The older I get, the more of myself I save from the people around me. This sounds like a selfish statement, but I actually feel much better and emotionally healthier than I did when I was a young, newly-wed mom. Oftentimes, people, especially mothers and wives, don’t understand that we don’t have to do it all on our own. We don’t realize that saving a little bit of yourself for yourself makes someone a better mom and wife. It gives a woman strength and peace of mind. You can still be a giving person, but taking time for yourself centers you in a way that nothing else can.
When I first got married, at a mere 22 years old, I had already gone to college and was holding down a serious job as a special education teacher, which brought in an entire income. I was used to taking care of myself from the moment I had turned 18, when I had left home and never gone back. (The relationship I had had with my mother was so strenuous that I had no choice but to leave and start out on my own.)
When I met and married my husband, I was ready to take care of him and all the household needs. Never having cooked before, I took the bull by the horns and taught myself, with the help of some more experienced older friends. It was my can-do attitude and determination that got me there in the first place. I got up every morning at 7 am and went to work. I came home at 6 pm and started supper. By 7:30, dinner was ready and steaming on the table, waiting for my husband to eat it off the brand new china we gotten from our wedding. I would then spend another half an hour washing all the dishes and putting them away (this was before the days everyone used plasticware). Sundays were spent cleaning the house and doing laundry. I also ironed my husband’s white shirts. During the evenings, I would dutifully pay all the bills and mail them out, one by one. My husband was studying in college and not bringing home much money. He also had no clue how to do laundry or cooking, so it all fell on me.
There were mornings where I was so tired that I would cry. I would get so overwhelmed and emotional over everything I had to accomplish each day. I never took a day off of work, because we needed the money. I was responsible to a fault; a perfectionist who was so hard on herself. I never fell apart; I kept it together. The only things I did for myself were shopping for clothes and going for a manicure Friday afternoons. I would also occasionally attend the gym.
Soon after we got married, we were expecting our first child. I worked until the day I went into labor. Bringing home my son was a whole other world—one which I wasn’t prepared for. He was difficult. He cried every time I put him down. He cried even as I held him. He never slept, so I never slept. I took off 6 weeks of work to be with him, and those 6 weeks were an awful tunnel of caring for him around the clock, with no end in sight. This pushed my giving factor up to a new level. Not only was I providing for my husband and myself, I was now tasked with a colicky baby who wouldn’t give me a chance to breathe. I remember how taking a shower turned into a marathon that I could never win. I was in charge, my husband had no clue what to do, and I had to be there every second of this child’s waking moment.
I chose to breastfeed. I think that that, more than anything, turned my life into a prison I could never exit. For 5 months, I struggled to fill up my son with milk so that he would stop crying. It was every 3 hours, then every 4 hours, 24/7. It was stressful because he wasn’t crazy about breastfeeding; he really liked the bottle much more. It took me 5 months to figure that out and admit defeat. I was not going to provide my son with the healthiest food a mother could give. I would have to settle for second best: formula. I beat myself up about it. I tried so hard to breastfeed, but it was just not working. When I switched to bottles, it freed me up and kept him fuller. He began to sleep better and longer during the night.
Another thing that I wasn’t prepared for at the “ripe” old age of 24 was postpartum depression. I had had a C-section, and I was in a lot of pain after the operation. I remember sobbing in the hospital over the tiniest things—when they didn’t give my husband a pull-out bed to spend the night with me, I fell so apart that my roommate called the nurse to calm me down. The feeling didn’t go away when we came home from the hospital. I was exhausted and barely sleeping, waking up and staying up throughout the nights. I felt like I was drowning. I tried to do cheerful things, like take walks with my son or go shopping, but it was so hard. The minute I would walk into a store, he would burst out crying, and I would have to leave. Doing anything for myself during that period was out of the question. I remember begging my husband to watch my son while I went to Target for an hour. He called me 7 times when I was there. It was a disaster, and I never went out alone after that.
I went back to work a mere 6 weeks after my son was born. We couldn’t afford a nanny because I was the only one working, so we sent my son to a babysitting group. That year, I did myself a favor and hired cleaning help for 3 hours a week to assist me with the housekeeping just a little bit. That $30 was the best money I have ever spent—it was worth every penny!
My son got older, and my life got easier. Although I still worked full-time and spent my evening cooking, washing the dishes, and bathing my son, he often gave me peace during naptime and bedtime. After I finished my college homework and paying the bills, I would relax a little with a paint-by-number. It was a relaxing and creative activity that I could do without spending money on a babysitter or having to ask my husband to come home early. This was also when I got addicted to watching television. I would put my son to bed and watch myself to sleep—it was my outlet.
