Things started spiraling around 2 p.m. today. It’s a tale as old as time for a mom. My husband is out of town. My 2-year-old has taken up hitting. Despite my attempts at gentle redirection, she excitedly continued to say “More! More!” and delighted in how much it got my attention. My 3-month-old wouldn’t sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time in his crib and was usually woken up by his sister’s incessant screaming (another new fun hobby of hers). When he finally was able to sleep, it took too long for him to calm down. He’d act hungry but wouldn’t nurse. He’d continue to spit out his pacifier. He didn’t want to be cuddled. He didn’t want to be put down.
All pretty typical behaviors for these ages, right? I know that, looking from the outside in. But in these moments, it took every cell of energy I had to not lose my cool. After a very long afternoon, as I sat in the dark trying to rock the baby to sleep and listening to my toddler cry herself to sleep in her room because I couldn’t lay down with her, I had a sobering thought. This is a job I can’t quit.
I can’t leave it for a different job. One with better hours. One with fewer time commitments. One with a less demanding boss(es). One that gives me the motivation to wear something besides yoga pants and oatmeal on my shirt every day.
I can’t take a personal day, leaving my work undone or for others to finish for me. I can’t turn in my notice, thanking my employer for the opportunity but acknowledging that it’s time for me to move on.
I can’t take a sabbatical, with months of nothing but sleeping in, a stack of books, coffee at more than lukewarm temperature, and as much white wine as I can tolerate with my college years behind me.
I can’t ask for help. I wanted this job. I applied for it for years and kept getting rejected. I wanted to be a mother and to stay home with my babies. I wanted to be the one to get them through these early years. So why does the thought even cross my mind? Two words: Burn. Out.
It’s a buzzword these days, really. No matter what career you have or the field you are in, the possibility of burnout has never been higher, especially for mothers. Working mothers are expected to parent like they don’t work and work like they aren’t parents. Stay-at-home mothers are expected to keep the house impeccably clean, laundry and dishes always done, the children happy, safe, and fed with no screen time, and ready to care for her working husband as soon as he walks in the door after a long day at the office. Oh, and volunteer for PTA, bake 50 cupcakes for the bake sale, make sure all the kids are at the right appointments, practices, and recitals on the right dates in the right place—you get the picture. I’m tired just typing it.
This job is draining—motherhood. It can leave you at the end of the day feeling like a shell of a person, just longing to feel whole again. Longing to blow out your hair after an uninterrupted shower. Longing to spend time with your husband away from the couch in front of the TV because that’s all you have the energy for. Longing for a full night of sleep instead of one to two hour increments. Longing for time to create and connect and just find meaning in the stillness.
But this job is so fulfilling. It’s the way your toddler starts putting words together into comprehensible sentences, and the next thing you know they’re saying “I love you Mommy” without prompting. It’s the way your 3-month-old begins to smile when he sees your face. Your comforting, safe, loving face that he won’t find in anyone else. It’s the way you learn to live in the mess and embrace it instead of resisting it (still working on this one).
It’s cliché to say, but I’ll say it anyway . . . I’ll miss the monstrous amount of toys strewn across my living room floor one day. I’ll miss the kitchen constantly being messy, the dishes piled up, and the laundry still in the basket.
It’s the way you find strength you didn’t know you had to continue showing up for the most challenging job on the planet. The job that takes patience, love, compassion, grit, perseverance, selflessness, and grace upon grace. It’s the way you realize that you really don’t mind reading one more bedtime story and giving one more goodnight kiss.
It’s the job that inevitably you will one day be able to take a step back from, but you’ll never truly retire. And maybe that, in itself, is what makes the job you cannot quit the most sacred one in the world.