Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Case for Mothering Yourself

I come from a long line of storytellers. My family is Sicilian, and there is nothing they love more than a tray of cured meats, a tub of good ricotta, and a well-told tale. I’ve heard some of the same stories, year in and year out, for 39 years: The one about my great-grandparents building a giant wine press in their backyard. The one about my dad in barbering school, snipping the top of a man’s ear. The one about my uncle mistaking a Portuguese man o’ war for a kite floating in the ocean.

And yet, with each telling, the plots become more complicated, the twists more diabolical, the dialog more dramatic, the hand gestures more Italian, and thus more dangerous. It was inevitable that I would fall under the same spell. The pleasure I take in sharing a great story is profound.

I once dated a dedicated “boob man.” I was, decidedly, not his type, but we got along well. We talked easily. Knowing that he typically went for busty femme fatales, I came right out and asked: “Why me?” I expected the obvious answer: “Your hiney kind of makes up for the other stuff.” Instead, he told me that the first time he ever saw me was at a noisy, crowded party. “In the middle of all that chaos,” he said, “you were surrounded by a group of people, and they were all listening to you tell a story. Totally, completely listening. And I wondered what it would take for someone who could tell a story like that to find a guy like me interesting.”

I have no memory of that party. I drank a lot of Goldschl├Ąger back in those days because it sounded expensive and European. But what that old beau said to me remains one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. If one good story could make a “boob man” look past my physical “deficits,” then I was going to rule the world.

Eventually, I did what any young woman set on world domination would do: I earned an MFA in creative writing. I traded in Goldschl├Ąger for pretending to enjoy hipster craft beer, but my earnest, drippy devotion to storytelling remained the same. I wrote essays. I composed poetry. I taught classes on literature and story craft. Words. Words everywhere, like a bread crumb trail leading me always back to myself. To home.

And then I decided it was time to write a new chapter in my life. To change the story. I became a mom. And in the space of one night, I gave birth to my greatest creation, my son, and silently buried my first love, writing.

****

As mothers, we tend to think of things in terms of cost. And not just the monetary cost, but the physical cost, the cost to our time, the cost to our mental health. A manicure may only run you 20 bucks, which sounds like a modest splurge, until you account for the hour of your day that it will also cost you. Not to mention the time spent scheduling the manicure around naptime and mealtime and soccer practice and work and “Downton Abbey” and “The Walking Dead” and “Scandal” and maybe, if you’re lucky, a shower with shampoo. And let’s not forget that someone will need to watch the kids, because freshly polished nails and a freshly soiled diaper just don’t mix. But your toddler has separation anxiety and your tween figured out how to override the parental controls on the computer and your spouse has the sniffles. Or you don’t have a spouse.

You add up the cost, and suddenly that $20 manicure blows the budget. And that’s just a manicure. What would a night out with your girlfriends cost your family? Could your family afford for you to train for a half-marathon? Could they afford for you to take a class? To go back to school? To start your own business?

It all seems so beyond our reach. Too much to ask of our families. But that’s because we’ve been doing the math all wrong. We’ve been looking at only half of the equation — the half that asks, “What will it cost my family if I do something for myself?” The other half of that equation? That’s the part that asks, “What will it cost my family if I don’t do something for myself?”

****

After my son was born, I was consumed with nursing and rocking and cleaning and commuting and working and nursing and rocking and cleaning and commuting and working and sometimes nursing while cleaning and sometimes rocking while working and sometimes sleeping while sitting on the toilet. Sneaking off to lunch with friends seemed about as reasonable as sneaking off to join the circus. I tallied up the cost and determined that my family simply could not afford 2 hours without mom. True, I was miserable and often questioned my choice to become a parent or to get married or to have hopes and dreams, but, hey, the dishes were washed!

The same woman who once carefully applied makeup every morning had traded in her lipstick and mascara for a weekly shower. The same woman who could command an audience at a rowdy college kegger rarely left the confines of the quiet, pastel-colored nursery. I stopped telling stories. But then, I had stopped talking to friends. I rarely talked to my own family. I had an audience of one, and he was a baby and almost never picked up on my brilliant pop culture references.

My temper grew short. My sobbing grew long. My husband came home from work one evening to find me, yet again, exhausted, anxious, and mad. He took me by the shoulders and said, “Whatever it is you need to do, do it. I’d rather come home to a filthy house than a miserable wife. Help yourself for once. The kid and I will be okay.”

But here’s the thing: Before you can help yourself, you first have to believe that you need the help. That you deserve the help. It’s the 12-step approach to motherhood. And the best way I’ve found to convince a busy mom to take a little time for herself is to ask her to consider that important question: “What will it cost my family if I don’t do something for myself?”

