“Sometimes, in the crush and rush of constantly trying to figure out what’s best for my child, I forget to exist.”
My shower this morning was to the soundtrack of a three year old screaming about being locked out of the bathroom. Most mornings I get the lovely choice of this screaming soundtrack, or a shower with said three year old. Yes, the kid is clingy. When I ask her why she can’t let me have five minutes in the shower, she tearfully sputters—“cuz I miss you.” The screaming is usually, “I like mama! I love MAMA!” On repeat. It’s heartwarming to have a child love you this much, but it’s not so great for personal hygiene.
When I was a new mom, out pushing the newborn in her stroller, feeling that being outside was in and of itself a BIG accomplishment, I encountered a woman who was pushing an infant in a stroller and pulling a wagon with a toddler in it. The toddler was wailing and screaming and would have been cursing if she knew the words. The other mom smiled at me and said, “Hello.” Her tone was so relaxed, so Zen, so musical. It was as if she genuinely enjoyed the sound of her child’s screams, like it was Moonlight Sonata or something.
Lately, I find myself closing my eyes and thinking about that woman. I never saw her again, but she has become a light in the darkness of the terrible twos. My Spirit Mama, if you will. When I think about this stranger, a person I have seen only once, I find that my breathing evens out. My spine relaxes. I roll my neck instinctively to loosen up. She has become a talisman that reminds me: I have to keep my own balance in the face of the emotional hurricane of toddlerhood.
“Work/life balance” and “self-care” are terms we’ve all heard tossed around. I used to put parenting on the “life” side of that slash, but I was wrong. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done and the work I care most about getting right. And I am ambitious. I’ve always worked hard, but this is different. This is my kid. I can’t mess it up. I won’t. But sometimes the way it consumes my everything, even cleanliness, makes it impossible to enjoy, to take pride in the good job I’m doing with this glorious, infuriating person coming into existence before me. Sometimes, in the crush and rush of constantly trying to figure out what’s best for my child, I forget to exist. The person I used to be before I was a mom is gone. Often, I am so consumed with this small person growing in front of me that I neglect to pause to nurture who I’ve become. But then I think about my relationship with my own mother. How I respect her for all the things she did outside of being a mom.
“I have to keep my own balance in the face of the emotional hurricane of toddlerhood.”
In addition to raising my brother and sister and me, my mother ran a restaurant, taught kindergarten, won garden design awards… I want to be more than a harried, stinky lady in yoga pants and a messy bun. I want to be somebody that my child and I can both respect. Lately, I’ve been starting to feel like I’m getting there. Some things (like bathing) are so important they’re worth finding the sonata within the screams. Other things are really more about trying to find that elusive “balance”. Spring is coming, but there are still lots of afternoons when the weather is crappy and we are stuck inside. There are moments when I think I might not be able to make it through the long hours of another afternoon, but cleaning my apartment makes me feel more on top of things.
It also turns out that my daughter loves to dust. When I get her going on that, I can get the whole house clean before she notices how nice her toys look and dumps them all back out. I can turn a trip to Target into a coffee break and an hour of low-impact hide and seek in the toddler clothes so that I have time to buy sponges. This happens to also be cheaper than a museum and closer, too. I’ve been working more, harder and faster, “finding time” to push myself professionally, putting iron after iron into the fire. I have a great community around me that takes up the slack, a family that provides free childcare and other moms who I can meet at the indoor playground for a “work and play date.”
“Speaking of other moms, I would be lost without them.”
I’m still ambitious, it turns out. Speaking of other moms, I would be lost without them. We trade tips, compare notes to improve our knowledge of this challenging field of work (motherhood), or we just bitch about stuff. It’s essential. I’ve also been spending time with non-parent friends lately, sharing hobbies that make me feel joyful and alive, and separate and distinct from my mom identity. This is all made possible by my wonderful husband, a man I depend on, lean on, snap at, and generally never get to be alone with. We are trading off, giving each other time to see friends, time to shower, time to take care of business, but the hardest time to find is time for each other. Once I figure that out, I think my life (and all the different work I do in it) will finally be in balance.
Then, maybe someday, I will be walking down the street and some new mom will think I have it all figured out. Maybe she will take hope from that.★
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Nell Voss is a freelance writer, a mother, a radical feminist, and an advocate for better pockets in women’s clothing. She lives in Chicago with her daughter, husband and dog.