Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Fuel That Keeps Us Going

I took an hour long nap yesterday. It was the kind of nap that passes only briefly through weird fitful dreams then drops you rapidly into deep and dreamless immovable, impenetrable, heavy slumber.

It was the kind of nap that is necessary, the kind that, if you don’t get it, will leave you un-functional. It was the kind of nap you take on the first day of your period. And that’s just what this was. After a lot of excitements at a new friend’s house that morning, and probably too many treats, Jada could not settle into a nap even though her eyes betrayed her desperate need for rest. After thirty minutes of my own eyelids dropping shut like the doors of a freight elevator only to be startled back open by a slapping hand across the forehead followed by peels of giggles, I asked Jada if she would like to go play with Twila instead of sleeping. Today, my rest was more important than hers. And that was how I found myself crashed to oblivion with a noise machine whirring away and the humidifier humming in my daughters’ bedroom.

As it always does, my self-care came at a cost. When I woke up an hour later, feeling much more rested but a bit less alert, I came out of my daughters’ room to find many things amiss. The first hint that all hell had broken loose while I was peacefully resting, was that the television in my bedroom was on, my closet door open, my dresses spread across my bed, and bits of orange peel were sprinkled all over my carpet.

As I sleepily surveyed the situation, two sets of tiny footsteps pattered down the hall to greet me. Jada was naked and covered in a light dusting from head to toe of what appeared to be whole wheat flour. But it was when I looked at Twila, that I gasped.

Twila was wearing the new dress that I bought for my weekend spring break get away with my girlfriend. The dress I bought but had not yet worn, the dress I asked Twila to leave alone, the dress whose tags were still on. The dress had large, wet-looking spots all over it.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so sleepy. With a few choice words, I carefully removed the dress and replaced it on its hanger, promising Twila that we would discuss this later. I then made it very clear to them that if there was anything not as it should be in the kitchen, I wanted it put right—right now; before I came out there.

“Okay,” Twila agreed lifting her palms to me as she stood in my way, “okay, mom. Just wait here, okay? Wait here.”

“Wait here,” Jada agreed, lifting her hands in the same way.

I was happy to wait. I brushed my teeth and found my warm socks. The snow was beginning to fall in big fluffy flakes that blew in great plumes with the wind. The sky was a thick, high grey.

I stared at the snow, wrapping my arms around my chest. I felt cold, and tired like I do so often lately. Maybe it’s just February, maybe it’s all the tumult in my family of origin. Whatever it is, I often feel lately, like I could stay in my PJs, eating chocolate chips with the covers pulled up to my chin until the sun sets again. My motivation has been at an all time low these past weeks, my workouts have slipped to weekly efforts, just frequent enough to leave me exhausted instead of invigorated. Desperately I page through supplements and nutrients trying to find the missing link that would compensate for my low energy and my cloudy head, but such a supplement doesn’t seem to exist. I have to face the reality that this might just be stress, which is not so easy to correct.

After a few quiet minutes, the girls came tumbling back into the room. I’ll never know what they were doing out there while I was asleep or what the kitchen looked like before I came out because by the time they led me proudly down the hallway, the kitchen was spotless.

Each day Twila’s initiative and capability grows by leaps and bounds. I am unendingly proud of her. And I check myself all the more to make sure I’m not relying on her responsibility and compassion like a roommate or partner instead of an eldest child.

After helping Jada get dressed I agreed to let them play with flour (again) and set them up at the counter with cups and spoons and bowls. While they played I found myself staring out the window unblinkingly until I shook myself and forced my body to move towards the pile of laundry. I used to never stop moving, especially when the kids were distracted for a while. That was my time to start dinner, to pick up, to hurriedly sweep or vacuum or scrub something, or write a few sentences in my novel.

The house is growing clutterier each day and the laundry pile gets bigger and bigger before I get to it. Dinner time sneaks up on me at what feels like noon, leaving me searching the pantry and freezer lamenting the missed stop at the grocery store to get chicken or milk. The overall feeling is one of ‘not-on-top-of-it-ness.’

And the thing about being a mom of young kids is that you never really have time to figure out what’s wrong with you. You can’t just ‘get more sleep’ because each night is unpredictable. And you can’t make sure you work out regularly for a month to see how that feels because kids keep getting sick.

Is it too much caffeine or not enough? Am I staying up or sleeping in too late? Am I taking too many vitamins or not enough? Am I eating too much protein? Sugar? Fat? Starch? A mother’s health is a crapshoot with too many variables.

I even feel stuck in my book. In five years of writing every day, I have never had writers block. I always identified with Garrison Keilor’s adage that he doesn’t have time for writer’s block. And indeed I don’t but I was recently given a good bit of criticism about the book and it needs to be addressed and it’s not so major but the situation’s consequences will run throughout the entire book, its ripple effects changing everything so I need to make the right choice and I can’t seem to make it. So I feel paralyzed in that too.

But mothers have to keep going.

As I hauled the shop-vac upstairs to clean up the flour project while the girls were washing off an hour or so later, I thought about how the loneliness of a mother can be profoundly deep. Most challenges of a mother must ultimately be met alone. That’s something most of us figure out a few months into motherhood when our partners (if we have them) go back to work and our family stops dropping by to visit. In some families it takes days, for others perhaps years, but eventually every mother finds that point when she realizes it’s just her. Motherhood is really hard and it’s even harder to do alone. Even if you have really helpful people in your life, their help and support amounts to a drop in the ocean of demands on the primary caregiver.

The fear and anxiety that comes with this realization can be crippling. There is so much pressure each and every day. Aside from the really boring, basic but absolutely essential day to day stuff like buying food and cooking it, washing the kids, keeping enough laundry clean to dress them, keeping the house clean enough to be safe, and getting them to sleep at a non-neglectful time, there are the profoundly more important and far more complicated duty’s of the primary caregiver like comforting, nurturing, supporting, education, engaging in spiritual debates and discussions, and assisting in the endeavors, wonders and ambitions of our children. And then there’s self-care.

It’s easy to let self car fall well below the physical and spiritual demands of our children, but without it, our ability to parent effectively and fully, diminishes. It is the times that I am treated to solitude to write and to think, in the early mornings, or take needed naps in the middle of the day, that keep me smiling, or at least going after long hours—or days of helping caring for my children as they teethe and cut teeth, get sick and heal, play and fight, build and break down, negotiate and cry, sleep and wake up, laugh and shout, climb and create, fall and get up again.

So even if I have to write while simultaneously spelling out words letter by letter or listening to fights swell in distant rooms, or nap while flour is sprinkled on every surface and treats are eaten and snacks are spread on the floor, it’s worth the divided attention and the inevitable cleanup to have just a little time for myself. It truly is the fuel that keeps a mom going.