Every Tuesday morning, Cedar and I jump in the car and drive to our PEPS meeting. PEPS is a non-profit here in Seattle that matches new mothers with other new moms who live near their neighborhood. The meetings are facilitated by an experienced mom who gets the discussions going, and for twelve weeks, we take turns hosting the two-hour meetings in our living rooms. We start by checking in and sharing the highs and lows of our week, and then we delve in and discuss the chosen topic, be it sleep or breastfeeding or going back to work and childcare. All the while, we hold and bounce and feed and rock our babies, and slowly learn to trust each other and share that much more.
Last week the topic was “Looking Good, Feeling Good” or, in other words, taking care of ourselves, our health, and our needs. Megan, our facilitator, had us do an exercise where we drew on paper plates. First, we divided one plate into segments of how our time is currently spent. “I’m sorry, what were the other choices besides parenting?” one member asked in complete seriousness, because she hadn’t heard the examples Megan had given. The irony was not missed. What else do we do now besides parenting? How can there be any part of our life now that is separate from the incessant attention, worry, and love that we now direct towards our babies? Is there ever a moment, even when I am alone, writing, that I am not aware of my child and my role as mother-- even if my awareness might be of the fact that I am currently “escaping” this role, taking a breath and rejuvenating so I can go home and give of myself anew?
Not surprisingly, a quick glance at my neighbor’s plate revealed that for her too and probably for all of us, the “parenting” piece of the pie took over the majority—at least two-thirds. On mine, there were other categories like “outings with Cedar” or “walks with Cedar” or “visits with mom and dad,” which, in truth, all could have been included in the parenting category. The largest other category I had was “chores,” which often are hurriedly done while Cedar naps or with him strapped to my body in a carrier, so this can’t really be separated from parenting either. Then came a smaller slice of the pie for “zoning” which I define to mean things like television, drinking wine, listening to music, and checking Facebook—my main activities when I am exhausted at the end of the night-- and on second thought, I made this category a little bigger. “Relationship with Matthew” got a smaller sliver, since he is traveling for work four days a week, and when he’s here we barely get to spend any time together alone. And even smaller slices were delegated to writing, reading, and yard work.
Yikes. But none of this was surprising. The next step in the exercise was to draw on another plate how we would ideally like our time to be divided. With only a tiny sense of guilt, my parenting category became much smaller, and now took up only a third of my pie; on top of that, I no longer named it “parenting,” but instead called it “Cedar.” This wasn’t a conscious decision to rename it, but it seems fitting in the sense that if I were able to have more time in my life for other activities, then I would not end up looking at “parenting” as this overarching, all-consuming entity, but rather, special individual time that I get to have with my baby. Also, not surprisingly, “writing” got a much bigger piece of the pie, as did a new category called “yoga/exercise,” and another called “Matthew/intimacy.” “Friends and family” also got a bigger piece, “chores/yard” still had a decent-sized chunk (since some things must get done no matter what), and, lo and behold, a new category appeared called “editing/publishing/classes,” or, in other words, my former writing-related “career” which I currently have no time for; if I have any extra time, I’m going to write, not worry about teaching or publishing, for writing is my lifeline. “Zoning” disappeared from the pie altogether, even though I know that this is a lie and I still need my zoning time; but what its omission reflected, rather, was its lack of relative value.
I left these plates on the dining room table, and later that week Matthew told me he snuck a peek. “It’s good to see that I got as much of the pie as exercise/yoga,” he said with a grin. He was joking, but I still felt obliged to explain to him how the I did this exercise quickly, balancing a baby on one knee with one hand, writing with the other, without time to think about it or be precise, and how my relationship with him was also included within other categories, such as, well, parenting and chores. The “Matthew/intimacy” category referred to intentional, one-on-one time that we get to have together, doing things like going out to dinner, or cuddling in bed. Considering that we’ve had a whole two date nights since Cedar was born, and that on the nights that Matthew is actually home we mostly go to sleep exhausted with a baby lying in between us, I thought I was already giving us a pretty idealistic chunk. But still, being able to see visually how my time is divided helped to put things in perspective. Any way you look at it, we are not getting enough time together-- especially time where we can step outside of our demanding new role as parents.
What can we do about it? Not a whole lot, it seems, with the exception of learning to make the most out of the time we do have, and taking care to be present with each other, to be loving, compassionate, and aware. Maybe eventually we can enlist more childcare and build in more rituals together so that our “relationship/intimacy” category does not completely disappear some weeks before we’ve even had a chance to realize it. But for now, I think we are doing the best we can.
I have also been learning, week by week, how much time I need to write, to do yoga, and to otherwise feed myself. And I have been learning that I need to ask for it, and we need to plan for it, put it on the mental calendar, or else it won’t happen. We talked about this at PEPS last week—how we, as mothers, need to plan and ask for the “me time” that we need. Otherwise, if we are just hanging out at home on the weekends or in the evenings with our partners and babes, the mother always ends up being the default caregiver. Sure, it may be “easier” for us to comfort our babies because we spend more time with our child each day, and because we possess the magic boob, but that doesn’t make the cumulative effect of nonstop childcare any less exhausting.
It was comforting to see how universal were many of the things we were all struggling with as new moms, and each of us made a commitment to plan and ask for more of what we needed. For me, I committed to asking for time on the weekends to write and to do yoga, not just one or the other which is all I can usually get away with in my one designated break. But it is also important to me that Matthew and I have more intimacy and time together. I can’t pick just one thing. It’s all important, and I want it all.
So far, my asking seems to be paying off; I am progressively getting more time to myself, even if it still doesn’t feel like enough. But as long as Matthew and I keep our lines of communication open, and keep talking and acknowledging that parenting is a fluid, ever-changing endeavor, I think things will only get better and we’ll be able to find a more sustainable rhythm that works for both of us.
For example, this weekend Matthew is watching Cedar both mornings (which is doubly helpful because we still need to get Cedar more used to the bottle). And then, when I come home, I feel refreshed, with newfound delight at holding my baby again, and with more energy at the end of the night to do anything with Matthew besides mutually “zone out” on our respective computers. It’s an ever-looping cycle, and it is so important that we, as moms who never get to fully leave the parenting role behind (it’s how we’re wired), get that “me time,” whether that means exercise or time with friends or writing or getting a pedicure-- whatever that means to each of us, however we have learned to feel good and rejuvenate—we need to honor it, and to ask for it. To know that asking is not a sign of selfishness, weakness, or greed, but rather the opposite. Our happiness affects our child’s and partner’s happiness in a direct correlation that isn’t that hard to trace.