I don’t know how to relax. I don’t know how to take it easy. I lay down and a running to-do list, 25 items long, runs on repeat in my mind. Did I remember to pack lunches? Did I respond to that editor’s email? Did I fill out the permission slips? Did I brush my teeth? Did I remember to schedule that meeting at work? Did I remember to pack the extra pair of shoes in case the weather changes and daycare takes the kids outside? Did I add bananas to the grocery list? Did I remember the goodie bags for the school birthday party next week?
I don’t know how to relax. I don’t know how to take it easy.
And then, three weeks ago, my body decided to do it for me, in the form of the worst pneumonia, the worst sick, I can ever remember being. I saw four doctors in 30 hours, gave what felt like all of the blood in my body to be tested on repeat, had x-rays, wore hospital gowns, fought migraine after migraine after migraine, battled 103 degree fevers that just wouldn’t quit, dry heaved, real-heaved, and laid in a cool, dark bedroom for six days without leaving to do more than go to the bathroom or shower in order to bring down my fever. I gave air-kisses to my kids and asked my husband to take the day off work because I couldn’t get out of bed to fill my own water bottle.
I missed a full week of work and didn’t do so much as check an email for nearly seven days. And, as it turned out, the world still went on without all of my to do lists and help.
And then….I started getting better. First, I went downstairs and made my own toast. Then, I took a shower that had a purpose other than fever-relief. Finally, I started doing more normal things around the house and responded to emails and picked the kids up from daycare and started eating more than toast.
So, I was better! Except, I wasn’t. I still couldn’t go up the stairs without being winded – but at least I didn’t need to take a two-hour nap after that, and so…I was better! And while working from home for a week was a great and needed relief from my commute, it came with three days of picking up sick kids from daycare, going on all-day field trips, and shuttling back and forth to ballet practice and recitals. You know, all prescribed ways of really taking it easy and not overdoing it!
But regardless, I was ready to commute back into the city this week so that I could prove to myself, and everyone around me, that I was better! Look! I’m fine!
Except I wasn’t. Within an hour of being back in the office, my breathing started to change. Co-workers wondered aloud, right to my face, what on earth I was doing back in the office “so soon.” So soon? It’d been two weeks since I’d stepped foot in here! Didn’t they know that the office needed me back? How did they possibly survive so long without me?
I don’t know how to relax. I don’t know how to take it easy.
Most moms I know, let alone women in general, aren’t great at it. And we wear it like a badge of honor – we are Wonder Woman! We can do it all and, with the help of some antibiotics every now and again, we do it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!
Well….let’s cut it out.
Just the other day, I was reading an Instagram post from a writer I admire who also puts on conferences annually to a stadium full of people. And, apparently, she’d gotten so sick on day one, that she was battling fevers and chills like mine, headaches and body aches so bad that she had to skip one of the planned events that night. But her entire post was about pushing through that. Not letting anyone down. Battling through how sick her body was to show up and prove…something to herself or the people who’d bought tickets to see her? That she was super-human? And I totally related to the notion of battling through, even though you shouldn’t, and wearing your ability to run on fumes like a badge of honor. But I also sort of resented the hell out of it. Because perpetuating this notion that we should do this, if we can at all muster the energy and endurance, isn’t helping anyone.
I’m not a superhero, mama, and – spoiler alert -neither are you. We’re not better when we’re sick. We’re not better if we sacrifice our own oxygen mask so that we can put on everyone else’s on the plane.
I have a tremendous amount of guilt for relying so heavily on my husband and mother-in-law these last few weeks to pick up my slack over and over. And no matter how many times they, or anyone else, tell me to stop apologizing and just get better, I can’t help but feel like a failure. I feel like it’s my fault that I got so sick that we ended up in the ER and that, if I’d just been a better super-hero, we wouldn’t be in this position.
And I suppose I’m not alone, based upon what I see on social media or baked into our culture with every “Super Mom” and “We can do it all!” cheers at each turn.
I can’t do it all. I can’t go to bed late and wake up early without being affected over time. I do have to go to bed by 9 and sleep through the night, uninterrupted, more nights than not, if I want to be my best. I do have to drink enough water, say no to as many calendar invitations as I say yes to, and listen to my body when it’s screaming for me to slow down. It’s not a coincidence that I had a cold that lasted four weeks and then a urinary tract infection a week before being brought down by pneumonia. My body was begging me to slow down. But I had meetings! And plans! And field trips! And lunches! And did I remember the bananas? What kind of balance bike is right for my soon-to-be four-year-old? Do other moms slow down? No! We have our to do lists! Our brains are always on go-mode.
Well screw it…kind of. I need to be realistic about these goals. My to do lists aren’t going away and my job isn’t going to get less busy. But I do have control over when I go to sleep. I do have control over letting the house be messier than I’d like, asking my husband to take on some of the to-do’s, and setting boundaries at work. And I understand that not everyone has the luxury of doing those things. I do understand that I’m actually one of the incredibly lucky ones who has a flexible job, health insurance, and a close support network of family and friends who literally drop everything when I go down.
But mama – my guess is that you have at least some of these things, too. And it’s only a matter of time before burning your candle at both ends so hot and fast catches up to you.
We have to do better for ourselves. I’m saying this as much to myself as I am to anyone else. Because I’m really pretty awful at it. But it’s not worth it, you guys. It’s not worth laying in bed, sicker than you’ve ever been, wondering if you’ve just pushed it so far that this might actually be really bad. Who am I good for then? Who am I good for if I’m too sick to be there for the people I love? And what am I teaching my kids? That you run, run, run until your body literally shuts you down?
Look. I’ve been like this my whole life. This is as consistent as my love for cake – it’s built into my DNA. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get better at slowing down. My slowing down might look different from yours, but I need to try and try and try until I’m better at it. It might mean taking two things off of my list and giving them to my husband or throwing them off the list entirely (I’m looking at you, organizing-my-shoes-in-the-closet.) And I need to share it with you guys so that you try, too. Because you’re not my hero anymore if you’re the one running face-first into a wall to prove that you can. You’re my hero if I see you saying, “No, we’re starting to overbook so I’m going to have to pass on hanging out so I can go to sleep by 9.” YES, MAMA! You are my people!
I’ll fail, I’ll over-do it, and I’ll try to prove to myself that just pushing a little bit more is all that is needed… and then I’ll remind myself to slow down. Rinse, repeat.
But I’ll slow down more than I have, that’s my promise to myself. I’ll ask for help more than I have, and I’ll try to accept the fact that I’m not a one-woman super power who can run her family and her career without needing help or taking a break.
And if you do that, too, then we can start to create our own little, but growing, circle of super-hero women who aren’t busy sewing a new cape for herself that's extra shiny. Instead, she’s gotta’ watch “Big Little Lies” and go to sleep at a reasonable hour. Our slightly tattered, less shiny capes will do just fine, mama. Of this, I'm sure.