I got to thinking yesterday about some comments that new moms (especially) tend to hear a lot and decided I’d throw out my two cents on the subject as I’m stuck sick on the couch.
Well-meaning people (and experienced mothers) often stress the importance of “me time” and getting away to recharge in order to be a better mother. I will say, with only one child, it’s very true that a purposeful break can be helpful. And especially in the beginning, a helping hand with the house or meals from a caring friend or family member can be exactly what you need as you learn to adapt to life with a baby. As someone who hasn’t lived close to family and hasn’t taken advantage of a lot of outside help, I can vouch for the truth that getting away to clear your mind and refocus is necessary.
But, I have some objections to this oft-repeated insistence on “me time” away from baby and just how important it is.
There’s something devastating that happens when we begin to feel entitled; a sense entitlement sets the foundation for how we perceive everything that happens.
Now is probably a good time to point out the balance I’m trying to portray: needing “me time” does not mean you must be selfish or feeling entitled. I think entitlement can creep in at times when we don’t realize it, which is what I’m trying to point out. Entitlement or expectation is the problem, not “me time” itself. The two are separate-that’s why I’ve also included the ways that I’ve found quiet time and how I’ve appreciated “me time”- but sometimes we may not realize that we’ve been viewing “me time” the wrong way. My only purpose in writing this is to suggest that we keep a watchful eye on our thought-processes and maybe try to adopt some healthy habits if we do think we’re leaning in a harmful direction with our children. People are different; I’m mostly an introvert – I need time away from people sometimes and that reflects in my parenting. Some extroverts need less of that time, if any. That’s okay and that’s not what I’m talking about. I just want to clear that up in case someone reads and thinks I’m looking down my nose at them. :( Not at all!
In my own parenting, I’ve noticed that when I start viewing things with the attitude that I need and deserve “me time” or a break, then I become frustrated and overwhelmed easily and instead of dealing with the situation with a clear mind, I’m engrossed with how annoying the situation is or how I just wish ___ would stop or I might even refer to the tally list of how many times I’ve had to deal with this compared to Thailer and how it isn’t fair.
When that happens, my actions are just corroded- I’m tense, I’m not attentive to Isaac’s real needs, just my own, and it shows. And somewhere in there, there’s the added burden of knowing I’m failing in that moment. But the frustration becomes too overwhelming until I really do need that break – at least mentally – so that I can remember who I am: a mother.
Far more helpful, I believe, is if experienced mothers would offer helpful comments on how to cherish our children, how to enjoy spending the majority of our time with them, how to become more sacrificial than we’ve likely ever tried to be before children, and especially how to cope/prepare when/before things are overwhelming because, although breaks may be helpful and necessary at times, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to take those breaks in the heat of the moment.
People can try to prepare us during pregnancy (or caution us before pregnancy) for the change a baby will make in our life. They’ll tell us these incredible truths about how it’ll change our life, and how we’ll be putting their needs above our own, and how it’s a huge sacrifice… but until we experience it, we won’t fully grasp the truth. My point is that it is life-changing, it is unlike anything else, it is an incomprehensible sacrifice that we can’t completely prepare for. So, it’s expected that we’ll need help tweaking our minds every once and awhile, figuring out how to go from “needing” certain luxuries for ourselves to joyously laying them down for true necessities for our children: time, love, time, patience, time, presence, understanding, time.
I’ve found that probably 90% of my frustrations with Thailer in our marriage come when my expectations weren’t met. Maybe we were going to go out and I expected the evening to go whatever kind of way, and it just didn’t live up to the picture I had painted. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. And I use that example because that’s a frivolous expectation; expectations like that are bound to fail us. Expectations of having enough “me time” or maintaining some semblance of our former lives when we have children, or expecting things to work out in the ideal way every time will damage us and will hinder our efforts as moms.
So, I think it’s healthier to drop the frivolous expectations. I don’t mean to say the answer is to have no expectations. I also expect my husband not to have an affair. That’s a healthy, understandable, Biblical expectation, not a frivolous one.
Like I’ve said, “me time” is valuable, but making it our go-to can be dangerous. And even putting more value on it than it deserves can back-fire; suddenly we’ll find we do need “me time”, and that we’re not getting enough, and soon we’ll be heartily preaching “me time” because we don’t know where we would have been without it. But could it be that if we had tweaked our minds slightly and had learned some different mindsets, perspectives and coping skills that maybe that “me time” need would have waned a little?
Granted, I stay at home, and I just have a 17-month-old. All I’m saying is that I think the principle can apply to many situations. I’m someone that does get overwhelmed easily, and I anticipate that having a toddler and a newborn will be difficult, but I also know what types of mindsets have helped me and what mindsets have damaged me, and that’s something I want to cultivate even more when we add another baby to the family.
In the beginning, babies are demanding. Not in a manipulative, bad way, just in the way that they are dependent and incapable of caring for themselves, which means we’ll be exerting all of our time and energy tending to every need from diapers, to feeding, to sleeping, to just holding and loving and cuddling (which is just as important as the others, yet easier to neglect if baby isn’t crying). “Me time” is not what a brand-new mother and baby need and I think it’s important to understand that beforehand, because our expectations can determine our perceptions and feelings. Help is what a new mother and baby need. I read recently about a practice in some cultures to allow new mothers to simply stay inside and care for their newborn exclusively- for 40 days. Family and community members would overtake the household work and cooking responsibilities. We may not be able to experience that, but the point is that bonding is important and getting to know your motherly responsibilities, your baby, and your baby’s cues is very important, and having the stress of other responsibilities on top of postpartum hormones will affect that relationship and experience. Help and support and the advice of an experienced mother during that time is especially important!