Yes, doing something for yourself, whether it be a trip to the salon or a trip to Paris, will mean time spent away from your family. But if you don’t go to the salon, if you have to stare at your gnarly toenails or your split ends for another month, will you feel unattractive? Will you feel a little less confident? A little less sexy? And thus, a little less inclined to let the dishes soak, to slip outta those yoga pants with the hole near the crotch, and to spend some “adult time” with your significant other? What if you don’t go to Paris, or your bucket list destination? Will there be a hole in your heart that only a wheel of good Brie can fill? Will you be chronically disappointed? Will you resent your family and will you, thus, have a short fuse and hold long, mysterious grudges?

What I’m getting at, of course, is that when we deny ourselves those things that are meaningful to us, those things that bring us joy, we feel that our life lacks meaning, we feel joyless. We feel bitterness toward our family. We snap more often. Our feelings are more easily hurt. Sure, you can put off that mani/pedi, but can you put off intimacy with your partner, or wearing flip-flops now that it’s springtime? In short, you may spend less time with your family, but the time you do spend will likely be less fraught, maybe even a bit more joyful.

And let’s not forget that our actions set an example for our kids. I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want his or her child to fulfill her dreams. Yet, as moms, we rarely place our own wants and needs within the budget. As a result, we create an image of motherhood that is one of complete sacrifice. What little girl would want to grow up and have kids if having those kids also meant that she could never travel again or laugh with her girlfriends again or play softball again or become a doctor or tell another story? And the boys. Oh, the boys. God help the future mothers of their children if the boys are led to think that, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, moms can contentedly exist on a diet of lukewarm coffee and sandwich bread crusts and half-hearted pecks on the cheek. And, yet, that is the precedent we are setting when we treat our own dreams like frivolous expenditures.

What will it cost your family if you don’t do something for yourself? Maybe it will cost you the respect of your kids. Maybe it will cost your kids a healthy perspective on marriage and parenting and self-worth.

****

After my husband took me by the shoulders, after he urged me to get help, I felt . . . panic. The look on his face told me that my own unhappiness was, like a virus, infecting our marriage. I’d spent hours figuring out how to get the armpit stains out of his white t-shirts, and yet he was still bereft. Then, I looked at my son, scooting around in his walker, babbling happily, and I wondered, “When he’s older, what kind of stories will he have to tell about me?” I hadn’t cut off anyone’s ear or stomped grapes to make the family wine. I hadn’t so much as gone to the convenience store alone in almost a year.

So I did it. I helped myself. I put my story back into the budget.

I reached out to old friends. I made new friends by joining a chapter of MOMS Club International. At the nursing moms’ lounge in my office, I commiserated with fellow mamas over the sound of whirring breast pumps, trying to turn our boobs into sausage links. Having a parenting tribe, I found, was crucial to helping myself.

In short, I reconnected with the world. I made plans to go out. With a friend. Alone. I remember donning my red blazer, which I wear when I need to feel confident and to hide sweat stains. I put on lipstick and mascara. I felt fear. I felt excitement. Would my family survive without me for the night?

Yes. They did. My friend and I went to a show. We had drinks. And, as friends do when they’ve had drinks and need to catch each other up on a year’s worth of life, we began swapping stories. I forgot to frantically text my husband every hour, as I had promised, and as he had assured me was unnecessary. When I launched into another anecdote about my son, my pal mentioned the upcoming auditions for the 2014 Listen to Your Mother show. She suggested I give it a try.

For someone who thrives on teaching, I am loathe to admit that I have horrible stage fright. But the prospect of auditioning for LTYM was the prompt I needed to get writing again. So, yeah, I gave it a try. I asked for an hour to myself each night so that I could write my audition essay. Then I asked for 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon so that I could write. I forgot to iron all of the dress shirts. But I also forgot to be miserable.

I auditioned. And I was cast. And I was surrounded by so many women telling stories, passing around their brave, bold words like a jug of the family wine.

Hour by hour, I had unearthed the thing that I’d buried when my son was born. My writing, my own stories. A month after I was cast in the show, I started my blog, which might as well be called the floodgate. The stories rush at me, and often, they buoy me along.

Yes, recommitting to my writing has sometimes meant asking my husband to take care of the evening bath. It has meant letting the laundry pile up while I meet a deadline. And it still means leaning on my mom tribe, women who have cared for my son when I've been sick, who have delivered coffee to my home during a snowstorm, who have read my stories, and who have and still do cheer me on.

When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted to be was a writer. As a mom, I want my son to realize his own dreams, but I’m finally beginning to understand that I can’t realize those dreams for him. But that little girl version of me? The one who kept a daily diary and who signed herself up for the summer reading program at the library and who listened at her father’ knee as he added a new coat of polish to an often-told tale? Every time I make room in the budget to write or to audition for a show or to speak to group of righteous fellow mamas, I get closer to making my 8-year-old self’s dream come true. And, surprise surprise, I also get closer to my family.

Throw your hands up in the air, and write (or knit or dance or cook or kick box)
like ya just don't care (except you do care, obviously).
Image courtesy of the wonderful Debi Parker Photography