Mental “Me” Time for Mothers

Only after becoming a mother did I realize how hard – and how essential! – it would be to find “mental me time” in the day. I never thought about it before, though in hindsight it’s quite obvious – when you’re at home taking care of a baby, you are there for them every minute of every waking hour. Even squeezing in a shower is hard, unless you put their bouncer chair in the bathroom and play ‘peekaboo’ with the shower curtain. There is no setting your baby down and doing your own thing for more than five minutes max – and even then you have to be always aware of them, responding to every sudden need. Sure there are naps, but they 1) generally don’t add up to enough time in the day to get down everything, 2) occur at somewhat unpredictable times and for unpredictable length and 3) half the time seem to happen when we’re out walking or I’m driving the car anyway. The rest of the day, you as a parent are present. Which may work for some women who have waited all their lives to be mothers, who see this as the pinnacle of personhood or their life’s calling, but for the rest of us it’s exhausting. It means that I wake up at 6:30 just to get in 45 minutes of exercise and hopefully brush my teeth and wash my face before everyone else wakes, and then often feel as if I’m simultaneously rushing through the day – and not getting anything done. Nothing, at least, that I won’t go through again tomorrow.
Couple this with my daughter’s reverting to 3am waking and feeding after we moved into our present flat (and moved her into her own room) and motherhood can be downright exhausting. Since our Tuesday-Thursday babysitter found a full time job and moved on I’ve been feeling drained. As I told one other (highly educated, temporarily stay-at-home) mom at the weekly playgroup yesterday, I don’t even have time and mental space to think about what I would want to do if I had time. Mothering is hard, even if it’s not every moment as intellectually demanding as, for example, an academic career. When you’re staying at home there are no coffee breaks, or days when you come into the office feeling sleepy and can pass through the day in a daze.
Even when I’m off-duty I’m always alert. Two nights ago I re-introduced sleep training to break the nighttime feeding habit (as me being tired during the day is good for no one, and because she needs to learn to put herself back to sleep if she’s going to have good childhood sleep habits and if we want her to feel secure on her own while falling asleep). The first night she woke at 2:25. I put in her pacifier, went back to bed, and waited through 5 minutes of happy murmurings. Then I went in again, put in her pacifier, put my hand on her chest, and rocked her back and forth a few times until she dropped back to sleep. Then I went back to bed, but she almost immediately started up again – though her murmurings took on an edge of complaint, indignant implore. I wanted to wait ten minutes before going back in, my each murmur from our infant wracked my husband’s heart (and nighttime nerves), so after 7 I caved, put the pacifier in, hand on her chest, and counted a hundred deep breaths while I sat in the chair by her bed. At 3:25 she was finally sound asleep and I sunk back into sleep. Last night – nothing. Though my mind was still in alert, and I half woke up perhaps five times listening for any noise. Even if she was resting, my mothering instincts were wide awake. Though she did sleep from seven to seven, and I for once woke well-rested.
I find it actually a lot easier if I have more social activities during the week – even something non-baby-centric, like a lunch date or hiking, because the context gives my daughter so much more to interact with and observe, so all of her attention isn’t directed on me, even if she’s using me as a secure base from which to explore her surroundings. But staying at home – as tends to happen in these winter months – that’s hard.
I don’t resent my daughter for any of this – how can I? She’s a baby. Everything in this world is completely new to her. She’s still adjusting to her surroundings, her body, and she’s completely dependent on us for everything that is out of her reach or can’t be manipulated by her soft fingers. She’s increasingly interested in interacting with the world on her own and exploring without my direct guidance, but she still needs me (or another adult) for almost everything. And she can’t talk. Most days I think that being a baby must be terribly frustrating – you are increasingly able to understand the possibilities and offerings of this world and the human body but are simultaneously forever incapable of communicating exactly what you want and equally incapable of making it happen on your own.
That said, there still needs to be some balance. I’m not built to be a stay-at-home mom, and my daughter does need someone to be attuned to her all the time. There are some temporal fixes I’ve made for now – I wake up at 6:30 (though if she now wakes at 7 instead of 8 I’ll have to shift that back to 6/6:15…) to get in exercise before I begin the day. I write down the things that are important for me to accomplish every day and drop whatever else to concentrate on those the moment she goes down for a nap (one of today’s was writing). I limit ‘wasted’ time on my phone. And I’m beginning to write again, just to have space to “think out my thoughts”. I’ve also found another Tuesday-Thursday babysitter, so maybe I can pick up editing work during those afternoons again – four hours of uninterrupted focus. But when it comes down to it, if I do ever hear back from the post I’ve been going to interviews for (some things to take a long time in Bishkek), I will be glad to go back to work – and I think it will be good for my daughter too to have someone whose job is just to be there for her eight hours a day, someone who can give her undivided attention so I can do the same when I come home from work, home from having a day of focus and applying my mind to more long-term tasks. Ideally I could work part-time, or part-time from home, but in Bishkek I’ll take full time over not working at all. As another mother [of 3, currently working 3 days a week for the WHO, but who previously stayed home for 2.5 years] said, “Whatever you do, you’re always going to feel guilty”, and so you might as well keep yourself sane.

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