This week I did something that I have daydreamed about doing off and on since I became a mom. Something I have wanted to do, thought about doing dozens of times but never actually followed through with. Something the mom shame voice in my head told me was too selfish, unnecessary, unfair to my kids. But this week, I did it anyway.
When I tell you what I did, you might laugh. You might roll your eyes. You might stop reading this post and walk away thinking, “Is she serious with this?” It’s embarrassing and it’s silly. But it’s a real struggle I’ve had in my head as a mom and I want to talk about it because sometimes small things like this are major AHA! moments that need to be shared.
You ready for this?
My confession: I left my son at the gym daycare for longer than necessary.
I checked him in, worked out at a leisurely pace, stretched, and then sat in the steam room AND the hot tub (gasp!). I stifled the voice in my head that shouted “He’s been in there for an hour and a half! You need to go get him! He’s probably waiting for you!” I let those thoughts emerge and disappear like backyard summer bubbles. I parked my butt on that white gym towel, closed my eyes and did my best to ignore them.
When I popped my head into the childcare room to get him, I saw what I knew I would see. He was smiling and laughing and playing with the kids and wasn’t thinking about me or my absence one bit. When he finally saw me, he smiled and waved and ran over to me without a care in the world.
Why was I even worried? Why has it taken me 8 years to learn that it’s ok to take time now and then to do things like this for myself? Why does my mind feed me lies about what I should and shouldn’t be doing to be a “good mom”?
I took him back into the pool area with me and we laughed and swam for the next hour. I was focused and connected and I couldn’t stop reveling at how much easier it was to savor this moment of togetherness after first having had my time alone.
The truth is, that I am a solitary person by nature. A true introvert, a textbook Enneagram 5, a loner through and through. As a result of this, becoming a mom has been simultaneously the most fulfilling and most challenging journey of my life.
What does someone who requires large swaths of solitude do when faced with the 24/7 demands of children? If I’m being honest, the constant current of need swept me away. I’ve been consumed by it’s force, turned upside down, and at times, metaphorically drowned.
I’m not talking about a short period of time time. I’ve struggled with this for almost a decade of my life now.
It has zero to do with my children’s temperaments or my husband’s actions or the support system of friends and family around me. I am surrounded by love, support and opportunity, and am grateful every day for the blessings that people in my life have heaped upon me.
The thing is, when it comes to an internal struggle like this one, no one can save you but yourself.
Looking back now, it breaks my heart to know that I could have been a better mom all these years if I had just given myself permission to be alone when I needed it.
For whatever reason, one of my fundamental beliefs about motherhood was that to be a good mom, I needed to “be there” for my kids in a literal sense. I stopped working and decided to be a stay-at-home mom because my mom was an amazing stay at home mom, and I wanted to give that gift to my kids too.
At first it was amazing. I could do whatever I wanted! I could watch TV! I could stay in my pajamas until noon! I could bake cookies! But the novelty of those things soon wore off and I was the strangest kind of lonely. A kind of lonely that only a stay at home parent knows. A kind of lonely where you are never alone and always alone and it seems like no one understands.
This is the point where I started fantasizing about all the ways I would spend my time if I had a pocket of freedom. An afternoon to walk the aisles of Target at a leisurely and uninterrupted pace. A long bath with a glass of wine and a book. A weekend alone in a hotel room far, far away.
When the baby was sleeping I felt like I needed to give my time to my husband or catch up on housework, so there was not much time left over for myself. And this started to lead to problems.
Awhile back, I read The Road Back To You, an introduction to the Enneagram by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. I learned a lot about myself, instantly recognizing myself in the Type 5 profile.
The Enneagram Institute
The Intense, Cerebral Type
Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated
I learned that there are a lot of reasons I am the way I am. There are many amazing things about being such a thinker, but there are also challenges I need to overcome.
