There’s a saying that goes something like this, “Put your oxygen mask on first then help your children . . .” we’ve all heard it first from the flight attendant, and now it’s pretty much the standard mantra women hear all the time about how you have to help yourself first before you can be there for your children, your family, others around you.
I get it. Sort of.
When I was a new mom (many moons ago) I struggled with going back to work and leaving my baby. The thought of actually leaving her for eight hours was unimaginable, and the stress about how I would squeeze into my work clothes left me a little frazzled. I had gotten quite used to my PJs, no makeup, rocking my babe back and forth routine. But nonetheless, I went back to work as millions of new moms do.
After a few weeks, life became somewhat normal again, and my new role as mommy began. I was fortunate to have my mother close by to watch my daughter during those early years while working in a career I loved in the nonprofit sector and as my husband traveled frequently for work. I had chosen to leave my career in politics right before having my daughter for a career that was a little more balanced and allowed me the flexibility to work shorter hours. It was the right decision as soon after my daughter was born, she had a number of surgeries and having the flexibility to be home with her was critical.
A few years later, after our second daughter was born, I was again fortunate to have a career I loved, family close by to help, as well as a part-time college nanny who helped as the girls got older and we needed help after school.
With two full-time working parents, family close by, babysitters, and my sister and girlfriends for occasional wine nights, I felt I could have it all: raising a family and a career I loved.
I was the PTO president at my daughter’s elementary school, volunteered at a number of organizations and our church, ran a small consulting business on the side, organized a neighborhood Halloween children’s party, book club, and made homemade truffles for teachers’ gifts.
I was happy. And I loved my life.
I truly had it all.
And I was exhausted. All the time.
I was not taking care of myself. I was the mom who cut fruit into beautiful shapes for her children’s lunch complete with a note, then ate whatever I could find and had time to grab on the way out the door. I was the mom who believed eight hours of sleep was for other people and could get away with maybe five. After the girls were in bed, and lunches made, I would stay up most nights until 1 a.m. with work stuff or family stuff I thought was important, like making Shutterfly calendars for my family.
When my husband traveled frequently, I got used to it and established a routine for me and the girls. We had breakfast for dinner picnics in our family room while playing games, I started a neighborhood book club, began a consulting business on the side, and just pushed through. I hosted yearly “Muffins and Mimosas” brunches for my mom friends on the first day of school and would relish when someone would ask me how I did it all. I am embarrassed to say, but I used to love hearing this. It made me feel somehow like I was a good mom.
I loved being a mom. I truly did. And I loved what I thought having it all meant.
I was a good mom back then . . . but I was also EXHAUSTED.
I was getting very little sleep, pushing forward, and absolutely did not take care of myself. In fact, I still find that few moms do this well.
I also did a very good job of hiding my exhaustion.
For 12 years.
Did I stop? No. I added more to my plate. I created a local moms’ talk show, began blogging, and began grad school at night. I loved being the woman with a full plate. An overfull, food-falling-all-over-the-sides plate.
Then a few summers ago, something happened. Something surprising. Something that forced me to stop this madness.
My day started off normal and ended up with me walking into the house at 9:30 p.m. hunched over at a 90-degree angle because I couldn’t stand up straight. I had been having cramps on my right side all day and assumed it had just been something I ate or pulled. Throughout the day as my cramps became worse and ibuprofen did not seem to help, I just ignored the pain and pushed through. Because this is what we do, right? After work, I attended a local board meeting for an organization I was on, and I must have looked worse because three women told me I looked so bad I should probably go to the hospital. What? I thought to myself. Who goes to the hospital on a Wednesday night for cramps? Not moms, that’s who.
Fast forward to 1 a.m. that night, and my husband was speeding to Hartford Hospital because I was about to pass out the pain was so intense. After a few hours of every imaginable test, it turned out I had appendicitis and needed surgery before my appendix ruptured any minute. WHAT? I thought. I am 47. Who has appendicitis at 47? I thought this happened only to children.
After spending a day and a half in the hospital, I realized what could have happened. How my day could have turned out if I continued to ignore my pain. How this having it all attitude almost killed me.
How ignoring my exhaustion and not taking care of myself caught up with me.
I literally ignored my pain because I thought I didn’t have time to go to the hospital because I was a mom. Now, I look back on that night and realize how being this way almost took me away from my family and my life.
Since then, I have tried hard to keep more of a balance. I’m not even sure I know how I kept that pace up. I took myself off most of the volunteer activities I was on, scaled-down my outside commitments, and truly gave more of myself to my family. Going back to grad school at 46 definitely helped me re-prioritize, and finishing school and beginning a fabulous new job that allows me to spend more time at home has definitely helped me find a better balance.
I am now scheduling time for me.
There are still days I struggle trying to find me time and be quiet. Whether it’s watching Netflix with my daughters or coffee dates with my husband, I have redefined what having it all means to me and don’t wish to have that full of a plate, ever again. Being there for my daughters is a priority—always—but I am also learning what downtime is. And me time.
I have ignored my mind and my body for so long, it’s taken a long time to figure out how to prioritize these two things. With the help of my daughters’ dance instructor, I took a step toward this goal and formed an adult jazz class (yes, it’s true) a few years ago, and it’s fabulous. It’s uplifting, nonjudgmental, cathartic, and we even learned a dance routine. It’s been good for my body and my soul.
Having the accountability and girlfriends do this with me has helped tremendously. I am actually finding myself putting “working out” on my calendar–something I have never done before.
I am putting laundry and piles of organizing stuff aside and cheering my girls on during their swim meets and basketball games. I have found writing has been truly one of the things I missed and has helped me stay true to myself.
I am saying NO to so many other things, so I can say YES to what’s truly important.
At 50, I am still finding new ways to find balance and peace in my life and am finally realizing how putting on the oxygen mask first really works. And you know what? This notion of having it all may be a myth. Or maybe it’s real. I don’t know. What I do know, is I’m not entirely sure I want it anyhow.
Originally published on CT Working Moms