First Steps First

“Every mother is also the person she is.”   –Barbara Almond 1

“Who are you, and if you don’t know anymore, can you find yourself again?”   –Kathryn Sansone 2

BLW Photography

Mommy’s potty time is sacred time. A few moments alone, singing toys and fussing children temporarily muted. Within ten seconds I’ll see tiny fingers poking under the door or hear giggling and knocking. But those ten seconds are gold.

I think I’ll go ahead and extend that metaphor. When you have kids, finding time for yourself is like panning for gold. Some of us find big chunks of time to unwind every day–to work out or read or take a course at the local college. Some of us, though, often have to search for sparkly dust and tiny nuggets of free time among the gravel at the bottom of a steady stream of day-to-day work. Most people will have some times when big chunky gold is easy to find, and some times when there’s nothing but dust. You might think there’s no point in bothering to find a little flake here and a little flake there. But at the end of the day, who is better off: the mom with a bag full of flakes, or the mom with nothing?

All this talk of chunks and nuggets after starting off with me in the bathroom seems a little…wrong. But hopefully my point comes across anyway.

As a parent, it can be hard to get a moment for yourself. Whether you stay at home with your kids all day or juggle earning an income and taking care of your children, there is always another task to eat up any extra minutes you might find in the day. The problem tends to be worse for moms.

“Even in enlightened households, it tends to be the mothers who oversee the management of the house, take on community roles, and give in to chores. It’s easier to give in. According to The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild, this extra work that women absorb adds up to fifteen extra hours of work each week—an additional month of twenty-four hours each year. It’s called “the leisure gap.” First, women couldn’t vote. Then they couldn’t work. Now they can’t sit down and read the paper.”  3
Hopefully, as we move through the Beetle Basics, we’ll be working with our families so that the gap gets smaller and smaller (remember–I’m working on this too). But even once that gap disappears, we’ll still be left with a lot of work. That’s hard to get around, being a parent and all. So how do you hold on to your sanity and your sense of self between packing lunches, running errands, and cleaning squished banana out of the carpet?

In little bits and pieces, panning for that bag of gold dust.

Kathryn Sansone, who I mention a lot because she is awesome, calls it taking baby steps. She faced the same problem, with a growing number of children and spare time that couldn’t possibly shrink any further.

“I started taking baby steps. I decided that each day I would do one small thing for myself—whether it was spending 20 minutes on the treadmill with my younger son balanced on the top, putting together some cash to pay a babysitter for a short-but-luxurious hour so I could get my nails done, or simply figuring out a way to take a 10-minute shower instead of just squeezing in a 2-minute one. Though small, the impact of these baby steps was dramatic.” 4

For me, these baby steps were often squeezed into those stolen minutes in the bathroom, in the few moments I had after doing my business and before the kids started demanding to be let in. I’d do jumping jacks, kicks, punches, even a few awkward sit-ups on the linoleum floor. This might not sound like gold dust to you, but I have found that working out is number one on the list of things I have to do to remain healthy, both mentally and physically. Ms. Sansone found the same thing. “I had figured out how to salvage 30-minute breaks once or twice a day to work out…As I began to integrate a workout into my (almost) daily routine, I felt immediately better—I was calmer, and my mood was remarkably more positive! Learning to take care of myself in a physical way opened the door to the idea that I am in the driver’s seat of my own life—whether I have one, four, or ten kids.” 5

Working out also floods your brain with endorphins and other chemicals that actually boost your energy and your mood–two things moms can always use more of. So doing jumping jacks in the bathroom is a lot less silly than it probably looked.

These baby steps have changed my life in more than one way. Martha Cilley, aka the FlyLady, uses Baby Steps as her main mantra for decluttering your house:

“Your home did not get dirty in one day, and it will not get clean in a day, either. You have been living in clutter and CHAOS for many years; you are not going to get your home clean in a day. I do not want you to crash and burn. This is why I teach you to take BabySteps. If you try to do this all at once, you are going to be mad at me, because this will be like every other “get-organized” method you have tried. I want you to take your time. As you establish one habit, you will very easily be able to add another one to your routines.” 6

After years of having a messy house because I was overwhelmed at the thought of the work it would take to keep it perfectly clean, FlyLady taught me that 15 minutes a day of cleaning and decluttering ads up, eventually, to a clean house. In the same way, a minute here and there reading, doing breathing exercises, or giving yourself a foot rub ads up to a much happier you. Make it a habit, like rinsing your dishes or making your bed. You don’t have to chose between being a good parent and being who you are. Brooke Shields wrote a book about the problems she faced with a difficult childbirth and a severe bout of postpartum depression:

“Was I supposed to be defined solely as a mother now that I had a baby? I truly wanted to feel like, and be considered, a mother, but that wasn’t all I wanted to be…Even though I had a child, I never thought I’d have to chose between acting and being a mom. The prospect made me weak.” 7

It’s normal to want more than your life at home. But don’t let the thought of trying to fit your interests into your busy life discourage you from even starting.  As a new mom, I’d huddle in the corner with my laptop, as if its glow could somehow shield me from my home’s chaos or the squirming, giggly baby rolling around on the living room floor. The baby I thought I had to give up being me for. No wonder I was trying to hide. No wonder I couldn’t bring myself to do the dishes or, many times, even play with my baby. I thought those things were all I should do with the next 20-30 years of my life.

