When I reflect on my early days as a mother, especially when I had two children under the age of two, I realize that there were parts of motherhood that no one could have prepared me for. Sure, there were moments of joy and laughter each day, but some of it was just hard.
I became a stay-at-home mom when my daughter was just shy of her first birthday. I left a job that was busy and interesting to be home with her while we anticipated the arrival of my son. I was grateful to be able to make this transition, but I wasn’t sure what to do at first. Having just spent a year navigating full-time work with a baby, I had no idea what being a stay-at-home mom would be like. For me, the natural thing to do was to plan activities for my daughter so that she could learn and grow and I could make mom friends. Park days, zoo days, trips to the children’s museum, story times, and anything else that would get us out of the house. I wasn’t used to having so many hours to fill each day or prepared for how exhausting filling every hour would be.
A few months later my son arrived. As the mental fog that came with having a newborn eventually lifted and I started to recover from childbirth, I tried to get the kids out and about as much as possible. I am still not sure if my obsession with getting out of the house was based on their needs or my needs.
As the exhaustion and stress of being a stay-at-home mom wore me down, I started to feel resentment. My attitude gradually slipped from being thankful to something less virtuous. I started looking at my kids’ days as totally separate from mine. “They are so lucky,” I would think. “They get to eat their lunch in the park today.”
Instead of enjoying an adventure with my kids, I kept thinking about what needed to happen when we got home from the park. I knew the exact time we would need to leave in order to not compromise naptime or the rest of the day’s schedule. Lunch in the park was just a time filler until my next set of duties began.
These outings were sandwiched between all of the normal parenting tasks: making breakfast, cleaning up, changing diapers, dressing and redressing the kids, scheduling appointments, striving to make naps happen at the right time each day so I could have a little break. This is the “mental load” of motherhood, the real or perceived responsibility of having to remember everything.
One day, I set my kids up with watercolors in the backyard and watched them paint while I did dishes in the kitchen. After a few minutes, I decided to go sit with them thinking, “Must be nice to have a leisurely afternoon painting in the sun.” I imagined myself much older, maybe sitting on the beach with a paintbrush, easel, and glass of wine in front of me. “One day I will sit outside and paint in the sun too,” I thought.
And then it hit me. I AM HERE TOO. I am sitting in the sun with paint and paper in front of me RIGHT NOW. So I picked up a brush and painted a picture of a snail (my kids love snails). It was a small shift in my attitude that I have worked on maintaining ever since.
The thing that made motherhood so hard for me at first was that while I felt like a critically important part of my family, I also felt invisible at times. I mean, babies and toddlers don't exactly shower you with praise for cleaning up their dirty diapers, preparing their food, or waking up with them all night long. These things are necessary, often exhausting, but usually invisible. In the process of doing all that I could do for my kids, I almost became invisible to myself.
Over the last couple of years, I have learned that the demands of motherhood are always there, but it is important to remember that I am there too. When I need a reminder of just how important self-care is, I remind myself of this excerpt from Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect: “Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for resting your body and your soul. And part of being an adult is learning to meet your own needs, because when it comes down to it, with a few exceptions, no one else is going to do it for you.”
Running myself ragged for the sake of the kids was not the right approach to motherhood, but it taught me that the things I did for my kids could also serve me if I had the right mindset. The cliché is true: The days are long, and the years are short. If we are lucky, we will be there, really there, for all of it.
I try to stay present now, and I also try to reframe my memory of those early days. The time we went to the zoo and fed the birds? I was there too. The time we were sitting in a bakery waiting for the library to open? That was me, enjoying coffee and a pastry. The magic show we went to at the library? I was there too. And I loved it.