Every once in a while – probably on the rare days when I remember to match my socks and put on mascara – another mama will see me with my four children and get the (mistaken) impression that I know what I’m doing. Sometimes they ask me things I know the answers to, like what aisle the diapers are in at our local grocery store. But other times the question they ask me is hard.
The other day, I got one of these questions. A friend had just been through five days (that is not a typo) of labor and had finally delivered a beautiful baby, her first. She asked me if I could recommend anything, herbal or the like, that would increase her energy so she could heal and take care of her baby and her house and do all of the other things that a regular life requires.
When I read her email, it sounded frantic and stressed to me. I worried for her. In my opinion, she was a superhero, and yet in hers, she was falling short. When I walked away for a while and came back to reread it, I realized her tone was normal. That frantic voice had been my own. Her email had hit a nerve with me, because while her circumstances were different, her situation was universal.
This is what we do, isn't it? We try so hard, and want to do so much. When we fall short of our own expectations, we adjust us instead of adjusting the expectations. We go to bed later, or set the alarm earlier. We sacrifice our yoga class or our ladies night and trade it for an extra load of laundry or yet another trip to the grocery store. We become martyrs.
I saw myself doing this recently. Life had become especially stressful and overwhelming, as it does, and I decided that a daily workout was in order. It's healthier than wine or a pint of ice cream in front of Netflix, I reasoned, so I started to set the alarm earlier and earlier. When it went off, I resented the hell out of it. I would still put my feet to the hardwoods and lay out my mat, but my breathing was stiff and my moves lacked heart.
I was so damn tired.
And I couldn't focus. I was there on my mat, only feet from my washer and dryer, thinking, "Maybe I should just throw a load of laundry in," or "If I skip this and unload the dishwasher, I can leave for work five minutes earlier," or "If I got in the shower right now, I might even have time to shave my legs!"
Eventually, I'd give up trying and go find a chore, thinking I would thank myself later on the back end for the work I did on the front end.
There's a problem with that though: there will always be another chore. I've yet to find the last one myself. They keep popping up like a game of Whac-A-Mole. I fold and put away the last load of laundry and return to find the basket full of that day's clothes. I clean the kitchen to a shine and, five minutes later, greasy fingerprints smear along each cabinet at four different heights.
I can safely say that there has never been a time in recent memory when I have settled onto the couch after a long day and thought, "Whew! That was a tough day. But at least everything is done."
I also have a nagging suspicion that if, by some miracle, I did finish it all, it would be sort of anti-climatic. I doubt Ed McMahon would ring my doorbell, holding balloons and an oversized check. And that is probably a good thing, as I would not be wearing a bra or decent pants.
I thought for a long time before I responded to my friend's email. I thought about how I drink too much coffee in the mornings, chasing wakefulness, but finding jitteriness instead, and then drink calming tea in the afternoons to bring my heart rate back down to a reasonable level. I thought about the evenings when I sometimes drink too much wine, chasing relaxation, and wake up instead with a headache, needing more coffee, and a full repeat of the cycle.
I thought about one of my lifelines, an ongoing group text with close friends, where we each can find each other saying things like, "Is it okay to not shower and spend three hours watching Netflix in my bed on a Saturday afternoon?" Everyone inevitably answers, "YES! Absolutely," giving each other permission to relax freely, even when we struggle to give that permission to ourselves.
The more I thought about that woman who labored for five days, the more I wanted to tell her what a hero I thought she was. Because it's important to think about how much we have achieved instead of how much we haven't.
When one of the girls in my group text wrote, "Is it okay if…" I immediately told her she was a hero, too, just for getting out of bed each morning when she didn't really feel like she could.
Later, when I shared my chocolate with my whiny four-year-old, even though I really wanted the whole thing for myself, I thought, "Damn. Now I am kind of a hero, too."
If we want to keep saving the world, us heroes have got to rest. While sometimes it can feel selfish or even indulgent to take time for ourselves, no one wants a sad, broken mama. We need to take time to do the things that heal us.
When I finally sat down to write that new mother back, I said this:
"I know just the thing for you! It's a widely known remedy that can heal or at least put a dent in almost anything that ails you. It's free, and anyone can do it, regardless of athletic ability. This miracle, sweet mama, is rest. Give yourself permission to honor your body's needs, because you just came through battle, and you are a hero."
And then I took my own advice.
Sometimes I still wake early and do sun salutations until my arms shake and sweat drips onto my mat. Other days, my alarm goes off and I make my way downstairs, unfurl my mat, lie down on it, place a blanket over my body, and go back to sleep.
Because sleep is good. And I'm a hero.