Ms. Sansone writes about feeling much the same way, early on as a mother of two. But then she discovered that the key to succeeding as a mom was to let the mom stuff go, and frequently. But even with only two children, she found this was not an easy task. So she started with baby steps, and now she manages even though she has ten.

Think about your day. Where can you fit in a few minutes to breathe? Read? Work out? Ride your old unicycle? Or, if you’re like me, sneak in a set of twenty uppercuts while the water from the toilet is still running so the kids don’t get suspicious and start banging on the door. Sometimes if I haven’t shut the door well enough, I’ll see little eyes peeking through.

“Mom, can I come in?”

“No. I’m in the bathroom. It’s my private time.”

“But your pants are up.”

“Doesn’t matter. My time. I’ll be out in a minute.”

As you can see, even a baby step might require a little firmness on your part. But that’s okay. The kids don’t need you every second, but they do need you happy and whole.

1 Almond, Barbara. The Monster Within, p 196

2 Sansone, Kathryn. Woman First, Family Always, p 12

3 Jackson, Marni.  The Mother Zone p 79

4 Sansone, Kathryn. Woman First, Family Always, pp 19-20

5 Sansone, Kathryn. Woman First, Family Always pp24-25

6 Cilley, Martha. Sink Reflections.

7 Shields, Brooke. Down Came the Rain, p 99 

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6 thoughts on “First Steps First

  1. Another good thing to remember is that you may need to re-find those moments after having another child. I’ve discovered with my second that the moments I could find when my first was that small are not the same as the ones I find with this one. So, while I had it figured out when I only had one child, I had to start the whole process over again when I had my second. At 4 months old, we’re still working on it, and as her schedule changes, so will the moments that I can find to do the things *I* want to do (embroidery, reading, and cooking elaborate ethnic dinners, in my case).

  2. This makes me not want to have children. Couple that with my male dominated, chauvinistic upbringing and the idea of mothering looks like benevolent slavery. Cue me running to the bathroom to so I can clear out my stomach. Trauma! Anyway, I shall stop the playful rant and get to my question: What are the positives to being mother, spoken to the audience of women who’ve never had children?

    • Well, it perpetuates the species. That’s good. Depending on one’s religion, you’re “supposed to”, but I try and stay away from that sort of explanation because I think it’s harmful. Some people enjoy it more than others. I know a few women and men who really can spend most of their time with their kids and taking care of their homes and love it most of the time. But that’s something that needs to be discovered on an individual basis. I think it’s a rare gift. Overall, I’d say that the pleasure of getting to watch my kids grow, learn, and become their own people (coupled with cuddles from the small ones) balances all the crap most days. And it’s certainly stretched me as a person. I’ve learned more patience, among other virtues. Just today, Pixie learned to say her own name. “Pixie. Pixie! Pixie shoe. Pixie toes.” AND she said “I love you too.” So, I also had to extract her from my person half a dozen times while I was trying to sew. But she loves me!

  3. Being someone who wasn’t sure they wanted children or not, then suddenly finding i was pregnant was a real eye opener for me. I’m still discovering whether it was worth it or not, magical or not, etc. After 9 months of not being a person (horribly sick with my pregnancy, to the point of I hardly left the house), I am now constantly responsible for this little human being. However, she IS a little human being. She is a unique, fascinating, bundle of joy and frustration. It’s a constant puzzle figuring out what she is doing, thinking, etc. It’s crazy to see her develop and hit those cognitive milestones where she is just as frustrated as me trying to communicate. now I’m only 3 months in, but I would probably have another one. It’s not easy though, you have to prepare yourself physically and mentally I think. Having a loving and helpful partner is also amazing. Whenever the Bug is being particularly troublesome we trade off every ten to fifteen minutes until we figure out whats wrong, giving each of us a much needed short break to breathe.

    Anyway, random long post here. I really just wanted to thank Heidi for this post. I’m terrified to go back to school next semester. I feel like I’m so exhausted all the time I can’t possibly think anymore or have any intelligence left. The first few months I was trying to do so much that I almost passed out a few times due to sheer exhaustion (and not realizing all the extra calories I need to eat as a nursing mom). This post helped me realize that it’s okay to do my own thing as well. I’m worried that because the Bug is only 3 months that I’ll be doing something awful going back to school full time, that she will somehow suffer. I love this blog because it reminds me that 1.) my dh is perfectly capable of taking care of the Bug 2) My happiness is important and will ultimately benefit her, because I be a better more actualized person if I allow myself to be myself at the same time.

    in the end, I wanted to just keep thanking Heidi for inspiring me to be myself and do the best for my little family.

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