It took me five years to get pregnant. Five long, uncertain years that took such a physical and emotional toll that I’d often find myself sobbing, bargaining with the universe. “If you’ll just make me a mother, I promise I’ll never take my child for granted,” I’d beg. “I promise to enjoy every moment.”
And I meant it with all my heart. Because I truly didn’t understand how some moms could be so callous as to act like their kids were a bother, a burden, a problem they needed to escape. How could you want kids, and then want nothing more than to get away from them?
Fast-forward a few years, though, and the understanding came to slap me in my face. I had a toddler and an infant at the time, and as much as I loved them … I was them. Their every need came before any of mine. I neglected myself because I had become an afterthought, the primary focus shifted to their wellbeing. I moved through my days, dirty-haired and bare-faced, wearing old t-shirts with necklines stretched out from nursing, and shoulders crusted with spit-up and smudges of snot or pureed prunes or whatever.
My old jeans didn’t fit. My cute shoes and “going out” tops gathered dust in my closet – because all the going out I ever did anymore was to the grocery store, which took all my energy once I struggled with car seats and the diaper bag and schlepping little kids around in the store and saying “no” a bazillion times. I spent endless frustrating minutes arguing about things like why we can’t put a cut-up banana back together.
And then one evening, my single, child-free friend called. It was a classic case of the grass being greener on the other side as she wistfully compared our lives. “I get so tired of being by myself,” she sighed. “On weeknights, I just come home from work and grab something quick for dinner – sometimes I just end up going to a restaurant alone – and spend the whole evening watching TV because I have nothing else to do.” Then she went on to say that her weekends were quickly becoming stale too: same circle of friends, same bars and restaurants, she was just so tired of the same social scene.
She wasn’t saying any of this to gloat, not in the least – she was genuinely envious of my home, full of family and activity and love – but what she was saying and what I was hearing were two different things. She was saying she was lonely and bored. All I heard was the ticking off of luxuries I no longer had: silence, for starters. The ability to choose your own meal without regard to anyone else’s preferences, without having to cut it up or cool it off. The freedom to sit and watch uninterrupted TV, or, hell, even make a solo trip to the bathroom. The choice to go out when you wanted to, without arranging for a sitter or feeling guilty about leaving or about spending money you could’ve used to buy diapers. She was swimming in autonomy, and I had none any more.
To me, it was like a lottery winner complaining about being too rich. I pretended to be sympathetic, then hung up and cried. And then I felt guilty for wanting a break from motherhood, and I cried over that. My pleaded promises to the cosmos from so many years ago rang in my ears: I would never want to be apart from my child, even for one minute.
What I didn’t understand then (I’m sensing a theme here) is that burnout didn’t make me a bad parent; it made me a normal person. Motherhood is a marathon, a test of anybody’s grit and fortitude. Why should we be expected to react to it any differently than we do literally anything else that’s difficult? We never get a day off, not even when we’re sick. We endure sleepless nights and then soldier through the next day like a boss, because somebody has to. We deal with things that would appall our childless friends on a regular basis – without batting an eye. And that’s to say nothing of the emotional toll of parenting: the worry, the constant awareness that we’re responsible for so much, the fear that we’re somehow screwing it all up.
Of course, we’re worn out. Of course, we miss the untethered freedom to tend to our own needs before anyone else’s, to take care of ourselves first and foremost.
We may be mothers, but we’re still people, subject to the same fatigue as anyone else who works hard. And missing the people we were before having children doesn’t mean we don’t love and adore our kids – it just means that we love ourselves, too, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s critical to our wellbeing, and to the wellbeing of our families.
So, mamas, if you’re feeling burned out – like you want to escape it all – don’t let it make you feel guilty. Let it make you feel human, and realize that you’re not as far-removed from yourself as you thought you were.