For Mom's Eyes Only

I recently asked a group of mothers what each of their days was like: when the day began, what it was filled with, and when it ended. Almost to a person, each woman gets up between 5:45 and 6:30 a.m. and her day ends between 10:00 p.m. and midnight. The women are responsible for fixing meals (one Mom fixed 5 meals every morning!), rousing the children from their beds, and getting them off to school. Their days center on kids and spouses. I inquired as to whether any of them took time for themselves. Most had carved out time to go to the gym or meditate, one woman cooks at least one meal a day specifically for herself, then sits alone and enjoys each mouthful. However, even though these women said they were taking time for themselves, I heard a level of exhaustion when they spoke of the things that were supposed to be self-nurturing. It was as if going to the gym, meditating, or cooking a meal were just one more task to be accomplished in a long and busy day. I wondered whether the time each mother was "taking for herself" was really doing its job ? that of restoring her spirit and energy. When I asked them if they felt that they had "enough" time for themselves, there was a resounding chorus of "no!"

What does it mean when we, as mothers, fail to nurture ourselves? When we spend our entire day "giving" and not "receiving"? I believe that the negative repercussions are huge. Not just for us, but also for our children.

First, let's talk about ourselves. The most apparent problem with never taking time for oneself is that there is a serious by-product of burnout. Whether at the end of each day, or at the end of a longer block of time, eventually our bodies and minds just shut down. We get sick or we get cranky. Our bodies demand rest and in order to get it they produce a sore throat and fever. Or our backs or knees "go out." Our psyche demands rest as well, and crankiness is a way of getting rid of people, of making them retreat from us so that we can be alone. But whether it's our bodies or our minds that trick us into resting, both processes are subconscious. It's rare that we feel entitled to consciously claim time as our own.

A second problem is that we begin to be ineffective in the very tasks we pride ourselves in being able to do well. Whether we work in our homes full time, or in an office during the day and at home at night, the "things" we fill our days with eventually begin to suffer for our "superwoman" image. We become forgetful, we half-listen to our bosses or our children, we begin to exert strenuous efforts just to get through each day. If married or in partnership, that relationship begins to suffer because we're too tired at night to spend time with our spouse or partner. We'd rather just "zone out" in front of the TV or go straight to bed.

I used to wonder why the announcement on an airplane said that in an emergency, I should put on my own oxygen mask before helping the adult or child next to me. Being a "giver" myself, I found the thought of helping myself first almost intolerable. Surely, I reasoned, I could hold my breath long enough to help the person next to me first, and then there would be time to put my own mask on afterwards. With maturity, I've come to realize the importance of this announcement ? I'm clearly not the only one who would think this way, or there would be no need for them to make it so clear to each and every passenger on each and every flight. And I now know that if I lack oxygen and pass out, I can't help anyone least of all my child.

Since most of our day as mothers revolves around our children, we must ask: are we really benefiting them when we serve them without receiving from them or others? Are we able to get the oxygen mask on them if we don't have oxygen ourselves? The answer is no. When we're exhausted, grouchy or ill, our children suffer most because we're not at our best. But it's more than that. One of the most serious problems is that we are being absolutely terrible role models. I recently read the story of a mother whose son committed suicide at his Ivy League College. Why? No one knows. He never asked for help so no one knows why or how he got so depressed that he felt he had to take his own life. As moms, when we act as though we're superhuman and can shoulder everyone else's needs without taking care of our own, we fail to help our children know when and how to ask for help. We give them the impression that they, too, should be able to do it all, no matter what level of stress they're under. We send the message that nurturing oneself is somehow unhealthy or that they are "failures" if they need help, ask for help, or spend time in self-nurturing.

At the end of my session with the group of moms, I asked what each would do with more time if she had it. The answers varied, from reading a book, to taking a bath, to going for a walk. No one mentioned exercising or doing more Yoga, answering their e-mail or talking on the phone with a friend. Self-nurturing is about something different. Something of which silence is a part. There is transformation in silence and there is healing. It is restorative. Try to spend some of each day in silence. For at least a few moments each day, try to receive and not to give. Consider it your oxygen mask.