When did self care become selfish?
There’s a meme circulating on Facebook (and our culture at large) that says “You will never regret spending too much time with your kids.”
It showed up in my feed, and I confess to feeling dreadfully irritated by this seemingly benign message. Who is behind such propaganda? It’s akin to saying: You will never regret setting aside all of your goals and dreams and any attempt at self care for several years while you devote all of your waking (and most of your sleeping) time and attention to someone else . . . Really?
There is a cultural stigma about parents, especially mothers, wanting to do things that do not involve their children. Wanting to have a life, an identity, an experience that doesn’t involve sippy cups, stuffed animals, and reading picture books that you’ve read a hundred times before.
My husband and I are blessed with two little girls, ages 4 and 6. They qualify as “good kids” relative to the range of possible behavior one can expect from very young humans. They are funny and bold, articulate and creative. They like to cuddle before bed, or if you are trying to write an email. They are masters at making elaborate messes that involve everything they own and unique combinations of art supplies, but they have yet to master the art of cleaning up after themselves.
They spend much of the day playing together and the rest of the time telling on each other for various minor infractions that may, or may not, have actually occurred. Mama! Dada! Zoe called my bunny junk! Eva punched me in the arm! They ask for things all day long, breakfast and snacks (and snacks and more snacks) and supper and socks and stories and water . . . and they like to make sure that when they ask for something, they repeat the request over and over again until it is fulfilled. Mama can I have some frozen blueberries please? Mama can I have some frozen blueberries please? Mama you forgot my frozen blueberries . . .
When our oldest was two she was wiping a cabinet with a paper towel and said “I am wiping this dirty-dirt before the mothery-mother gets back.” The sad thing is that I know exactly what a “mothery-mother” sounds like and I hate sounding like one. It is not the same as motherly, which is some angelic ideal that I’ve never quite achieved, a blissful loving tone that is patient and gentle and warm. Not at all.
Mothery is the tone you have when you are tired of the kitchen table always looking like a 5 year old birthday party just occurred there, when you haven’t had an uninterrupted phone call, shower, or thought for several years, when your entire existence revolves around coaxing little creatures to cooperate with brushing teeth and putting on some clothes other than the swimsuit they have been wearing for 4 days.
I hear myself saying annoying and cliche mothery-mother things like “I am not your servant” and “if these things are on the floor the next time I walk through this room they are going into a box for the thrifty” and the despicable “if you don’t let me comb your hair we will have to cut it short.”
I’m speaking for the parents that cringe when we hear ourselves nag and scold. The moments where we wonder where our patience went and we catch a glimpse of our unwashed hair in the unwashed bathroom mirror and we have the courage to admit that parenting is hard and doesn’t always feel as rewarding as society tell you it is.
But I’m not the only provocateur around here. My children also say challenging things thought the day such as “I don’t like the dinner” and a constant looping of “can I have some chocolate?” and the sovereign cry of “People can do whatever they want!” These shiny apples didn’t fall far from their (self-employed, entrepreneurial, formerly rebellious teenager) parent trees.
So recently our girls went to stay with my parents for a few days. It was the first time they went anywhere overnight without us. I had no idea what it would be like without them.
And behold, it was silent. Not a lonely silence, but a clear, calm sea where you could hear the birds sing and the wind blow. My husband and I were able to have a conversation that lasted longer than two sentences. All of our possessions didn’t end up scattered all around the floor by the end of the day. After about 36 hours of such serenity, something in my brain started to relax, and the tension I’d been living with dissolved. And then the veil lifted.
I suddenly understood that children are minions of the force of Chaos.
This may be obvious with some kids, as there are some that are openly wild and full of endless reserves of energy that they use to throw tantrums in public or to place themselves in extreme danger at every opportunity, near busy roads or raging river water.
But it is less obvious when the children are calm and sweet and their requests for snacks and stories appear as innocent calls for nourishment of the body and soul. And that is sometimes the case . . . but not always!
Parents beware! That little voice asking you for toast and ice cream and a specific pencil sharpener that you haven’t seen in a year is on a secret mission to collect endless amounts of attention like a black hole. Their little bodies stand safely on the event horizon, protected by cuteness, as they watch your intellect and capacity for creative though disappear into the void of parenthood.
After four days with grandma our girls are back, and with a vengeance. (As I write this paragraph, my 4 year old has decided to “hide” behind me, which means pushing my back with all the might her 30lb body can muster, even though there are over 2000 square feet of space in this house she could choose from to occupy and a couple acres of land outside.)
And these are not children that are deprived of attention. My husband and I both work from home on flexible schedules so that we are rarely on the phone or computer simultaneously. If anything, we have the opposite problem where the girls are so used to having our attention that they are masters at noticing the exact moment that we have shifted our focus to anything other than their glorious little existence.
Now before I get lynched by the masses for daring to speak out against the perils of motherhood when I should be baking muffins sweetened with bananas, I will take a moment to declare my love for my girls.
Yes I love my children, but sometimes I despise the way motherhood manifests in my life. Yes, they are wondrous magic of nature. The magnitude of the love we feel for them is precisely one of the ways they serve the dark forces, because with that kind of love comes fear and risk. We fear for their safety, their health, their happiness, and their future.
We want to be amazing parents and we want to raise good, kind, competent humans. And so we do our best. And in attempting to do our best, we serve the endless snacks and stop anything we are doing to listen to what they are saying.
But I am speaking out because this path is full of perils . . .
When we allow our children to dominate our lives and attention as if they are pampered royalty, we teach them that the world revolves around them and that their needs come before the needs of others. They will feel entitled to being the center of attention, and this expectation will not serve them out in the real world, the unforgiving reality that lies beyond the safety of home.
When we allow our children to frequently distract us from our conversations with our partner, we are allowing them to create distance in that relationship. When we allow bedtime to become a three hour saga that results in little feet by our exhausted head instead of intimacy with our spouse, we allow parenthood to damage the primary relationship that gave birth to children in the first place.
Many parents can congratulate themselves on how patient they are with their little ones . . . but how much patience does that leave for their partner? These are subtle effects, but powerful and often overlooked.
After our brief time apart from our kids, my husband and I are even more acutely aware of the impact of parenting on our lives. As we navigate the path of parenthood together, we aspire to raise children who are secure and confident but also courteous and respectful. This means being aware of boundaries and speaking out when they are being crossed. It means being aware of our need for time alone, time to think or to read a book, or the ability to work on a project without constant interruption.