked at me, brow furrowed. Like she was trying out this idea of a place where her big brother would go and she couldn’t follow, and it didn’t quite fit.

“No baby, not yet. You still need to stay home with mama for a little longer,” I said softly, squeezing her hand.

She didn’t answer, but her eyes studied her feet instead of the walls. Her eagerness was replaced with resignation. She understood; he was leaving her behind.

And me? I tell everyone who asks that I feel conflicted; excited for Nathan, but a little sad and nervous about such a big change. But that’s not entirely true. Or, at least, it’s not the entire truth. The reality is, I’m shell-shocked. How is it possible that we have only six days left? 

It’s as though we are perched at the top of a very tall roller coaster. We’ve been climbing and climbing for ages, like we’d never get here. Now we’re paused at the peak for the briefest of moments. In a split second, we’ll pitch forward and, with a speed I didn’t think possible, careen down the rails. Kindergarten changes everything. Our years will soon fall into a familiar pattern; dictated, even, by the district schedule. School starts in August, then there’s fall break and Christmas break. We’ll blink and it’ll be spring break, then summer, then the cycle starts all over again. Each year will flow seamlessly into the next.

There’s something about predictability that makes the days go by faster, it seems. Those early years, the ones with little ones, are so scattered and unsettled. I remember it was the days when the routines were off that seemed the longest. The baby didn’t nap or wanted to eat more often or the toddler wanted five snacks instead of three meals. The hands on the clock seemed unmoving on those days; the sun constant in its position in the sky. Maybe chaos eats up less time than order does. Now, our days will have rhythm and routine, and I know what that means.

They’ll blur by before I can scarcely catch my breath.

 ***

Tonight, after the dishes had been cleared, the baths had been taken and the books read, I lay in bed next to Nathan until he fell asleep. I don’t usually do that; our typical routine is a few minutes of snuggling, then hugs and kisses and I’m out the door. But tonight, when I went to pull my hand away, he grabbed it and clutched it to his chest. With eyes closed, he sleepily whispered, “Just one more minute, Mom?”

I don’t need a countdown in the kitchen to know these days are numbered now. Before long there won’t be a bedtime routine, and it won’t be too many years after that when I’m telling him goodnight and shuffling off to bed while he stays up. So tonight, I left my hand on his chest until the rise and fall became steady and even. I leaned my face into the top of his head and breathed in his still-little-boy smell. I even let a tear fall. Not because I’m grieving the passage of time, though. Children are meant to grow up, after all.

No, I think it was just the fullness of the moment. I stopped and savored, and my worn mama heart was filled right to the brim. A little spilled out, I suppose, and slipped down my cheek.

Perhaps that’s the secret, really. Wrapping my arms around the present, and holding still for what is happening, instead of planning for what is coming.

For the space of a few heartbeats anyway, I managed to stop time.

permission to be

My son isn’t a very graceful swimmer. Oh, he gets from point A to point B, but there are lots of flailing limbs and splashing water. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was drowning every time he pauses for a breath.

For awhile, his swimming embarrassed me. We’d paid good money for five rounds of swimming lessons, and I watched with my brow furrowed as the other children glided smoothly through the water, passing him with ease. I studied his form, comparing it to the others in his class, and figured out the problem – he doesn’t get his legs out behind him. He essentially swims vertically in the water, which means he uses up a whole lot of energy to not go very far.

There’s nothing I love more than a problem with a simple solution. I could fix this. I could fix him. After the lesson, I approached the teacher, airing my concerns. The teacher nodded and explained it was due to Nathan’s head position – if he looked down in the water, his legs would automatically raise up. Nathan swims looking forward, so his legs drop down, hanging perpendicular to the ground.

I nodded to show my understanding, already visualizing the drills we could do in the water to correct the problem: holding toys in my hands and making him look down and tell me what I’m holding; reminding him to look at my toes and not my nose. He’d be swimming just like the other kids in no time.

With my answer in hand,  I turned to go. I was ready to make my son faster, better, more like the others. But the teacher read the determination on my face, and gave a parting set of instructions that stopped me in my tracks.

“Keep in mind that you can’t rush him. His body is doing what feels natural right now. It’ll self-correct, and he may well be the fastest kid out there. But you’re just going to frustrate him if you try to push him along before he’s ready. Give it time. He’ll get there.”

Don’t rush him. Stop comparing. Let him be. 

***

I read an article the other day that I shouldn’t have. It talked about the economic impact of leaving the workplace to stay at home with children. When taking into account lost wages, retirement savings and future raises lost, the figure was something like half of a million dollars for staying home for three years — and that was only for a pre-kids salary of $50,000.

$500,000. I’m not a true SAHM, but my 12 hours a week for a non-profit and a little erratic freelancing don’t exactly bring home the bacon, either. Don’t mistake me – I know how fortunate I am that I was able to opt out in the first place. But now that I’m in my 30s, I’m watching my friends who are still leaning in climb the career ladder with great success. They’re landing heady titles and incomes to match; traveling the world, leading teams and steering projects.

My biggest accomplishment today was getting my 2 year old to correctly identify the color blue; a feat that was immediately undone when she called that blue block “yewwow” two minutes later. The only rhythm to our days in this season of life is the complete absence of one. There is no five year plan or strategic goal setting – at least, not beyond the basic “keep everyone alive while raising decent human beings.”

When Ellie was a baby, and I was in the throes of the madness that is spending your days with an infant and a toddler, it was easier. It took all of me to focus inwardly on my own little self and my own little family, and ignorance became bliss – or at least tolerance. Most of my days looked the same, so I didn’t always notice the pace of them.

Now the kids are 5 and 2, and a little less needy. It’s not exactly all cocktail hours and relaxing over here, but I do get to pause and catch my breath every once in awhile. Except sometimes I use my free time to glance in the other lanes. I see how smoothly everyone else seems to be moving — and how much more they seem to fit into each day. They are faster. Better. When I look back down at this one, precious life I’m holding, it suddenly seems like it’s not enough. Like I’m not enough. I’m doing it wrong, and if I could just do life like they’re doing it (whoever “they” are), then everything would be okay.

I need to be more.

Thankfully, Nathan is there to cut through the lies the world is feeding me and offer up his truth.

“Mom, how come you don’t go to work anymore? How come all your work is at home on the computer now?”

This isn’t an uncommon question, and once more I explain to him that Dad and I decided that I would spend more time with him and Ellie for awhile, so I found a job that takes less time and lets me work from home. Usually the conversation ends with Nathan, my social butterfly, musing about how much he misses daycare and how we could get him back there. But not today. Today he hands me a gift.

“I’m glad, Mom. I like that you’re always here for me.”

Just like that, my focus is shifted back where it belongs. It’s a sweet sentiment from my thoughtful boy, but it’s more than that. It’s permission to move more slowly, to be a little poorer and a little less-accomplished for this season of life. It’s permission to be, whatever that looks like (and believe me, it doesn’t look like much most days).

Don’t rush. Stop comparing. Let it be. 

All in the name of being here.

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