For the first eight years of parenting, I was a full-time stay-at-home mom. I worked very part-time, as a breastfeeding counselor and lactation consultant, but I did that on weekends mostly. And although I loved what I did, it wasn’t exactly much of a break from my kids (hello, cute screaming newborns and sweet, weepy new moms).
Over the past few years, I’ve become a work-from-home freelance writer. As my youngest has been ushered into schooling, I have been spending more and more time holed up in my “office” (a.k.a. my bedroom) typing away. It’s definitely not a break from parenting. In order to make a living as a writer, I have to take the whole thing seriously: researching, keeping in touch with editors, and churning out quality content.
But it’s about 20 hours a week where I sit in a quiet room (I am not the type of writer who can work with any noise or distractions), away from my kids, doing my own thing — and oh my goodness, it’s delicious.
You know how you don’t always realize that things were as tough as they were until they get better? Looking back on the first eight years of parenting, I see how very worn down I was. Yes, being a stay-at-home mom was something I always wanted. I signed up for it. The intensity, the endlessness, the being at my kids’ beck-and-call 24/7.
Yes, I wouldn’t really want to change those years of having a baby stuck to my body like glue. In so many ways, the early years of parenting were like a beautiful, intense love affair. My kids’ needs were my needs, and vice versa. And in many ways, I really did love all of that.
But for lots of those years, I dealt with anxiety and depression, probably more of it than I should have. I’d end many of my days chronically exhausted and depleted, my body feeling so heavy I couldn’t move. By 5 p.m., I was absolute toast. And it wasn’t just from the sleeplessness that comes with having young children. It wasn’t just their never-ending demands. It was a kind of sensory overload, an overwhelming feeling that I’d lost my own self, my own inner peace — the core of who I was washed up in drool, spit-up, breast milk, and tears.
A few years ago, I came across the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, a psychologist who coined the term highly sensitive person (HSP). After reading Aron’s description of HSPs, a light bulb went off in my head. That was me, 100%, and it explained so much of what I had struggled with all my life and what I had struggled with all those years as a parent.
Highly sensitive people are easily overwhelmed by physical stimuli (bright lights, loud sounds, and chaotic environments). They are easily overstimulated and often feel like they need to retreat sooner than most people, especially in social situations. They are sensitive, shy, and crave time alone.
Ummm, it’s almost as if the loud, chaotic nonstop life of parenthood is exactly what would drive a highly sensitive person over the edge, right?
I learned pretty early on in my parenting journey that I wasn’t going to be the kind of parent who arranged a million play dates or other social events for my kids. And I made a point when they were little to make nap time and nighttime all about quiet time for me. I rarely scheduled housework or anything strenuous for that time. I almost never went out after they went to sleep because all I wanted then was to bask in the utter quiet of my sleeping house.
So in many ways, I was able to figure out a way to happily parent as a sensitive person, making sure to take some time for self-care — some time for me. But I see now that it probably wasn’t enough, that I require more than a stolen moment here or there of quiet. I need several hours a day of uninterrupted, totally quiet, totally alone time just to keep myself relatively sane. I need time to process, reflect, decompress — much more time than is afforded a mommy who is on duty 24 hours a day.
As much as I miss my full-time mommy days in many ways (more than anything, I just miss my kids when they were babies), I also see how much better the balance I have struck now is for my mental and emotional health. I know there are some mothers who can do the 24/7 thing and more power to them. But I realize now that I am not one of them, at least not for the long haul.
Rather than pushing my sensitive qualities aside, or feeling like there is something strange or wrong for having them, I have been embracing and celebrating these qualities. The fact that I absorb everything around me is actually a gift (and I think it’s part of why I became a writer in the first place). It makes me highly attuned to my children and their needs (and this is true whether I am around them all the time, or not).
Even with the balance I have in my life right now, there are still times when I need to retreat from the chaos of my life with my kids, and my kids know that about me. “I just need some silence,” I’ll say to them, as I retreat into the bedroom to lie down and meditate for a few minutes. They have started to accept that about me, and I’m hoping that I’m teaching them that taking care of one’s needs isn’t a weakness, but instead a strength.
We all have different limits and different struggles as mothers. It’s hard sometimes to put your needs in the forefront of your life, especially when you are in the trenches of early motherhood. But feeling overwhelmed and over-stressed is not good for anyone — yourself or your kids. The hard truth is that taking care of your mental health is probably one of the most important things you can do as a mother.
Recognizing what you need to feel balanced and happy is an important first step, and taking whatever measures you can to make that happen will end up benefiting everyone in the long-run.