One 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.
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.