I sat on the Southwest Airlines airplane with Anne on a trip to visit a pen pal in California. As we were preparing to push away from the gate, the flight attendant gave emergency and safety information. "Should there be a change in pressure in the plane, an oxygen mask will drop down above your head. Please place the mask over your mouth and nose and breathe normally." She continued with, "If you are traveling with a small child, please put your mask on first and then help your child with their mask. Oh, and if you are traveling with two children … well … you'll just have to pick your favorite!" Everyone on the plane laughed at her attempt to put humor into an otherwise monotonous message.
I've thought about those instructions many times since that trip. Not the part about picking your favorite, but the part where she said, "If you are traveling with a small child, please put your mask on first and then help your child with their mask." She was imparting wisdom to parents who would otherwise rush to the aid of a child before taking care of themselves. The principle behind the instruction is this: The best thing for the child in the long run is to have a parent who can take care of them beyond the crisis that requires the air mask. In other words, we need to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our family. I believe that is a message every mom needs to hear.
No one else can do a better job at self-care than you. You have to identify the challenges of your job and strategies you can do to manage those challenges. You also have to identify what best refuels you emotionally and physically to help you go the distance you need to as a mom. Here are some common challenges that drain moms and some strategies for managing those challenges.
When I first became a mom I couldn't believe how isolated I felt. I longed for a connection with other moms. I wanted to know if my experiences were normal and I needed to be with other women who understood what my life was like.
My friend Julie invited me to be a part of her playgroup. I jumped at the chance and found the camaraderie I was looking for. These women were just like me! This was my first introduction to the concept of a moms group, something I've been committed to ever since. Moms groups, whether small, loosely organized play-groups or well-structured community or church groups, are vital to a mom and her need to be with other moms. Every mom needs a mothering community — a place where she finds encouragement in her role as a wife and a mother. A moms group is also a place a mom can be cared for. When my sister went on bed rest with her pregnancy, her moms group was part of a community of women who took care of her in that challenging season. Who mothers the mother? Other mothers.
If you don't have a moms group, find one or start one. If you are a mother of a preschooler, you might start by looking for a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group in your area. Go to www.mops.org, enter your zip code, and you'll be given a list of groups in your area. If your kids are older or there isn't an established moms group in your area, you can start one of your own. You might want to pick up my book Creating the Moms Group You've Been Looking For at the bookstore for ideas and to get you started in the right direction.
At the very least, start making an effort to spend time with other moms. Invite a mom and her kids over to play and visit. Ask a neighbor if she'd like to go out one night a week for pie and coffee. Be intentional about spending time with other women who understand what your life is like.
No Time Off
One of the biggest challenges of full-time motherhood is the fact that there's no lunch break, no vacation time and you don't get to leave the office at the end of the day. In time, I found that this left me feeling both trapped and depleted. It's the repetitive monotony of "mommy tasks" that leave us longing for "just a few hours to myself." Can Mom have some time off? Absolutely! What she has to do, though, is learn how to create it for herself.
Time off for me has looked different in different seasons of my mothering journey. What has been consistent has been my strategy to find it. I learned early on that no one was going to walk up to me and say, "Jill, I think you need a break." Instead, I had to learn to build breaks into my life, ask for them clearly and do whatever I could to make them happen.
When Anne and Evan were small, I attended an aerobics class three evenings a week. Asking Mark to cover the home front, I headed off for exercise, but even more than that I looked forward to the conversation each night. Most of the women enrolled in the class were moms, and our conversations before and after class were always encouraging.
When Erica was a baby, I longed to read the newspaper uninterrupted. That's when I asked Mark if he could give me 30 minutes each evening to read the newspaper in our bedroom. The time to myself was refueling. During that summer, I also asked Mark if one night of the week could be "Daddy night." He was agreeable to that, so after dinner each Thursday night, I would meet a friend for pie, shop or head to a park with a blanket and a book.
When Erica was a preschooler, a friend and I discovered that we could give each other days off. We chose Tuesday as our day — one Tuesday was my day off and the next Tuesday was her day off. Our kids loved the arrangement because once a week they were assured of a play day together. Sometimes I would use my day off to simply come home and sleep, other days I chose to go shopping or run errands, and almost every time I would do lunch with my husband.
When asked what she wanted for her birthday, my friend Julie told her husband she wanted him to get a hotel room just for her. He obliged. On her birthday she checked into a local hotel with scrapbooking supplies in tow. She enjoyed a night to herself, watched any movie she wanted on television and scrapbooked for hours. The next morning she woke up without the help of an alarm clock, had a leisurely morning and checked out at noon. She said it was one of the nicest birthday presents she ever received!
If you haven't had time for yourself, think about the activities that would refuel you. Once you've determined your strategy, do whatever you need to do to make it happen. It will almost always require the help of other people: a sitter, your spouse, your parents, a friend or a neighbor. The rewards are well worth the effort, however. You need it, and your family needs it, too.
Very Little Sense of Accomplishment
Most homemaking tasks could be described as mundane and repetitive. It takes four hours to clean a house and only four minutes for your kids to trash it. A load of laundry takes two hours to complete and a potty-training toddler can dirty half that load in a single day. Once a meal is finished and all the dishes are washed or stowed in the dishwasher, it's almost time to be thinking about the next meal. At night after everyone is in bed, a weary mother can wonder, "Did I accomplish anything today?"
By the world's standards, it might not seem as though we have accomplished much. However, the world's standards don't apply to the profession of motherhood. In this profession, the little things are the big things: snuggling an infant, playing peekaboo, changing diapers, nursing, giving a bottle, attending tea parties with dolls, driving trucks in the sandbox, playing catch in the backyard, having a snack on the porch, listening to the saga of a teenage breakup, picking up a sick child from school … the list goes on and on. These are the accomplishments of motherhood. They can't be checked off a list. They don't earn you a raise. They are rarely measurable. But they matter a lot.
You and I can't look for our sense of accomplishment on a daily basis. We have to look for it over the long haul … that's about 18 years or so. What I do today does matter, but it might not be noted or valued for a long time. A woman in the profession of mothering serves and cares for her family as an extension of her relationship with God: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). With that perspective, there are no menial tasks, there is much accomplishment and there is a higher sense of purpose. Understanding that perspective is the highest form of self-care there is.