Two weeks ago I went to see The Last Jedi.
This was significant for a couple of reasons. First, omg new Star Wars! I may or may not have actually teared up the first time I saw Rey and Finn board the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens. It was like seeing a part of my childhood come to life. (Even though it was a set on a movie screen. I know that doesn’t really make sense. Judge me you must not.)
The truly significant thing about this moviegoing experience, however, was that it was the first time I had ever gone to a movie by myself. I left my four-year-old and my two-month-old at home with my very capable husband, stashed a cold brew in my purse, and went to a 9am show on a Saturday morning. I didn’t have to bring a diaper bag or 12 extra snacks. I didn’t dress for nursing access. I peed by myself. I ate my breakfast popcorn one kernel at a time like I used to do ages ago before I was sharing it with somebody. I felt free.
And the whole time I was there I felt like I was getting away with something. I was away from the house for a mere three hours, my kids were well taken care of, I had made sure my family had everything they needed before I left the house, and my husband had gone to see it by himself the day before so I wasn’t even being selfish. Tickets to the 9am show cost $5 so it hardly blew our budget. My smuggled coffee was the only really questionable part of my outing. I knew it was fine to be there alone. But it still felt like I was pretending to be somebody else for a morning; like this level of freedom and indulgence was somehow not allowed in my life.
The same feelings bubbled up this past Sunday, unexpectedly, at home. Z and I were both in the kitchen together, at the same time, with all four of our hands free, making breakfast and brewing good coffee in my brand new Chemex and chatting about our plans for the day, when suddenly I felt a stab of guilt. I could see both kids, just a few feet away. L was engrossed in a kids’ show (and an educational one, to boot) and G was waving her arms and kicking and cooing happily on her play mat. And instead of pondering this wondrous miracle that was both kids content, at the same time, without any parental assistance at all, I found myself inexplicably wondering if I was being a bad mom for taking time to make slow coffee instead of snuggling my babies.
I imagine this sense that I shouldn’t be enjoying myself just for me has been exacerbated by our medical struggles, which for us coincide exactly with becoming parents. For a long time, L was hard to take out in public and could only be left in the care of an IV-certified nurse, so we didn’t do anything. In between appointments and therapies and frequent hospital readmissions, we stayed at home where we had extensive medical duties and often oppressive worries on top of all the regular stress of parenting. There were many days when we literally could not spare a moment for ourselves. His health required constant management, and we rarely got breaks.
We tried, we really did. When you are a long-term NICU parent, people are quick to remind you to take care of yourself, too, and we knew we would be long-termers from day one. We even took a day in the middle of his 4.5-month NICU stay, when he was completely stable and simply awaiting another surgery, to go swim in the lake so that we could, momentarily, feel normal. But we didn’t tell anybody we did that. I didn’t tell anybody that most nights, during those stable NICU weeks, I went home and slept like a rock. Because the expectation is that it will be immeasurably hard, that it will be the most miserable stretch of your life (rightly so, in many cases); and if I could swim, if I could sleep, maybe I wasn’t properly worried, properly miserable, properly parenting my son. People encouraged us to take care of ourselves, and we did so, but never without guilt.
I think this was amplified by our medical journey, but I also know that this mindset is not unique to parents of medically fragile children. It’s so easy to get weighed down by the responsibilities of parenthood, to feel consumed by the needs of these tiny humans who depend on you so utterly, and to feel guilty about doing anything that mommy-guilt will translate into selfishness. It can feel impossible to scrape together 30 minutes for a workout when your clingy toddler wants to play and cuddle every second of every day, or to spend an evening reconnecting with your spouse over a dinner date when you’ve already spent all day away from the kids at work. There are only so many hours in a day, and parenting takes all of them.
My New Year’s resolutions for 2018 include the usual suspects: making healthy choices on the diet and exercise fronts, reading more, having regular date nights, being more present when I’m with my kids, paying off that last student loan ahead of schedule. I have resolved most of these things before, and in many cases I’ve failed. But this year I’m adding one more resolution into the mix, which I think may be the key to success for nearly everything else: shedding the guilt.
This year, I will take time for myself when I need it. I will take advantage of my support system. I will occasionally do things because I want to. I will allow myself to enjoy things that are not centered solely around my children. I will know that it’s okay if I don’t get everything done all in one day, but also that I’m often capable of more than I think. I will remind myself that things are not always hard just because they have sometimes been hard. I will make time to work out and read grown-up books and have date nights, and not feel like I am stealing that time from my kids. And we will all be better off because of it.
And when I falter, as I inevitably will, I will reread these words and renew my resolve, because I don’t have to do it perfectly for it to count.
Whatever your resolutions are for 2018, take the time to make it happen without guilt. I know exactly how hard it can be to make space in a busy life, but it really is okay to take some time for yourself. You need time for yourself, even if the most you can eke out in a harried day is a few seconds of deep breathing to recenter before you dive back in. The people you care about most will be better off if you are your best you, so do it for them if you need some help over that mommy-guilt hump — but if you can, simply do it for you.
You’re worth it.
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