When my son turned 2, we decided to have another child. I told my husband to call it a day and get a job. My job was covering one child, but it could not cover 2 children. So my husband found a job, and the extra $1,000 a month really allowed us to be ready for another child. Slowly, slowly, I was beginning to ask him for the help I needed in running our family. I was beginning to stand up for myself, take care of myself and not spread myself so thin. I wasn’t used to it, so it took me many years to get to where I am today. The truth was that I didn’t know that I was allowed to ask for help. I thought I had to be a superwoman forever.
When my second son was born, I gave up breastfeeding as quickly as I started. It was sad, but necessary. My son wasn’t latching on, and it wasn’t working out. This time, I asked my husband to do the 12 am feeding so that I could sleep until 3 or 4 am. I felt empowered, and hired a nanny to share with a friend who had an infant as well. The nanny came to my house 2 days a week, and she scrubbed my house from top to bottom. I came home from work to a spic and span home. It made me feel like a million dollars. It just so happens that my second son was much easier than my oldest. He slept more and had much less colic. Even though I had another C-section, and was again hit with postpartum depression, sleep provided me with the coping mechanisms that I needed to get through the day.
At this point, we had bought a house. I felt really blessed to have a home and 2 beautiful children. I was more settled, and there was plenty of time left for myself. I started delegating a lot of the work to my nanny and my husband. I still worked full-time and paid all the bills, but when I wanted some time to myself, I asked for it. When I was out, I picked up the phone less, and asked my husband not to call me so much.
“I really need some time to myself,” I would tell him, kindly.
Although it was hard for me to ask—because after all, which superwoman ever needs help—I was getting older and learning that sometimes, asking for help is what would save me. Save me from feeling depleted. Save me from falling apart. Give me the strength that I needed to keep the boat afloat. It was a revelation that only a 30 year old mother could come to. There was no way that a 22 year old would ever be so smart. At least, not in my case.
I continued to work. I continued to provide for my family. I went to work, I shopped for food, I cooked every night. I took care of my children. I made sure to have at least 9 hours of cleaning help every week. Before the holidays, I sometimes asked for more help and hired the cleaning lady for longer. I often asked my husband to help me bathe the boys or tuck them in at night. I learned to give clear instructions without sounding condescending. I went back to the gym—and this time on a regular basis. I joined a class, and those 3 hours a week were my sanctuary. I was not to be disturbed (there was no reception in the gym anyway). I lost my pregnancy weight and felt much better about myself.
By the time I had my third child, I had a clear head. I was centered. It was during the time when people hired night nurses. I decided to try it for a week. When my daughter was born, my world turned bright. I was enveloped in a soft warm glow and gave myself the time and space to heal. After another C-section, I made sure to pump myself up with painkillers to prepare myself to take care of my newborn. Breastfeeding was a thing of the past. This time, I stuck to bottles. I did not feel any postpartum depression. When my nurse arrived, just as I was coming home from the hospital, I felt complete. Here I had this beautiful child, this beautiful family, and I was whole enough to enjoy it. Guilt was not a part of my vocabulary anymore. I slept, I fed myself, and that gave me the strength to take care of my family.
The nurse ended up staying for 3 weeks, and I truly felt like a queen. Now, I had grown up with nothing like this. As a young child, I had to clean my own toilets and scrub my own floors, for many years. I didn’t have new dresses or toys. I never went on vacation or fun trips to the zoo. I always had to look into the zoo from the outside because we couldn’t afford the entrance fee. I worked hard to get to where I am, and thank G-d, I now have the knowledge to use what I earn to support myself and give to myself in a way I have never done before.
It’s important not to get too consumed in motherhood. It’s important to have 30-60 minutes a day by yourself, doing something that makes you happy. It’s important to share the responsibility of raising children with your spouse. You cannot be the one left holding the bill all the time. It has to be equal and fair. It’s often scary to ask for this, but it is very rewarding. It’s the way it should be. As the children get older, in a way, they get easier, and I feel more confident leaving my husband alone to watch them. I’m not there yet, but I am sure there will come a time when my children can be asked to pitch in around the house as well. Already they are responsible for cleaning up the toys after they play with them. As they get older, they will be trained to help their mother and father, and to give back.
The moral of this story is that you don’t have to do it all alone. It’s ok to ask for help. It’s ok to have some time to yourself. Not only is it ok, it’s necessary. It will make you stronger and a better person. Hold on to your dreams and give in to your needs. Your children and husband will thank you.