So, what have I found to be helpful aside from getting away?
One is something I keep calling “refocusing” or mentally stepping outside of the situation. It works two ways- either working to maintain the right focus throughout the day, or at the onset of stress, stepping back and regaining the right focus. Ideally, we would all maintain this focus throughout the day, thus eliminating the need to get away or refocus ;) But ideally isn’t realistically and that’s okay.
Just the other night, the three of us were driving home and I was talking to my mom on the phone. Isaac started crying in pain, which he obviously doesn’t do very often. I tried to mentally check off my list while talking to my mom (who was cutting in and out at that particular moment so I had to listen extra hard to catch what she was saying) and hoping that Thailer wasn’t getting irritated. Actually, I should say that first my heart picked up and I started feeling stressed. So, I stepped back and looked at everything individually. It wasn’t going to last forever, something was wrong, which meant it could be fixed, I wasn’t going to be on the phone very long, and if anything, we would be home soon. Isaac was in pain, not just acting out. I tried rolling down the window a little, nothing. Turning on our sing-along, nothing. Reaching back and rubbing his hand, eh. Ultimately, nothing I did changed the situation. Regaining a calm demeanor didn’t rub off on Isaac or Thailer, or help the reception on my phone. But it enabled me to react appropriately, to be empathetic, and it helped keep the anxiety away, which is always good. My mom and I eventually got off the phone, we got home, and Isaac went to sleep.
That was a much easier situation than others that we’ve experienced…I mean, embarrassingly less-than-mild when you consider the frequent trying situations of a mother of twins or several children or single parents. But it’s the first that came to my mind and I think it still demonstrates a point that can ring true in real stress, in chaos and time-limits and outside pressure and exhaustion. If we approach each situation with understanding and patience, we can lessen our anxiety and frustration. Especially as babies get older, and when you enter the field of teaching your children to manage their emotions and how to react even when things are hard for them, it’s detrimental, it’s hypocritical and it’s damaging to your teaching ability when you show them you can’t stay calm when things are difficult, or when you raise your voice, or huff and puff, or complain, or deal harshly with them or others simply because you aren’t thinking clearly.
You know what I’ve found makes it difficult to do that refocusing? When my mind is instead trained to think about my needs, my need for time off, my need for help, the injustices being done to me (all red flags that maybe you have an unhealthy view of “me time”). Knowing that, knowing the damage it does to me, the damage it does to my child and the difficulties it brings, it seems better to yes, take advantage of “me time” when I can, but to let go of the expectations and to not put “me time” on a pedestal.
Second, is being flexible with the definition of “me time.” This is probably the biggest point because it clears up any confusion that I’m saying alone time isn’t important. Though Isaac has only been babysat twice for Thailer and I to get dates in, it doesn’t mean I haven’t found time within my day to just relax and recharge, something that is absolutely important to keep your head on straight as a mother, a wife, and just a human being. Just two hours in the morning alone, studying and praying makes all the difference in my husband – both of us see the difference when he doesn’t wake up for that. But “me time” doesn’t have to be three hours of Barnes & Noble or a trip to Target or a vacation to the beach or a spa trip with the girls. “Me time” doesn’t have to involve a babysitter. It can be an hour or (fifteen minutes (or five)) before baby wakes up or after they go to sleep or during their naps, or a bath or shower. As Christians, we all need to find time to take care of our spirituality and take moments to pray or study. Utilize the pack-n-play when baby is in a contented mood for a few moments and sit down with coffee or tea and the Bible or a book or journal. We can be creative without having to get away completely from our families. That’s a tool that we can use absolutely anywhere and it can take the added stress off when we’re in those situations that we simply cannot leave.
Third, and as I mentioned before, don’t be afraid to get help. Sometimes the offer to come over and watch baby might be what you need (trust me, this past week of being sick and pregnant left me wanting someone to watch Isaac so that I could take a nap!), but maybe you need someone to help you out with meals or a particular issue you’re struggling with or maybe you just need some company. I don’t believe we were meant to do it all alone like many moms do in the American society. I’ve found that just taking care of Isaac but in the company of a good friend or family member (one that you’re comfortable with seeing you in pajamas or in the middle of cleaning or who you’re not trying to impress), has the same effect of getting away alone, if not better. Thankfully, Thailer has always been there to help when it’s needed, and even when it’s not. Having someone like that is just invaluable, whether it’s your husband or mom or sister or best friend; don’t read this and think I’m saying you should have everything on your shoulders AND also throw away this concept of alone time. I’m writing this from the perspective of a stay-at-home mom who has a supportive husband, and I realize that’s not the typical American family set-up.
And, like my example above, try to learn the skill of just taking a mental break, even in the heat of the moment. I think that’s a skill most Christians are familiar with. It’s the same skill we use when an argument is brewing or emotions are surfacing and we have to work extremely hard to make each word purposeful and appropriate, not giving in to our desires. Just like we can’t rely on everything being made easy for us in order for us to do what we should as Christians, we can’t rely on having things the way we want in order to be good parents. And that’s really the danger I’m pointing out: when we have this ideal of how much “me time” is needed, and we keep a record or we rely so heavily on a certain special type of time to ourselves, it can lead to bitterness when it’s inevitably unmet.
I know this is similar to the lessons in motherhood I wrote about, and it’s because it relates to some of the greatest things that I’ve learned in parenting. Perspective, understanding, patience and a calm mind have never let me down in frantic, inherently stressful situations. Only when one of these has been absent have I regretted my actions, and I think that (and how to achieve that in a variety of ways) is worth sharing.