I just bought myself a book light. Yes, I still read actual books. Every night, while lying next to my child (resorted to this- see Confessions of a Failed Sleep Trainer) I read. I have been using a flashlight that is slowly wearing its batteries down and I have to shake it to get it back on. My eyes have begun to strain. Every night, before going to sleep, I have had the thought “I should get a book light.”
Why is it so difficult for Moms to take care of themselves? It is a given that I bring my child to all of his doctor visits, dentist visits, haircuts. I make sure he gets plenty of playtime, fresh air, exercise, organic food, sleep, baths. We have special time during which he gets to decide whatever he wants to do. We play games and make up stories for all of the themes that he is encountering in growth opportunities. The cars learn how to say goodbye and then come back together, share racetrack time, use their words to say when they feel MAD or SAD. The part of me that is just-trying-to-survive-as-a-Mom, however, has no time for being playful, kind, or patient with my own feelings and needs. This part wishes they would “just go away” because I don’t have time! And yet they don’t. We all know what happens when you try to rush a young child to get through feelings quickly because we don’t have time: they get bigger! Time doesn’t exist in the emotional world. Grown-ups need to care for their feelings, too. Or they get bigger. (Or turn into depression, resentment, eating disorders, alcoholism, etc)
I am in a moms-who-are-therapists group in which we spoke about aggressive self-care recently. We shared about our “ideal, but realistic” days as moms. What would we do? The answers weren’t huge changes. They were little shifts internally and externally that made a big difference: getting up ½ hour early in order to write, enjoying cooking instead of trying to just-get-everybody-fed, going OUT to dinner to have a night off from cooking, going for a family hike on the weekend instead of spending so much time on laundry, getting a haircut or a pedicure.
Why the term “aggressive”? I like this because it expresses how much it truly is an opposite action to take care of one’s self first (or at all) for many moms. As moms, we often defend and protect our child/dren’s well-being. How often do we turn this energy toward our own care? It requires attention, intention, and yes, some level of aggression. Because the cultural messages for moms are often about martyrdom and loss of self. And so turning toward, back to the self, honoring and tending to one’s self, requires fierceness. In case you didn’t notice the quote that my new book light is illuminating:
…every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!
And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart, and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
PS By the way, just to name the obvious, you don’t have to be a Mom to practice aggressive self-care. It absolutely applies to eating disorder, codependency, and recovery general good self-care as well. Put on your own oxygen mask first.
A colleague of mine is in the process of creating and producing the “Mama Faces Project” – a video art project interviewing mothers. (I will share with her permission when it is complete). In this project, she invites mothers to say TO YOURSELF what you needed to hear in those most difficult moments of motherhood: those moments where you felt alone, overwhelmed, full of rage or failure. The purpose is so any mother out there who may be feeling awful in the moment will know they aren’t alone .
As I prepared for participating in this video project, I thought, hmmmmm…what were those moments for me? I definitely struggled with sleep: sleep “training,” modified sleep training, no sleep training, chucking sleep training out the window, co sleeping with a baby kicking me in the face, etc. (BTW Here is a funny image of what any parent who has attempted co sleeping has experienced: http://www.howtobeadad.com/2011/6452/baby-sleep-positions-“h-hell” )
Here is what I would say to myself:
1. Lots of people have “failed” at this. You are NOT ALONE in struggling with this.
2. It is ok to be angry at your husband during this phase of sleep deprivation. That is normal. Love is under the anger. (You don’t have to feel or remember that right now.)
3. I know you know a lot about psychological conditioning (I was studying this for my licensure exam while in this phase of infant Mommyhood) right now and how “reinforcing” it can be to respond to “negative” cries for attention or respond erratically/inconsistently, but here is what I want you to know from a fierce mother’s heart: Your child is not a dog, rat or pigeon and you are not Pavlov, Skinner, Watson or any other behavioral Psychological researcher! (Here is a frightening example of how the behavioral Psychologist Skinner kept pigeons underweight and living in tiny boxes in order to have them be hungry enough to want to eat food as a reinforcement for the behavior he was trying to condition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA )
4. It is ok to be inconsistent because you are human and one of the best lessons you can model for your child is to listen to your intuition on where you are suffering and let that guide you toward the most appropriate response.
You do not have to cut yourself off from that awareness to be a good Mom. Yes, of course it can be helpful to be consistent, but remember the deeper place of consistency is the ability to flow with chaos. This is not a laboratory. This is a real life experience with messiness and failure. And growth comes from failure. AFGO’s (Another F*cking Growth Opportunity) come from failure. Remember how Brenee Brown called TED “the failure conference”? There is a LOT of inspirational growth in failure. Invite failure more! Invite yourself to fail! As it says in the first sentence of the 12 steps:
“WHO cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea…” *
And yet the foundation of transformative learning (as well as recovery from any addiction such as alcoholism, codependency, eating disorders, etc) comes from admitting “Ok I am having an AFGO here, failing, and I am whole heartedly willing to stop suffering in this way and try something different.”
I invite you to wholeheartedly be willing to stop beating up on yourself for the ways you are “failing” as a mother and embrace messy learning. As Brenee Brown states, one of the greatest gifts we can teach our children is that “You are worthy of love, belonging and joy.” And we model this for our children by modeling self-compassion and embracing our own imperfections.
For a beautiful version of Brenee Brown’s Parenting Manifesto, click here:
* The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous