There’s a saying that goes something like this, “Put your oxygen mask on first then help your children” … we’ve all heard it first from the flight attendant, and now it’s pretty much the standard mantra women hear all the time about how you have to help yourself first before you can be there for your children, your family, others around you.
I get it. Sort of.
As a new mom, I struggled with going back to work and leaving my baby. I was sad to leave her, stressed about how I would squeeze into my “work” clothes, and the thought of actually leaving her for 8 hours was unimaginable. Besides I had gotten quite used to my PJ’s, no makeup, rocking her back and forth routine. But nonetheless, I went back to work as millions of new moms do.
After a few weeks life became somewhat normal again, and my new role as “mommy” began. I was fortunate to have my mother close by to watch my daughter during those early years, while working in a career I loved in the nonprofit sector, as my husband traveled frequently for work. I had chosen to leave my career in politics right before having my daughter to a career that was a little more balanced and allowed me the flexibility to work shorter hours. It was a the right decision, as soon after my daughter was born, she had a number of surgeries and having the flexibility to be home with her was critical.
A few years later, after our second daughter was born, I was again fortunate to have a career I loved, with family close by to help as well as a part time college nanny who helped as the girls got older and we needed help after school. With two full time working parents, family close by, babysitters and my sister and girlfriends for occasional wine nights, I felt I could have it all: raising a family and a career I loved. I was the PTO president at my daughter’s elementary school, volunteered at a number of organizations and our church, ran a small consulting business on the side, organized a neighborhood Halloween children’s party, book club and made homemade truffles for teachers’ gifts.
I was happy. And loved my life.
And I was exhausted. All the time.
I was not taking care of myself. I was the mom who cut fruit into beautiful shapes for her children’s lunch complete with a note, then ate whatever I could find and had time to grab on the way out the door. I was the mom who believed eight hours of sleep was for other people and could get away with maybe five. After the girls were in bed, and lunches made, I would stay up most nights until 1am with work stuff or family stuff I thought was important, like making Shutterfly calendars for my family.
When my husband traveled frequently, I got used to it and established a routine for me and the girls. We had “breakfast for dinner” picnics in our family room while playing games, I started a neighborhood book club, began a consulting business on the side, and just pushed through. I hosted yearly “Muffins and Mimosas” brunches for my mom friends on the first day of school and would relish when someone would ask me how I did it all. I am embarrassed to say, but I used to love hearing this. It made me feel somehow like I was a good mom.
I loved being a mom. I truly did. And I loved what I thought “HAVING IT ALL” meant.
I was a good mom back then… but I was also EXHAUSTED.
I was getting very little sleep, pushing forward, and absolutely did not take care of myself. In fact, I find still find that few moms who do this well.
I also did a very good job at hiding my exhaustion.
For 12 years.
Did I stop? No. I added more to my plate. I created a local moms’ talk show, began blogging and began grad school at night. I loved being the woman with a full plate. An overfull-food-falling-all-over-the-sides, plate.
Then a few summers ago, something happened. Something surprising. Something which forced me to stop this madness.
My day started off normal and ended up with me walking into the house at 9:30pm hunched over at a 90’ angle because I couldn’t stand up straight. I had been having cramps on my right side all day and assumed it had just been something I ate or pulled. Throughout the day, as my cramps became worse and ibuprofen did not seem to help, I just ignored the pain and pushed through. Because this is what we do, right? After work, I attended a local board meeting for an organization I was on and I was on and I must have looked worse, because three women told me I looked so bad I should probably go to the hospital. What? I thought to myself. Who goes to the hospital on a Wednesday night for cramps? Not moms, that’s who.
Fast forward to 1am that night, and my husband is speeding to Hartford Hospital because I’m about to pass out the pain is so intense. After a few hours of every imaginable test, it turns out I had appendicitis and needed surgery before my appendix ruptured any minute. WHAT? I thought. I am 47, who has appendicitis at 47? I thought this happened only to children.
After spending a day and a half in the hospital, I realized what could have happened. How my day could have turned out if I continued to ignore my pain. How this “HAVING IT ALL” attitude almost killed me. How ignoring my exhaustion and not taking care of myself caught up with me. I literally ignored my pain because I thought I didn’t have time to go to the hospital because I was a mom. Now that I look back on night and realize how being this way almost took me away from my family and my life.
Since then, I have tried hard to keep more a balance. I’m not even sure I know how I kept that pace up. I took myself off most of the volunteer activities I was on, scaled down my outside commitments and truly gave more of myself to my family. Going back to grad school at 46 definitely helped me re-prioritize, and since finishing school and beginning a fabulous new job which allows me to spend more time at home, has definitely helped me find a better balance. I am now scheduling time for me.
There are still days I struggle trying to find “me” time and be quiet. Whether it’s watching Netflix with my daughters or coffee dates with my husband, I have redefined what “HAVING IT ALL” means to me and don’t wish to have that full of a plate, ever again. Being there for my daughters is a priority always, but I am also learning what down time is. And “me time”. I have ignored my mind and my body for so long, it’s taken a long time to figure out how to prioritize these two things. With the help of my daughters’ dance instructor, I took a step towards this goal and formed an adult jazz class (yes, it’s true) last fall and it’s fabulous. It’s uplifting, nonjudgmental, cathartic and we are even leaning a dance routine. It’s been good for my body and my soul. I also recently partnered with our local Mandell JCC with my Moms Time Out ladies and they are helping me (all of us) find our balance. Having the accountability and girlfriends do this with me has helped tremendously. I am actually finding myself putting working out on my calendar – something I have never done before. I am putting laundry aside and piles of organizing “stuff” and cheering my girls on during their swim meets and basketball games. I am blogging for CT Working Moms and have found writing has been truly one of the things I missed and has helped me stay true to me. I am saying NO to so many other things, so I can say YES to what’s truly important.
At 48, I am still finding new ways to find balance and peace in my life and am finally realizing how putting on the oxygen mask first really works. And you know what? This notion of “HAVING IT ALL” may be a myth. Or maybe it’s real. I don’t know. What I do know, is I’m not entirely sure I want it anyhow.