There are stages of motherhood when your physical, mental, and emotional being are far from your own. From nursing around the clock, to making sure the baby is still breathing in the middle of the night, to praying you can sit on the toilet without your toddler sticking his hand impatiently through the crack beneath the door, it can be like living in an alternate reality. These memories are endearing as we look back on them in the trials of the teenage years. But they can be maddening in the midst of repetition when the most menial tasks become herculean efforts.
For the sake of so many things, including your sanity, it’s crucial to carve out room for yourself at every stage of motherhood—sans guilt. There’s the old adage of putting your own oxygen mask on first, but I recently heard a good argument that lambasted that idea. We shouldn’t wait for an emergency to arise before we make ourselves a priority. And I would argue that putting ourselves last—whether we have children or not—is the worst way to demonstrate finding, knowing, being, and loving ourselves. How will our children find their own path, if we can’t even point in the general direction of our own?
All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t make the care of our children and families a priority. It’s that we shouldn’t factor ourselves out of the equation.
Solitude in motherhood looks just as different as each stage of child development. Sometimes it’s as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee in silence while your partner takes the baby for a walk. Or going on that walk yourself. But sometimes it’s as glorious as getting away for a weekend, which I know isn’t always an easy thing to manage. I remember the first time I picked up a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, a part of me was nourished in a way I had never been, while another was resentful of the luxury of months-long vacations she had to herself. This was the wife of the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, mind you, who also lost one of her children in a horrific kidnapping from her home in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, it is oftentimes extraordinary life circumstances that finally force us to see the need for solitude and self-care. And I don’t mean hitting the spa for a day, or going on a shopping spree. I mean a real, intentional disconnect from the treadmill of day-to-day life. For me, it was divorce that finally forced me to seek this in a meaningful way, to make my mental and emotional well-being in the throes of motherhood a priority. Which is ironic, as I have shared custody of my kids and find the pendulum swinging between chaos and solitude so frequently now. But intentional solitude is something entirely different from the happenstance of being alone. It’s a meeting of yourself.
For the past three years or so now, I’ve made it a point to hit the road and venture out to the middle of nowhere to a not-so-little retreat center. And a silent retreat center, at that. For me, it has been a place of respite, where nothing needs doing. No dishes to be done, meals to prepare, or laundry to be mulled over. I go there simply to be. To be still enough to hear myself think. To remember who I am outside of all the expectations and roles I play. It is through that reconnection and knowing of myself that I am able to be more fully me for and with others. To see beyond the minutia and the seemingly unnoticeable efforts of making a home, and living the role of a mother who loves and gives unconditionally. Who makes mistakes and demonstrates the asking of forgiveness and the repairing of familial ties, time and time again.
It’s easy to slip into a spiral of stress during these times of solitude if I’m not careful. To take on a “hurry up and relax” mentality or create a checklist of all the things I think would make this a successful break from everyday life. But I’ve found the most benefit when I make these times a sort of walking meditation. To allow myself to live in the flow of each moment. Put away the phone, the computer, the undone tasks, and revel in being alive.
When I return to my role as Mama, it’s easier for me to be thankfully for the spilled milk, forgotten homework, and sibling squabbles. I am reminded that I don’t have to take angry outbursts personally, and to see through to the human beings I get to witness the becoming of each day.
Without that re-centering, that re-knowing of ourselves, we cannot give healthfully, wholeheartedly of ourselves, without expectation of return. We mother, give, love, for nothing more than the art of it all when we’re able to find the center of ourselves amongst quotidian things. And may we all have the fortitude of finding ourselves before the emergency oxygen mask falls forcefully in front of us.