Let me say up front, that my intention isn't to dismiss all of the mothers who are kicking butt and taking names in every field imaginable, even as they make heroic effort at home. Nor am I suggesting that everyone with a previously employed uterus has swapped their bachelors degrees for bumbos. But research does suggest that mothers… (in particular moms of young kids), struggle to stay connected to the world.
For all of our former aspirations and accomplishments, many of us find ourselves utterly consumed by motherhood. The temptation is to hunker down and wait for some future season when margin for “me-time” returns to our lives. Many young moms find themselves isolated and longing for adult company — only to find that when the rare occasion of a date night or a girls night or (gasp!) a grown-up party arises, we are at a loss for something to say that’s not about the kids.
It’s mostly a practical matter: prolonged sleep deprivation drains mental energy and when someone (or multiple someones) need you all. the. time. your focus gets divided past the point of usefulness. Good luck keeping straight which Middle Eastern rebel militias are The Axis and which are The Allies when you’ve been on dawn patrol since 2008. I saw this great interview with @ReeseWitherspoon recently where she was asked about a season in her career where her films were tanking and The New Yorker put her name on a list of "people who are washed up.” She said, “Honestly, I was floundering. It’s hard to be creatively productive when your brain feels like scrambled eggs.” Sister, I couldn't have said it better myself. There is simply a season of life where you feel like you can barely tie your own shoes, let alone find the bandwidth for more.
Our first two kids were 18 months apart and the baby was a beautiful, needy, ornery boy. I didn’t sleep through the night for 6+ months. I rarely got to pee without at least one child crawling onto my lap mid-stream. I smelled like sour-milk pretty much always. I was barely functioning. I would look at my babies lovingly and at the same time remember my old self longingly. Thinking, "Once upon a time people actually paid me to tell them what I thought. Now, most days I feel like a used piece of Kleenex.”
The How It Got Better
For me, wading back into the land of the living was part season change and part good old fashioned intentionality. Eventually the babes got a little more independent (2 of the 3 can now wipe their own bottoms.) But I think the demands of motherhood evolve more than they evaporate.
Based on how often I call my own (60-year-old) mother with random requests, I’m going to guess that the neediness of my children will end never. So at some point we take the inch of independence we’ve been given and try to make it feel like a mile. That’s where the intentionality comes in.
These are a few of the things that I do to stay connected to the world in the midst of motherhood. Most of them come down to participating in a world beyond playskool and PBS kids.
I try to get up earlier than my kids do.
It may seem like a small thing, but having even 30 minutes to think or pray or make a list before the needs begin really will make you feel like you have a better handle on things. I promise. Just don’t use that 30 minutes on Facebook. I assure you, at that hour there’s no listicle on buzzfeed or picture perfect shot of the cage-fed organic eggs alpha mom made her kids that will start your day on the right foot.
- When at all possible I try to take a shower and put on makeup.
I know: FANCY. If I also blow-dry my hair I call that the trifecta. But seriously, there’s something dehumanizing when basic hygiene consistently falls off the list. I actually spend more time primping now than I did before I had kids, when I had all the time in the world to luxuriate in front of a mirror. Who knows. Maybe it’s because I need a little more spackle these days to attain the same effect, but I definitely feel more human and presentable when I’m put together.
- I listen to NPR and other podcasts. A lot.
In the shower. In the extended bathroom breaks I take when the kids are banging on the door and mommy is taking a minute to herself. In the car. At the gym. (Bahaha, gym. Ok, that one is rare). In line at Target. Point is, most segments are two-minute nuggets of information that you can listen to in bite-size pieces. It’s food for thought and I snack throughout the day.
- I use news aggregators to “skim.”
The Daily Skimm is designed specifically for busy people (read: harried mothers) to provide a quick-get overview of what happened in the world today… lest we find ourselves caught in a moment of actual adult conversation, searching for a clever comment and find our brains full of little more than the lyrics to a Daniel Tiger song. Kanye, next time you feel tempted to storm the stage at the Grammy’s, just remember... When you feel so mad that you wanna ROAR, take a deep breath and count to four!
- Go to the movies... not just the animated ones.
And find someone who will spend the drive home asking you what you thought about it, how it made you feel, what your favorite part was and why. If you’re out of the habit of engaging with that side of your brain, it can be helpful to spend time with someone who will draw you out. It’s good for us to relate as intellectual beings with thoughts on other subjects. Movies are low hanging fruit. Discuss.
- Get together with friends and discuss something OTHER than parenting and/or domestic duties.
Yes, sometimes group gripe sessions are deeply cathartic. You walk away feeling understood, accepted and like you're not the only woman in the world who has considered offering your husband sexual favors in exchange for taking out the trash. (I mean that as strictly hypothetical, of course...) But it does contribute to you feeling like that's the only hat you have. Go on a day trip, take a class together, hit up a local gallery and make fun of the modern art.
Reclaim a lost love. I used to love low-waist jeans. Some loves die a well deserved-death and are never ever coming back into our lives (thank goodness). But others I think we relinquish too quickly. I bet there were lots of things you loved when it was just you (or you and your husband). When the baby comes it's a wholly greater love than what came before — so giving up reality TV or that morning jog feel like a small sacrifice. And that makes sense. Our hearts need to make room for this new love, and for all the demands that come with it. But when the dust settles and you're starting to feel as though you've all but disappeared, consider dusting the good ones off and picking them up again. Even if it takes a little trial and error to figure out which are worth resurrecting.
For example, believe it or not, I was a ballet dancer until I was 22. Even picked up dance as a second major in college — not because I had any intention of making a career of it, but solely because I loved doing it. They recently opened a Pure Barre studio near my house and now I take barre classes 5 days a week. I love it. I feel physically more like my old self than I have in a long while. It's been good for me.
Maybe for you it's not exercise. Maybe it's painting or playing the piano or people watching. Whatever it is, there was something YOU loved before you became a WE and its worth rediscovering.
- Serve in some capacity.
Admittedly, this one is tricky when you feel like your entire identity is more or less serving everyone all day long. I definitely go through phases where I look at people… really any stranger on the street who tries to make eye contact with me and think, "I have nothing to give you!" As a mom, it's easy for your posture towards the world to be one of need-fulfillment. And you need to know yourself well enough to know when you need a break from that. (I'm a big believer in the power of a pedicure to bring you back from the brink).
That said, when you find yourself in a moment when you realize that everything bumming you out is an inherently First World Problem ("I've called Comcast THREE times and my stomach looks like an old map!") it might be time to get a little perspective. I don't mean that in a "just think about all the starving children in Africa" kind of way, but something powerful happens when we step out of the banality of our own stories and step into a bigger story in which we can make a meaningful impact. It lends fresh perspective and reconnects us with who we are called to be.