I was in Whistler last week visiting my good friend Marnie, who is about to give birth to her second baby. It was a mutually beneficial situation: I got to escape the city to her beautiful home nestled in the mountains, and was able to cook her some meals and have our kids entertain one another.
The only thing is, I got really tired. My baby doesn't sleep well in a new environment, and when he rouses a bit from sleep and can see me in the same room, he won't settle until he gets a good snuggle. So I was up with him several times a night each night, and he was up for the day around six. Which is exhausting without a second parent there to trade off or relieve you a bit the next day. (Hats off to single moms.)
And after four days, I was bushed and the kids were all starting to need some space, so I decided to drive home on Saturday evening rather than staying another night. I left at bedtime, and pictured it being a smooth, peaceful drive down the breathtaking Sea-to-Sky Highway at magic hour, with both kids snoozing in the back, Adele wailing on the radio. Maybe even stop for a little drive-thru hot fudge sundae with peanuts. Wrong-O.
Theo sang the ABCs at the top of his lungs for the first half-hour, which sounds like it'd be adorable, except he kept picking a letter and sticking to it, just singing "V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V, V" over and over and over until I started to lose my mind. But I held it together. Then he dropped into that horrible past-bedtime state of complete exhaustion and commenced crying at the top of his lungs.
Guys, sometimes I'm not proud of my parenting. He had a tummy ache (he was carsick), and his screaming was reaching teetering new decibels. I tried soothingly asking him to take deep breaths. I tried negotiating. I tried ultimatums. Ok, fine, I started with ultimatums and went backwards.
Then after a half hour or so, I flew off the handle a bit. I was dead-tired and just wanted to get us home safely before dark, on a 100 kilometre-per-hour highway around windy hairpin turns, with oncoming traffic then a rock wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other.
But shouting loudly at a 3-year-old to stop crying rarely works, go figure. Pretending to cry yourself doesn't fix it either. Calling your husband and wailing "he won't shut up!" doesn't help much (but probably has something to do with why I heard him tell his crying baby brother to "shut off"). And I don't want to be the kind of mom who fake sobs to guilt her kid into behaving, or lets her language go off the rails (I mean, I know I could have said much worse, but it was a lapse in self-control nonetheless). It's ugly.
Always being the kind of parent I'd like to be (one who can be the calm for her children rather than joining their chaos; one who doesn't cave to selfish impulses or lose self-control) requires a selflessness and a patience so deep that I'm not sure I possess them. Like the transverse abdominus muscles that my physiotherapist tells me to squeeze (I usually just make a straining face and hope she falls for it).
I wonder if I could fake patience by making a straining face at my kids? They'd be so bewildered (terrified?) it might just work. HA!
And constantly being selfless and patient with your children makes it hard not to turn into a brat with your spouse, the one person you feel you can safely be exhausted around, lose your temper at, and be irrational toward. But that can start a pretty unattractive spiral. So don't. Rise above. (I'm mostly instructing myself here.)
When I finally pulled into my parking garage on Saturday night, kids both peacefully sleeping at last, I felt tears pricking at my eyes. I felt guilty for not doing better. But a few (ok, many) of the tears were self-centred ones of feeling exhausted, depleted, like I had nothing left to give.
Then a little familiar childhood tune popped into my mind:
Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.
Remember that song? It sounds overly simplistic, but it kept running through head until it felt like a micro-revelation. It offered me comfort when I was feeling sorry for myself about being called on to give more than I had to offer. The more you put in, the more you get out. The more love you give, the more love you receive. The selfless act of giving is in fact a self-serving one.
Before kids, my life centred around myself. It's not that I was a selfish human being, but my day-to-day decisions were anchored on my own needs and desires as an autonomous adult with no dependents. Lately I've been really missing home, and I think I've been going through a bit of a mourning period for the time in my life when I was the one being taken care of. We are on our own in Vancouver; both my family and my husband's are far away. Over here I necessarily assumed to the role of matriarch; there is no wise woman above me to hug and pat my head when I'm overwhelmed, love the kids for me when I'm exhausted, or make Sunday dinner. I wasn't quite prepared for the promotion. This new role requires me to find strength and softness and composure when I'm feeling burned out, to be present when I want to hide, and to constantly remind myself to rise up. I don't always succeed.
Much like those deep core muscles, I think the qualities required to be a good leader (of children or otherwise) take some solid pretending until you can feel their actual presence (which I can now, by the way - that ab is in there, deep and well-protected, but finally something I can actually squeeze.)
And I think the flip side of this super-human effort to constantly rise above, hold yourself together and keep giving your best self tirelessly in the moments when you most want to scream is giving yourself permission to peace out afterwards. Offering yourself the same kindness and love and compassion. Finding some way to escape and either blow off steam or find your zen - go for a walk or run, read under a tree, wander the farmer's market, sip (slam?) a strong cocktail at a hotel bar in a dress without peanut-butter handprints, take a yoga class, schedule a coffee (strong cocktail?) with a good friend.
"Somehow, we’ve reduced mom self-care to a day spa visit or a trip to get a mani/pedi when in actuality it is the life vest that keeps us afloat." ― Mia Redrick, The Mom Strategist
Do something regularly that makes you feel good inside and happy about your life. Whatever it takes to take care of you and recharge so that you once again have something to give. I don't want to hear that you don't have time. Find time. Make it happen. (Again, mostly bossing myself around, but if you need the firm instruction, by all means take it.) Caregivers need to remember that their needs are of equal importance to the ones they care for.
I'll leave you with this quote from Mother Theresa, whose words flutter through my mind regularly.
What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family. ― Mother Teresa