By Sharon Holbrook
My mother was so good at it. Full-time mothering, I mean. Unbothered by noise, she was laid-back, warm, and loving, yet strict and sensible. Her pre-kids profession had been elementary education. Clearly, a roomful of kids was her jam.
When my eldest was about one, and I was longing for more children already, I asked my mom about parenting a houseful of kids. The size of the love I felt for my son, and the happiness he gave me, were already matched in scale by my exhaustion in being fully present and attentive to his every need.
“Wasn’t it stressful having five kids?” I asked her. (My four siblings and I were all born in an eight-year span.) Mom paused thoughtfully and answered, “I wouldn’t say stressful. I was certainly very busy. But it wasn’t stressful.”
Naturally, with a mother like this, what I’d wanted my whole life was to be like her. Despite earning my law degree and taking on a high-powered law firm job, I’d always wanted to take a long sabbatical of sorts to be at home with my littles when the time came.
We planned for this. My husband and I lived in an apartment on half our income so we could stay used to living within smaller means, and we devoted the other half of our income to paying off our sizeable student loans and saving for a down payment on a house. We did it, and we were ready for me to stay home when the time came.
But was I ready? I thought so. And I was, in the sense that I’d read the books, I had everything they needed, and I was fully invested in being at-home mother. From the moment they were each born, I ached for them, particularly as two of my three were immediately snatched up and hustled off to NICU for hours. They felt stolen from me, and I could focus on little else but getting them back.
Maybe it was always like that, even in the years after the hospital. Maybe that’s how I drained myself. Maybe that’s how I unwittingly, you might say, “martyred” myself to ten years of children’s needs. It was because along with pouring out fierce love, I couldn’t help but also pour out too much of myself.
I was a woman torn. I spent those early years delighting in my children – their smiles, their new words, their cuddles. I loved breastfeeding. I didn’t even mind getting up in the night. Well, not too much. At the same time, I spent ten years craving alone time, quiet, solitude, space to just think and be. I also spent half of every year struggling and dragging with seasonal affective disorder, for which I eventually, belatedly, got help.
“Babies cry,” I remember my mom saying matter-of-factly, with a simple acceptance that eluded me. They do, of course, and mine did, but unlike my mom, I didn’t know how to extract my own emotional life from that of my protesting infant. Maybe that was her secret, to draw a line that I somehow was unable to draw to protect myself, to stop myself from being emptied?
Of course, parenting is about giving of oneself. No one who has gestated, birthed, or cared for an infant can argue with that. It’s part of the deal. In case we weren’t sure, new research confirms that, yes, parenthood drains us, and can even affect our physical health.
“Take time for self-care,” we tell young mothers, and she adds another “should” to her list. To be sure, psychologically and physically, I could have used the break of leaving the house and focusing on something other than the children for a while. Sometimes I did this. I recall a day when my eldest was about 8 months old, and my mother-in-law took him so I could run errands by myself. I aimlessly wandered around stores, unburdened by stroller or diaper bag, and feeling a lonely ache for my son’s sweet company.
Maybe if I’d instead left the house for work, I would have gotten used to it, and gotten past the unfamiliar pang of separation. The fact is, though, that I know I wouldn’t have stopped focusing on the children. I would have done both, keeping work and home simultaneously in my mind. I would have felt left out at home. I would have fretted about small caretaking decisions, like what my child was eating or how my child was being comforted when hurt or encouraged when frustrated. I could not have stopped mothering.
Recently, I read that a new study found women need more sleep than men (20 minutes more, to be exact). Why? Because our “busy, multi-tasking” brains are more complex. That must go double for women who are mothers. Whether mom wants to work, has to work, or chooses not to work, we’re all balancing the competing parts of ourselves, the parts that long for closeness and intimate involvement with our kids and the parts that long for adult interaction, and a little bit of darn space. We all have our internal Mommy Wars.
For a full-time working mom, her dilemma might be whether to go out for a much-needed evening out to recharge from both work and home, when she’s already been away from her kids all day. For me, now working flexibly and part-time from home, my dilemma as the on-demand parent is often how to say no to extra field trips and volunteering and never ending family errands and chores, lest they swallow all my oh-so-flexible and easily-consumed work time, the work time I already gave up for ten years. We mothers are certainly different, but we are all similarly divided internally.
I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe it’s to be more like my mom was, and simply accept our families and lives without angsting and fretting so much. I can’t help but think, though, that even my mom was not immune. She returned to teaching when I was in elementary school. We spent afterschool hours in a flurry of errands, dinner-making, chores, and homework. Often, my mother would fall asleep late at night with her head on the kitchen table, right on top of her first-grade lesson plan book. Once, she fell asleep driving home from school in mid-afternoon, with everything and everyone mercifully unharmed except the neighbor’s mailbox.
Maybe it is sleep we need. Maybe it’s that extra 20 minutes. It would be a start. I suspect, though, we also need the men and the children in our lives. When the kids are babies and toddlers, utterly reliant on us, shouldn’t men should be having their own internal “Daddy War,” their struggle of how to balance full parenthood with, perhaps, paid work? That’s not a new idea, and it’s a rising one, and we need to continue to engage in that conversation at home and in the public sphere.
The other piece, though, is the kids. Time passes. They’re not helpless anymore. More and more, I’m intent on the kids becoming independent, on pitching in, on contributing to the family. This takes its own kind of hard parenting work. It’s frustrating to see the occasional homework forgotten, the “washed” dishes left greasy, and the kitchen mess after they’ve been cooking.
I can accept that, though. I can accept, too, that my Mommy War is my own. It is not, and has nothing to do with, any other woman’s Mommy War and certainly not with the snarky, judgmental “Mommy Wars” as staged by the media. I can do what’s right for myself and my family, as we decide together. I think I’ll start with more sleep. Maybe you can too, for that complex brain of yours.
Sharon Holbrook is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. Her work also appears in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Washington Post, and other publications, as well as in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. You can find her at sharonholbrook.com and on Twitter @sharon_holbrook. Sharon lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo credit: Tim Marshall