Ah, the ignorance of youth. I remember, when I was in my twenties, wanting to be in my thirties so that I would have things all figured out (go ahead and laugh; you did the same thing). I wouldn’t be working so hard at menial labor, slaving away just to make rent and car payments and never feeling satisfied with my days or my life. Surely by my thirties, I would be settled happily into a career, relationship and all-around gratifying life. After all, what else was I working so hard for?
Fast forward about 15 years. I love my job, but don’t want to do it full time. I have a wonderful, healthy family and no longer have to live hand-to-mouth, but there is never enough time to do all the things I want to do. So it is disheartening, but not surprising, to talk to my other mom friends and find that many of them are unsatisfied or downright frustrated with their own life situations. How can this be? These women are smart, and by far the most creative, dynamic and inspiring friends I’ve ever had. So what’s the problem?
The problem is motherhood. Working moms, even those who love their jobs, suffer; either from the guilt of spending so much time away from their families, or from the stress of working full-time and trying to manage a house and family. Some of my friends take office jobs for the steady income, but don’t really like the work. Others work freelance for the flexibility, and then feel anxious because they can’t count on a regular flow of income. Those who don’t work outside the home feel at times like they are drowning in motherhood, with no time to themselves in a thankless, constantly demanding job that doesn’t pay at all. Regardless of the work situation, mothers merely juggle all aspects of marriage, motherhood, friendships, careers and family life with as much grace and good humor as we can muster. We let off steam when and where it will do the least damage, and otherwise make the most of our situations. But still I have to wonder how many more mothers out there are dissatisfied with this arrangement.
I appreciate the sentiment behind all those magazine articles that aim to help mothers lead a “balanced” life, but don’t really think they help much. “Balanced” implies a state of constancy. The fact is, as mothers we are always in a state of flux. When we’re newly married, we get things nicely settled in our lives and careers, and then we have babies. Life turns upside down, and we adjust and rearrange until everyone is in a good place. Then after a while, our babies become mobile. We regroup, child-proof, and things are fine again for a while. Then the babies start walking and talking. This involves a different phase of development and tools for engaging them, and so we do the research and again rise to the occasion. Next, our little ones are off to school with new challenges, and mom plays, of course, a vital role. Separation anxiety; early morning buses; new bedtime routines; new relationships with school, teachers, other moms and their children. Once again, we are reinvented.
It seems we spend so much of our time reconfiguring our mothering selves and lives for our children, that we rarely get a chance to sit down and think about what we need to do to fill our own emotional tanks. Motherhood is about keeping the children happy, challenged, engaged, healthy and secure, and that leaves little room for doing the same on a regular basis for ourselves. This leaves many of us unsatisfied because on a daily basis, we play second fiddle. Being the constant in the lives of others means our own needs get pushed, to a large degree, to the periphery. Forget balance; though many of us would never admit it, we really just miss being the focus of our own lives.
I once saw a sign that said, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy.” Personally, I know this to be true. When I am tired, anxious, stressed or upset, my kids feel it. They fight more, yell at each other and are just miserable little creatures. I appreciated this realization, however, because it meant that I had to start doing things to keep myself happy. After all, this wasn’t selfishness: it was for the good of the family. As soon as I was less stressed and feeling better, my kids were behaving better and even seemed more loving toward me.
So in the name of family harmony, I am asking all moms to give their families a unique gift this holiday season: treat yourselves well. As you plan out each day, schedule in 30 minutes of something just for yourself. Take a walk; read a few chapters of that new bestseller; have a cup of tea with a good friend; check out an online course that interests you. Balance begins at the center, and moms are the center of the family. So make yourself a priority every single day. Grabbing some satisfaction here and there will not only make mom feel better, but the children will notice the difference and might even behave better as a result. And we all know how satisfying that can be!