I’m Not Giving Up, I’m Just 'Practicing Self-Care'

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It would be great if we could anticipate, ahead of time, what we’ll get sh*ttier at after we have kids. New parents instead have to learn, like a toddler trying to jam a star-shaped block into a square hole, that you can’t fit 34 hours of effort (what you want to do + what you should do + what you have to do) into 24 available hours. Time rushes through the hourglass, taking a little bit — or a lot — every day from your work, your health, your relationships, your money, your ego. Every mom I speak to can so quickly identify the aspects of her life she downgraded after having kids that it’s almost as if she’s been ruminating on the very topic for years.

Doing less has recently been claimed as a tenet of wellness culture, a sect of the church of minimalism. It’s an act of self-care to make your peace with being a good enough mother, a good enough human. Those of you who have done the reading know to cut yourself some slack with your body, at work, and in life. Child psychologists also wish you would do a little less in the parenting sphere, as we know now that overattentive parents have harmed kids’ resilience and coping skills. So readjusting your hopes for hacking your life and raising a baby genius is a good thing.

I will text a friend 'having it all 🙃' on a day when one kid has the stomach flu and also a bathroom pipe has frozen.

And yet, watching yourself change after you have kids is difficult. It’s like the ghost of your child-free self is hanging around, claiming noisily that it’s still alive, while you, all too corporeal, stroll around the living room jiggling a baby. During my first few years as a parent, I worked awfully hard to be the same high-achiever I was before. I also cried and drank a lot.

I was built like many other modern women, particularly educated women, who trained in a career or honed skills prior to becoming mothers and assumed all that interest would find a natural place after having kids. “I don't know why, but I guess I thought I would have children and suddenly be fulfilled and content and not really have any more goals or want to spend time on other things,” a mother admits in Rachel Bertsche’s book The Kids Are in Bed: Finding Time for Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting.

Life got a little easier once I, voluntarily or not, settled for a gentleman’s C in the areas of housework, home cooking, entertaining, salary goals, and parenting over scrabbling for an A, a healthy sort of realism. These days, the notion of having it all has evolved from the working mom ideal to a shorthand for maternal delusion. I will, for example, text a friend “having it all 🙃” on a day when one kid has the stomach flu and also a bathroom pipe has frozen.

Still, hearing “let it go, mama!” does not automatically bring a sense of peace. Keaton O’Neal, Austin-based vice president and associate general counsel at Jellyvision, says that she hasn’t just readjusted her expectations for her career since having kids, but her friendships, as well. “I don’t call people on the phone. I spend months with an unreturned email,” the mom of two tells me. “I’m not even alone that much, but sometimes there’s that gnawing loneliness.”

It should be liberating to do less, a triumph of wisdom, of saying 'f*ck it.'

Chicago author Emily Gray Tedrowe has accepted that she’s sh*ttier than she’d like to be when it comes to being her family’s planner: She’s missed school and activity signups. “In some ways I’m a Type A mom, but in this area — planning ahead — I’m not as good,” she tells me. But, I ask, isn’t it a little badass to buck the stereotype of the mom as social secretary? She sees the point, but still, she says, “I feel bad about myself in this area. I’ve let it go, and I wish it was different.”

It should be liberating to do less, a triumph of wisdom, of saying “f*ck it.” A practice round for the day we grow our hair long and gloriously gray and move to the canyon. But if you were raised never to settle, it can feel like a regression of both your feminist and maternal ideals. If your mom burned the candle at both ends to succeed at her career, are you betraying her if you stay home with the kids? How about when you fail, once again, to even consider making a rainbow cake for your child’s birthday?

This expectation to live up to the women before you can be especially intense for women of color. “When it comes to black people,” says Christine Michel Carter, a Maryland-based consultant and author of the book Mom AF, “there is this ingrained feeling that you want to be as great a caregiver as your grandmother: cooking from scratch, entertaining fabulously, being the foundation for the family, never making your husband feel like he needs to do dishes or wash clothes — even if he wants to.”

When Carter’s first marriage was ending, she realized she “couldn’t be June Cleaver” on her own. “I was so busy trying to control their lives and my life that I wasn’t living it,” she says. The pressure, Carter acknowledges, was internal, and she hopes to inoculate her daughter against this do-everything mindset.

Roseanne’s on-screen alter-ego was revolutionary and honest and a breath of fresh air, but did you ever want to be her?

Part of what makes lowering your expectations hard is the fear, drilled into us since before having children, that pausing your career will make it harder to reenter the workforce. A hungry recent graduate might do more for less, so coasting at work isn’t always an option. Something else has to give. You could worry less about volunteering too much at school, but are you really going to opt out of helping your kids’ overworked, underpaid teachers, and be that mom who skips the Queen of Hearts fundraiser? You haven’t seen your friends in months, but also when was the last time you went to Orangetheory? What about your kegels? Tax time is coming up, don’t forget.

A cottage industry of merch has sprung up around Lowered Standards Mom — the “PTA Drop Out” T-shirt on Etsy; this huge, pink “Mom Fuel” coffee mug at Target; the terse needlepoint designs betraying a deep sense of ambivalence. Maybe it would be easier to give fewer sh*ts about being that mom if she wasn’t a sideshow character or a Halloween costume. Roseanne’s onscreen alter-ego was revolutionary and honest and a breath of fresh air, but did you ever want to be her?

I remember, after my first son was born, wallowing in career despair because a colleague of mine released a book to high acclaim. I wondered if I’d ever work again, let alone publish a book blurbed by Jonathan Franzen. I had just thrown away my career ambitions (it felt like at the time) on a 5.5-pound project that I was not enjoying that much and the feeling seemed to be mutual. “But you’re doing the most important work of all,” a relative reassured me. That answer didn’t help.

What did help was time, as did a clear-eyed look at actual moms in the world, past and present. Were they really as selfless and content as you’d assumed? How often did they get on the floor and play with us and really mindfully do it? My mother hosted legendary Thanksgivings, twinkling with shined silver and crystal, which were also the culmination of weeks of palpable tension and irritation in the house as she prepared and allowed no one to help. Her own mother died before I was born, but instead of being known as a font of love and domestic bliss, she had a reputation for being cold and unloving. The utopian standard we want to live up to is nostalgia for something that didn’t really exist — our grandmothers spent far less time with their children than we do with ours, and a lot more leisure time away from their kids than we currently do.

The self-care is in the details.

Maybe it would be even more helpful if we questioned why we hold our post-child selves up to our child-free standards. What did the child-free version of you know about how your best life should look? That version of me smoked cigarettes and would sometimes eat an entire pizza on a Wednesday night.

My youngest child is 5 now, and I do feel like I got something back. I sometimes slip out for a few hours to the wine bar down the street with other moms. There, I am among women capable of the kaleidoscope vision required to see who I was, who I might have been, who I am, who I might still be. I come home and give the boys canned soup and frozen fish sticks for dinner before giving them an express bedtime. The self-care is in the details. The victory is in the commander-like authority of choosing your battles — and having people in the trenches along with you. My humorously large coffee mug is half-full, a little warm instead of ice cold. Having some is the new having it all.

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