Within moments after bringing the kids home from camp, dragging myself and two drawstring bags stuffed full of swim suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, and lunchboxes through the front door, it began.
“Can you help me find my baseball glove, Mom?”
“I want to watch TV!”
“Mom, can I have a snack?” (A favorite in our family. I’ve always suspected that when my kids see me coming to pick them up they imagine me as a big, juicy, steaming chicken drumstick.)
With each pull at my pant leg and each subsequent question, even when asked politely, I could sense my hulk-style evolution towards Mean Mommydom. My answers got unnecessarily curt and I gritted my teeth so as not to blurt out, “Just leave me alone!”
I wanted to be a mom so desperately in the years before my kids were born. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and wondering what it would feel like to have a baby, my baby, in my arms. What I was unprepared for was the intensity of the wanting on the other end, too.
Even as they’re gradually becoming more independent at 8 and 5, my children want a lot of me. They often still need full body contact in the form of cuddles, hugs, and kisses; they want to tell me about something unfair that happened at camp that day or ask me for help opening a new package of art supplies. I’m totally on board with this, most of the time.
But sometimes the wanting overwhelms me. After spending the bulk of my day working and going through the various routines to take care of my family’s needs, at the end of the day it can seem that there’s nothing left for me.
After my Gentle Yoga class a few weeks ago, one of my wonderful, thoughtful students said, “I feel so taken care of in your class. It made me wonder – who takes care of you?”
I hugged her and nearly cried because it’s the same question that had popped into my head that very morning as I was on my mat.
Taking care – of children, aging parents, spouses, friends – can be demanding, but harder still is consistently making time for self-care. Why are the needs of others so obvious, so impossible to ignore? Who, finally, will take care of you?
We’ve all heard it before: put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.
But there’s something important missing from that advice.
Once you’ve put the child’s mask on and he’s out of danger, there’s no need to be a martyr and take yours off. You don’t have to wait for another crisis to put yours back on again.
Of course there will be moments when the needs of those in your care necessarily (but temporarily) overtake your own. Whether your child comes home with a hurt (physical or emotional), your aging parent takes a turn for the worse, or a friend is going through a crisis and needs your support, sometimes the needs of others are intense and urgent and it’s a wonderful thing to be the one who is able to take care.
But when the immediate needs pass, what do you do? Do you find a way to make up for your overextension, or do you keep yourself perpetually in caretaking mode, resentful of the fact that there never seems to be enough time for you?
Any day when I practice yoga, sit for meditation, take a run, walk, bike ride, swim, connect with a good friend, or go to bed early with a good book, I’m doing what no one else can do for me. I leave the proverbial oxygen mask on for a good long time. I breathe in, replenish, and smile. I breathe out and answer for myself that essential question: who takes care of me? I do.
As the kids continue to bustle with post-camp questions and requests, I know they just want me to put on their masks, to help them come down from the day. But right now, after a late night spent working to make up for an afternoon of extra playtime at the park, my mask needs to come first.
“Guys,” I say, crouching down to their level, breathing deeply and feeling Mean Mommy melt a bit. “I just need five minutes with no one asking me for anything. Okay?”
They look at me for a moment, then nod. They’ve heard this before and though it’s not their first choice, they’ll do their best. My five-year-old daughter waits a whole minute before starting to ask me for something, then catches herself and stops mid-sentence. I hug her and feel taken care of.
After the five minutes are up I switch gears and let myself be needed again. Then when they go to bed, I pretend I’m my own mother and have a short debate with myself about the choice between work and sleep. I imagine how beautiful it would feel to heed rather than fight my droopy eyelids, and crawl into bed shortly after.
The next morning after I drop them off at camp, rather than immediately launching into battle with my email, rather than ripping off the mask, I bring myself to my mat for a gentle yoga practice. I move consciously and breathe deeply, because no one else can do it for me.