Last week, my parents gave me the most amazing gift. They took my kids for three days and three nights. It’s the most time I’ve spent without kids since becoming a mom. Unlike our summer trip to the beach, this time at home alone was a real vacation.
Given how sleep-deprived parenting is, what surprised me most about what I did while they were away was that I didn’t get any extra sleep. What I did was better (and don’t get me wrong, I love to sleep). I used every waking moment exactly as I wanted and I enjoyed every last drop of time to myself.
Because, even more than sleep, what’s really exhausting about parenting little kids is never being alone.
And the less time I have to myself during the day, the later I stay up at night. It’s like I need to steal from those night hours a little of what I miss during the day. It's like all the parts of me I needed to get through those busy days, the parts I gave to everyone else or that were scattered to the wind along the way, I need to wait until they float back into my body and I can take at least one breath as a whole person. I need to feel like a real person again before I can agree to shut my brain off and sleep. I need to be who I am without anyone else around.
If I crash off to sleep before coming back to myself, I’m dizzy the whole next day.
Because each day I drift apart again... Arms and hips to my son, who needs to be held all the time… Ears and eyes to my daughter, who needs to be seen and heard all the time… My feet and legs and every bit of my heart so I walk toward my husband instead of away when he walks through the door, so we remember at least to say hello… And my hair, my face, my armpits, not sure where they disappear to but clearly there are days when they do not belong to me.
And that’s just a regular, plain old day.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why the days are so hard. In any given minute, the what-needs-to-be-done is mostly mundane, mostly not overwhelming, mostly easy-to-do stuff. And then time ticks on, minute piling upon minute, each minute assigned to something, to someone else. If I take a breath, it’s only to remember which of the things I’m not doing need to be done already.
In parenting, 90% or more of the time is easy enough, relaxed enough, manageable enough. And then there’s the other 5 or 10% that’s so unbelievably hard that it leaves traces of its hardness on the rest of the day. When I can let go of that small amount of hard stuff when it’s over, the rest of the time is so much easier. I can’t always do that.
It’s actually something I learned in labor. If you can let go of the pain of the contraction when it dissipates, you’re in a much better place when the next one comes along. If you can’t, that next contraction will be much harder. If you can’t allow it to ebb and flow like a wave, it will pull you under.
Days with kids are like that too. Little kids are kind of like crazy people with ups and downs that can give you whiplash. I find that I hang on too their bad moods—crying or yelling or whining—a lot longer than they do. If I could learn to let go as fast as they do, there would be a lot more happy in my days. For me, it’s hard to let go without a little time to myself. It’s hard to get back to neutral.
The hardest thing about having little kids is that it's constant, no breaks, no breaths, no brain space. Every day—no way out but through.
The feelings of obligation--to be there all the time, to be there completely, to be perfect—are intense. Sometimes I feel like I’m constantly bracing for the next disaster. When there is calm, it always has the air of the calm before a storm.
At the end of those days, when everyone is finally asleep, I need a little time to not-sleep. I need to be alone, lights low, doing something stupid and slow. It may look like reading or watching tv or social-networking, but really it’s breathing my own breaths and letting go of everything.
I may be a little more exhausted the next day with the sleep I lose during those late nights, but what I gain is more valuable: a little piece of sanity to hold onto through another long day spent not-alone.
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