One night after my second child was born, I sat up in bed nursing. My son was about 6 months old at the time, but still waking constantly. I was so tired, so rundown that I could hardly think straight — I just remember feeling as though I was underwater.
With my husband often working out of town, a baby that never slept, and an angry toddler underfoot, it suddenly seemed like my life was a constant cycle of never-ending demands. There was no me anymore, just tasks; and the monotony of it all was almost too much to take.
Before I knew it, I barely knew who I was. Heck, I barely knew where I was.
While the infant days pass quickly, and it’s true you should treasure what you can before it’s gone, spending your days hunched over a hungry baby (while a toddler head-butts you and begs for attention) can make you forget who you are quicker than you’d think. And that’s mostly because it doesn’t leave time for much of anything else.
Like eating a full meal, for example. Or taking a phone call. Or doing … pretty much anything that you need to do for you.
So, you hold a baby in your arms while you simultaneously pee. You stay awake all night out of necessity, and chug coffee to power through the day. Your personal choices become severely limited — sometimes, it feels like you don’t have any at all. And it breaks your heart just a little bit, even if it feels selfish to be heartbroken simply because you’re now a mother.
Even if being a caretaker is worth it, it doesn’t always feel that way. Not in the middle of the night, after nine or 10 or 12 straight months of sleeplessness. Not when the baby is screaming again and your anxiety is through the roof and you just want to scream, too.
In the early days, I remember feeling like I was fighting, clawing, and grasping at ways to find so much as a few minutes for myself. Sometimes, I succeeded in tiny ways. My husband would do bedtime or give the kids a bath. But there was still something missing. I didn’t know what it was or how to get it back. It felt wrong to even want for anything, when I had this beautiful family. But the truth was, part of me was gone.
I rarely saw friends anymore and I had absolutely no time to exercise — my needy baby screamed if I tried to take him to the gym, or leave him with a neighbor so I could take a short run. The only quiet time in the day was when I sat up in bed and cried during the short stints my baby slept — possibly, the only choice I made for myself in a 24-hour period, and I spent it sobbing out of pure desperation.
I often wondered if I’d ever have time for myself again, instead of being on-duty all the time. I questioned whether this was my own fault, or the result of me being a stay-at-home mom by necessity. And the truth is, I’m not completely sure.
When I think back to what I’d do differently — how I’d save myself a bit of sanity during those really challenging years — I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’d like to say I’d make more time for myself, but I know how hard I tried and failed. The time just wasn’t there. So instead, I grit my teeth and got through it, like so many of us do.
Now that my kids are 4 and 8, small bits of time have finally crept back into my life. I’m no longer drowning in diapers or waking constantly in the night. I no longer sit up in bed and sob into my pillow because I don’t know what else to do after a long day of everyone screaming for me and needing me.
A gradual slowing down has occurred, and I don’t mind saying that I’m grateful for it. I can’t say I miss the days that were so often spent wondering, “Where did I go?”
This newfound reconnection with myself isn’t just the result of my kids out-growing the baby stage, though. I’m navigating a new stage of life too, after recently separating from my husband of eight years.
Suddenly, I’m the off-duty parent two nights a week, while my soon-to-be-ex is with the kids. It’s a harsh transition, and yet, I would’ve thought all those years ago, in my quiet desperation, that this newfound freedom at night would feel blissful. Instead, it feels like something else entirely. It feels strange and scary and intimidating and, sometimes, utterly sad. Maybe because I feel like I’ve spent all this time building a family, only to feel like I’m letting them down now.
I’ve spent so much time trying to be a mother who is ever-present, and now I can’t be; at least, not all the time. Don’t get me wrong, though — not having my kids in the next room doesn’t exactly make me yearn for those sleepless nights again, but it’s definitely taking some getting used to.
For years, I’ve always been here — in this house, with my two babies. And now, at least a couple of times a week, I’m not. Since I’ve always been the go-to parent as a SAHM, that’s a hard turn to make. Still, I know I have to make it.
With that distance, I now have something I haven’t had in years — and that something is time. It’s so uncomfortable, so new, that it makes me squirm in my seat. It makes me overwhelmed with guilt. And sometimes, it makes me wonder why I chose this at all.
So in those moments of newfound freedom and aloneness, I work, I pick up a book, I watch TV. And yes, sometimes I cry. I sip a glass of wine and soak myself in sadness. But then I realize that the only thing that’s left to do is to start remembering me again — the person who got a little lost, because everyone else’s needs were so much more pressing.
I am grieving for not so much the loss, but the shifting of the family I’ve known for nine years. And yet at the same time, for fleeting moments, I feel something else — something strange and hard to recognize at first.
Through the fear, through the anxiety, through the self-doubt and the questioning, I feel a spark of excitement.
I’m learning to navigate this new, strange land little by little. And so far, I’ve learned it’s about giving my inner self care, showing her compassion, and moving slowly if I need to. It’s about remembering to treat my own needs as if they are just as important as anyone else’s. It’s about doing things I haven’t had time for in years and maybe, just maybe, feeling happy about it, rather than devastated.
Or at least, feeling a bit of both.
It’s early still, but I’m realizing that I have to reinvest in myself, now more than ever. And when I do it — when I can shake the guilty feeling that comes with being just a person, and not solely a mother — I feel myself growing again, in a new way. And perhaps it’s not selfish. Perhaps it’s just new, uncharted territory that I just need to explore.
Last week, I slung a camping chair over my shoulder and went to a concert with friends. The week before, I took myself to a movie. On my nights off, I don’t rush through my work or my workout. I can sit on my yoga mat and stare at the wall if I feel like. It’s okay.
It all feels so out of character — the same way tuning into my motherhood once did, many years ago. But it was necessary; it was important; and I’m glad I did the work of it.
Now, more work needs to be done. And just like before, I’ll find my way there. I have to come back to myself, somehow, some way.
But the good news is, I’m slowly finding that I didn’t go too far after all.