Have you ever heard the term “avarice?” I never had, before reading this book. Basically, avarice is greed. Usually this manifests as greed for wealth or material gain. But for me it became major obstacle in a different sense; I had a greed for personal time. I wasn’t aware of it, but I began exhibiting this unbecoming trait at this point in my life to the detriment of my relationships.
Because I rarely allowed myself the alone time I needed, I clung fiercely to the slivers I did have. I hoarded it. I was militant about being home for nap time. Partially because it kept up the routine my daughter needed, but also selfishly because that two hours of blissful silence was the best part of my day.
Later on, I started retreating to the bathroom after bedtime routine and barricading myself in the bathroom to linger for hours with a stack of magazines and a glass of wine. I knew this time was something I needed for myself, but I realized too late that I was also unintentionally leaving my (not type 5) husband alone on the couch alone and hurting our marriage in the process.
I knew I needed something different, but I just didn’t know how to find it. I tried joining the gym at this point, but my daughter hated childcare and cried and screamed when I left. It was hard for me emotionally to work out for 30 minutes (let alone the extra time I longed for). In hindsight the gym probably could had been the lifeline I needed, but I let my guilt stop me from giving myself (and my daughter) a chance to see it though.
This went on for years until I realized that I DID have some time that I could make for myself, I just needed to think about my day differently. I broke my lifelong night owl tendencies and began the habit of waking up at 5:30 am to drink coffee, journal, read an article… whatever I wanted in the quiet stillness. I committed and stuck to a workout program, journaled, and felt a boost that I hadn’t felt in years. I felt lighter and freer. In giving myself the gift of that time each morning, I freed my mind from craving it the rest of the day.
Since then, each year has brought brought me more strength to make this time for myself, because I realize now that alone time is not a splurge or a luxury for me. It is a requirement that I need to take care of my mental health. No one would make me feel guilty for prioritizing my physical health by working out making an extra effort to eat well. And I can’t continue to make myself feel guilty for taking time when I need it.
It’s easier said than done though. I still struggle.
Last night I dropped both of my kids off with their dad at basketball practice and I came home and folded laundry and cooked dinner blissfully alone. I heard that voice pipe up. “You should have stayed at practice to supervise, that is putting too much on his shoulders.” I’ll be honest, this still happens almost every time I choose to protect my time alone. I think of other things I should be doing or how my selfish choice might be affecting others. When that happens, I try to remember that this time will actually BENEFIT everyone.
When the door opened and everyone walked in later that night, I was refreshed enough to finish the day intentionally the way I wanted to. I wasn’t rushing around checking tasks off my list; I was in a calm and clear state of mind. I was more able to react reasonably to a bottle of spilled apple juice and shrug off offhand comments about the dinner I had made (that probably would have made me fly off the handle if I hadn’t had that time to reset).
I’m still a long way from unapologetically taking time whenever I need it, but I’m getting there. I have started working again, working out more often and I’m writing again because it feeds my soul. I ask my husband for help when I need it and he always supports me. I don’t know why I spent so many years afraid to ask. Last summer I got a sitter when I didn’t actually need one so that I could get some stuff done. I left for a three day conference for work this fall. This might seem like small potatoes to some of you, but these baby steps are big steps for me. I’m getting there. I’m getting there.
If you’re a new mom reading this, or if you are struggling with similar challenges… know that you’re not alone. I think many of us are programmed to feel like our value to the world is wrapped up in how much we give to others. We should absolutely continue giving our gifts to others! But as the saying goes, “You can’t fill from an empty cup.”
Learn about yourself. Reflect and dig and come back to whatever it is that YOU need to be the best version of yourself. For me it’s time alone… maybe for you it is time for long runs or happy hours with friends. Maybe it’s time spent knitting or working on your backhand. Whatever it is, do more of that.
Don’t wait to start advocating for yourself and what you need; it’s never too late. Other people don’t have to understand it. They might not like it at first, but once those closest to you see the change that will unfold when you start prioritizing your needs they will come around. In the end, everyone in your orbit will benefit from the shift that will inevitably come.