Lessons from a tortoise

It wasn’t easy living in my house this past weekend.  There were no early Valentine’s Day celebrations. I snapped at my family and slammed doors. I was tired of the demands and expectations that come with the job of mothering. My frustrations were exacerbated by late nights waiting up for (babysitting) teens, the sacrifice of a full Saturday to my husband’s project, and the consumption of an entire Sunday by an infected computer.  I cried. My head pounded. My jaw tightened. I considered submitting my resignation. I mentally flogged myself for the consideration. Then, I pondered the absurdity that I might be expected to hire my replacement before I left. These were not my finest moments in motherhood.

 The truth is, I don’t want to be replaced. The truth is, I can’t sleep well  until my munchkins are home so I chose to stay up. The truth is, I love spending time with my husband and was glad to help him. The truth is, I felt empowered after restoring the family computer. And, the truth is, I was tired, just plain tired, and I didn’t ask for help before I desperately needed it.

I am known to have high expectations–just ask my homeschooled kids. My highest expectations are reserved for myself. I am commonly referred to as a “Type A” personality, a label I don’t deny. I enjoy being a “go-getter,” unafraid of challenge and hard work. Additionally, when I see a need, either inside my home or out, I gladly make room on my plate to help.  I know that when I give to my husband, my children, friends, or my community, I am really giving back to myself. I want to teach my daughters compassion, generosity, kindness, and hard work through example. I’m also inclined to believe I can be “Superwoman.” Like I said, I have high expectations, and I can be unforgiving of myself when I feel I have fallen short.

Yesterday morning, I began sorting through a mental playback of the weekend. Like a crime detective, I catalogued details of the events, replaying conversations in my mind, evaluating the demands for my time, searching for clues that might bust open the source of my impatience.  I found nothing beyond the normal load of demands and commitments. Why, then, did I vent  my frustration like a volcano ready to blow? “Clearly,” I justified, “I wouldn’t be so upset if they just understood how hard I work!” 

Then came my epiphany. In my search for answers, I need only look at the previous weeks on my calendar. I mentally confessed that I was ultimately responsible for my frustration. The answer was hidden in what I didn’t find–time for myself amidst a sea of commitments and chores. 

Like most moms I know, I regularly make two critical errors: I don’t give myself permission to take a break, and I forget that I am not “Superwoman.” Somewhere along the motherhood road, I wrote “no breaks” into my mothering job description. So, I push  and I push until I screech for help like a car’s failing brakes. I grow impatient with myself and direct it at my the ones I love most. I surrender, reluctantly, to my very human fatigue. My family, who has been standing at the ready, waiting to help, jumps into action. They clean. They tell me to rest. They support and love me. Then, I bury myself with guilt for my transgressions.  I remind myself to simply say what I need before it gets to that point again. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

As I re-evaluated the course of the weekend, I clearly saw a pattern. I also saw the lesson I am really teaching my daughters. We remind our children to ask for help when they need it. We encourage our husbands to go to bed early when they look tired. We nudge our girlfriends to treat themselves to a massage or mani/pedi when stressed. We praise the people we love when they take care of themselves. How often, though, do we give ourselves permission to do the same? 

I read several books during my early mothering years. Many mentioned “sleeping when the baby sleeps.” But what about the years beyond regular naptimes?  We give our vehicles regular maintenance to keep them running well. Companies give vacation time to maintain employee productivity. Even bulbs go dormant in winter when resting up for their spring show. As mothers, we are emotionally , and sometimes physically, “on the clock” 24/7–roughly 157,680 hours by the time a child turns 18.   In the story of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise wins the race because he paces himself, slow and steady. Parenting is a marathon race with a plethora of opportunities to burn out. The hours certainly merit slow and steady pacing to cross the finish line.

At dinner last night,  I shared my thoughts with my family, as well as my apologies. I acknowledged where I needed help and asked for it. We have planned two Valentine’s Day “do-over’s” for the weekend ahead–one with the family, one with my husband. There is no need for flowers, cards, or chocolate; I already received my gift. In return, I can give them a wife and mother that takes this road slow and steady, with time to recharge herself, free of self-inflicted guilt.

