As a working mom, my schedule doesn’t allow for much downtime. My “me time” is relegated to the 45 minute commute to and from the office each day. However, I’ve always had a lot of energy and I was an over-scheduled kid, so I’m used to being busy all the time. I like having things on my calendar that I’m excited about, but to be this busy all the time is no longer sustainable. I learned some hard lessons about motherhood when I allowed myself to burn out. The biggest one was that I had to prioritize.
I turn down social engagements, not because I don’t want to see people but because I have to make choices. Sure, I can go out for drinks on a Tuesday night, but it means it will be a whole 24 hours before seeing my kids again and then, as a result, feeling like I have to make up for that lost time. Then I’ll put myself in overdrive, and as exhaustion mounts my immune system is compromised. The next thing I know, I’m sick and not able to do anything but regret cramming my schedule.
Being so tired makes it hard for me to make good food choices. It diminishes my ability to be patient. I start snapping at everyone about the dumbest things (“Why is this pen cap on the dining room table?”). I can’t afford to burn out, because I’m a mother. When I did push myself too far, though, it was eye-opening. Here are some pretty difficult lessons about motherhood I learned when I was too hard on myself and reached total burn-out:
Exhaustion Is Not A Badge Of Honor
I used to think being tired was how you prove you’re living a full life. Yes, I was busy freelancing and sweating how I to make rent every month, but I could still sleep in on weekend. Then I had kids and lost all control of my schedule. I was tired, physically and emotionally, and children don’t give a sh*t about that. They just need their needs met. I was no longer, "So tired,” like my 30-year-old self had been. I was completely drained and it was destabilizing.
I Can’t "Win" Motherhood
I’m categorically Type A, and have been pretty competitive for most of my life. Grades meant a lot to me. Teachers’ approval mean the world to me. I won the “Miss Conscientious” award at summer camp. Twice. However, there isn’t a neat checklist for how to achieve the “Top Mom” position.
I kept trying to do everything right — the feeding, the swaddling, the babywearing — but I never knew what was “right” for me and my baby. It was a no-win situation. Only after I found myself obsessively checking parenting message boards to see how I was measuring up did I realize I would never be the best, because that position simply didn’t exist in the motherhood game.
I Can’t Spend So Much Time Making Decisions
I don’t prefer to call myself “indecisive,” but I do chew on things for what some would consider "a while." If I can afford to, I sleep on it whenever there is a major decision to make. I am never impulsive (except for that one time at college I jumped in a lake with my clothes on). Before I had kids, there was time for all this deliberating and there were fewer decisions to make. Once I became a mom, I was faced with a slew of new choices. If I kept taking the same approach as I had before I had children, I would never get anything done. We wouldn’t have found a pediatrician by the time our first kid was born. My nanny search would have continued forever (“She seems great, but I’m sure there’s someone even better out there.”). I might have never settled on a name for our child. Weighing all the pros and cons the way I used to is too taxing for me, especially now. I have to automate a lot of the decisions.
For example, I pack my kids the same thing for lunch every day. They may get sick of hummus and pretzels, but I need the brain space for other decisions that life with two children brings.
I Need To Ask For Help…
For too long, I’ve operated under the “you want something done, you have to do it yourself” mentality. However, raising kids takes a village for a reason and you simply can’t do it alone, day and night, week after week. Mad props to single parents who don’t have someone to turn to at 2 a.m. to handle the nighttime feeding.
Since my husband was new at this parenting situation, too, I had to be really vocal about needing help, not because he wasn’t committed as a father but because he couldn’t possibly know what this woman, who had just pushed a baby out of her body for the first time, might need at any given moment. A burp cloth? A footstool? A sandwich?
…And Be Specific About The Help I Need
My friends and family were generous with their offers to help out. “I can hold the baby,” was something I heard a lot. However, that wasn’t the kind of help I needed. So I learned that I had to advocate for what was truly going to help me out, as long as they were offering.
Sure, they could hold the baby. However, could they also run down to basement and switch out the loads of laundry too?
Perfection Is An Unrealistic Goal
My dad would joke when I would come home with a 98 on a test, “What happened to the other two points?” It wasn’t really funny to me, because all I heard in his voice was that he expected me to be perfect.
While I have made my share of dumb mistakes, I’ve had a hard time letting go of the idea that perfection is a realistic goal. I pride myself in the quality work I do at my job, but I’ve found that I can apply the perfection principle to motherhood. There are some stains that just won’t come out of my kids’ clothes. My daughter loves to read, yet never remembers to put her books away. We’ve had some epic Ikea fails putting kids’ furniture together. I have learned to embrace “good enough.”
Self Care Isn’t Selfish
I always put myself last, and I know a lot of my mom friends do, too. I usually feel like putting myself before my kids is indulgent, and that I’m choosing my needs over theirs. For years I ignored self-care, and I’m not talking about haircuts or massages. Self care, to me, is pursuing something that fills me outside my roles as a mom and partner. It’s spending time with my friends, or watching reality TV by myself, without judgment. It’s buying myself a decadent meal in the middle of the day, because I just can’t eat another chicken nugget. I found that if I didn’t occasionally put myself first, I wasn’t treating myself well. I think kids need to witness their parents caring about themselves, not exclusively, but in a way that shows children that parents are people too.
I Get What I Get And I Can’t Get Upset
I say this to my kids all the time. I learned it from their pre-school teachers. At ages 9 and 6, they roll their eyes at me when I remind them of this phrase, but I still think it’s valid. In the end, they have to learn how to move on from disappointment. I’ve found motherhood to be filled with disappointment — when my kids act out, when I worry that I can’t work full-time and be a parent, when all that’s left for me to eat for dinner is someone else’s leftover macaroni and cheese. I can’t dwell. I’ve learned that I get a chance to make it better, always. And that it could also be worse.
I Can Have It All, Just Not All At Once
I think this goes for men, as well, who are more hands-on raising their kids than dads were a generation ago. I work full-time, but not around the clock. I set up boundaries as best as I can. I see my children for such a small amount of time on workdays — just an hour in the morning and about an hour and a half at night before they go to bed — that I can’t let work encroach on that time. It happens, but less so when I put my phone away when I’m with my children. They have my full attention, in those times, just like my job has my full attention during the workday, except when the school calls to pick up a sick kid, or I’m quickly texting the babysitter about what to reheat for their dinner.
I Am A Work In Progress
One aspect of motherhood that took me a while to adjust to was that my kids were constantly evolving. Just when I got used to them at one stage, they moved on to the next in their typical development progress. Once I learned to embrace these constant changes, I stopped being so frustrated by them. Plus, I learned that I was still evolving too, as a mom and a general human being.
Our society tends to paint growth in broad strokes: baby, child, teen, adult, senior citizen. However, like there are many stages to a baby’s development, the same applies to adulthood. I have not mastered being an adult and I am definitely no expert in motherhood. As my kids grow, I grow with them, learning about them and myself along the way. It’s actually been a relief to know that my growth never levels off and that I can continue to gain important life experience through motherhood. I am not sure I would be able to summon so much patience, or compassion, or selflessness, if I wasn’t learning those things through raising my children.