 On this day after Valentine’s Day, consider giving yourself and your family the gift of self-care.

Quiet down cobwebs

I admit I’m not a meticulous housekeeper. I like things neat but do not live by pristine standards. Dusting really only gets done when I expect company or risk a visit from the health department.  After I moved out of my parents’ home, there was an 8 year period in my life when I had a very tidy lifestyle. Those were the days when everything had a place and everything was in its well dusted place. Then came our first child.

With one child, it wasn’t too hard to keep up on housework, especially because I worked from home. I remember when my daughter’s  nursery was kept neat with toys picked up, laundry folded, and a carpet that was regularly vacuumed.  As she became more “mobile,” toys and books might stay out until the end of the evening, but there was always tidiness in my home before I crawled into bed. I had successfully balanced the load between baby, work and dust. 

Almost a month after my daughter turned three, we brought home her sister. My standards of  housekeeping changed when I became outnumbered. It wasn’t obvious; it was a gradual process. It started with an evening here or there when my husband and I were too tired to put away toys. Picture books lay abandoned on the couch until morning.  Diapers were left in the bag, no longer stacked neatly in the changing table. Laundry waited until weekends, and the dust in corners gave birth to bunnies.  I fought the wave of decline. I struggled against my self-imposed and unrealistic expectations .

A year later, relief arrived in two unlikely forms–a fax and a trip down memory lane. The fax, from a friend and new mom, included this excerpt from a poem written by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton called “Babies Don’t Keep”:

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.

It has been posted continually in my home ever since. (For the entire poem, click the link at the end of this post.)

However, real emancipation came when I complained to my mom about my messy home. I asked her how, with 9 kids under the age of 11, had she kept ahead of the housework.  She laughed and directed me to check my memory. She said she realized early on that she could choose to have a spotless home, or she could choose to create memories with her children. Because of her choice, I have some wonderful memories, including learning to sew, tending roses together, and a closed-door on the disaster that was my teenage bedroom.

Today, I bide my time until every room in my house might once again be a temple of order. Until then, our teens’ bedrooms remain a refection of their messy childhood playroom with scattered books and piled clothing. Occasionally, when we walk past their rooms, their father or I might comment about “potential fire hazards.”  However, it is only when the piles threaten encroachment on the hallway do we make cleaning demands. 

With older children, it becomes easier to dismiss regular “play”. Our lives fill with “to-do lists,” school, jobs, and activities.  Rare is the day I don’t robotically respond “later” to a request for play. Game night, movie time, or crafting together is often sacrificed to my own  “to-do’s.”  I could transfer fault to my kids, say there is no time for me in their busy lives. “They have their friends…their jobs….their homework…their____________.” But, outside of the chores, homework, and chauffeuring, am I making the time to create memories with them?

The other day, I plucked a framed photo from my dusty dresser and drifted down memory lane. My husband and 2 daughters, caught in a moment of time 12 years earlier, smiled back at me. I sat on the bed, studying the photo, recalling unseen details.  We were taking Christmas card pictures that day. It was fall in California with the grass still green and the sky a bright blue. I wanted a father/daughter snapshot for my dresser. That afternoon, there were giggles-lots of giggles. Their smiles echoed the fun of that day and a time in our lives when making memories was paramount.

I’ve wondered exactly when and why it becomes OK to let play fall off our overbooked schedules. Is play not essential to both a happy childhood and adulthood? Happy memories are treasured gifts we re-open with every retelling. We give them to ourselves, our children and our children’s children. I believe the best memories are created when we say “yes”–yes to a game, a movie, a consuming mess of Legos.  “So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!” I am making new memories, and the teen years won’t keep.

Won’t you join me?

(The complete poem can be found here: http://organicallyinclined.org/2010/07/26/babies-dont-keepthe-poem-has-an-author/ )

Previously known as TransitioningMom.com

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