The motherly art of rest

Dear mothers of the world, lend me your ears: Motherhood, including-but-not-limited-to childbirth and recovery: we might be doing it wrong.

Actually, I’m almost positive we are. And my suspicions were confirmed a hundredfold a little less than a year ago after the birth of Luke, when I actually took my mom’s – and the rest of the developed/ing world’s – advice, and, wait for it, rested. Like I had just done something really hard.

I pretended that giving birth was a big deal, and then I acted like someone who’d just been through a big deal and took to my bed for a solid 10 days.

I mean, I got up and took showers and tried to load the dishwasher once or six times before talking myself down (and crawling back under the covers while silently chanting DO NOT CARE.)

Sounds revolutionary, no?

But it was. And remembering back to the long, hot summer where I was anxiously nesting and rearranging and logging 2 or 3 mile walks every afternoon trying to coax the little guy out, but was instead actually dooming myself to 3 weeks of nightly prodromal labor sessions to the tune of 3 or 4 hours, I cringe. Because my poor body was tired.

Imagine that. 4 babies in 5 years and I was tired.

And as it turned out, no amount of physical exertion was going to help me recover from being physically and emotionally and mentally overtaxed.

So not only did I not convince baby to come early, but I was actually so exhausted that once labor did start for good it was not a smooth ride. Contractions were disorganized and there were long stretches of inactivity that drove me and my nurses crazy because after you’ve been in the hospital for a day, all parties involved hope to have someone to show for it.

Finally, thanks to a mix of peanut ball positioning/Pitocin/prayers, Luke did come, and he was a happy little man with high Apgar scores and a winning newborn smile. But when I think back on last summer and how tired I was, how hard I pushed myself, and how exhausted my state of mind when I went into labor, I feel a little sorry for that poor mom.

Next time (presuming there may one day be a next time) I want to do things differently. I don’t want to fight my body. I don’t want to fling myself angrily at the last month of pregnancy like a raging mid-level manager with a sloppy staff and a year-end quota to meet. I don’t want to try to punish and cajole and trick and coax.

There is something to be said for resting, especially in a high-powered job like motherhood. There is a paradoxical and almost magical quality to the idea that you can advance your performance by dialing it down a notch. That taking a time out to regroup and to simply power down can actually make you more effective in your work.

I am still learning this lesson. I learn it anew every day when we reach 1pm, the little kids sleeping or resting and a pile of dishes lurking in the sink, toys scattered around the family room, food scraps under the table and melted popsicles littering the deck. The clutter competes for my attention, and I know that if I put my head down and get to work, I can bang it all out in 30 minutes or so.

But lately? I’m choosing more often not to. Even though I’m teetering on no-longer-technically-postpartum here at 11 months out, I’m easing myself back into a period of intentional rest. So I look at the filthy kitchen, I grit my teeth, and I surrender the mess, for the moment at least, heading to the couch with a rosary and my Kindle.

I need rest in order to be a good mom. I need rest in order to be a decent human being, period.

So much of the anger, the frustration, the short-temperedness and the exhaustion that have marked my greatest struggles in motherhood can be traced back to a basic lack of self care. And for me, sometimes I neglect self care to the tune of getting one more load of laundry done, or scrubbing the kitchen floor. Sad but true.

Sure, the baby does not sleep. The 4 year old wakes up at 3 am and stands 4 inches from my unconscious head, rasping for for ice water. There are last-minute deadlines to hit, there are documents the mortgage company needs, there are events I RSVP’d to that I forgot all about until my calendar dings a 30 minute alert.

But I can protect my rest.

And I must. Because nobody else – not my well-meaning husband who is gone all day, not my long-distance best friends, not my sisters – is going to protect it for me. They can’t. It’s my job. And it is critical that I perform it, because I am a wretched human being and a really disappointing mom when I don’t.

When I’m yelling at the kids about something that isn’t serious enough to merit a raised voice, when I’m weeping over something that normally wouldn’t raise my blood pressure, when I’m driving somewhere 5 minutes late, panic rising in my chest like a mounting thunder storm, 90% of the time it is because I am insufficiently rested.

And if the rest isn’t available in a solid, uninterrupted 8 hour chunk overnight, then I have to make it elsewhere.

I owe it to myself, to my family, and to the God who created me in His image, to work and to rest in proportion.

If God Himself needed an entire day off in the course of Creation, how can I expect to get by without quality down time?

Rest is built into our vocations, intrinsic to the work we are called to, and necessary to the daily rhythm of a successful and fruitful life.

How could I have gone so many years without realizing this?

Because we live in a culture that worships busyness. Because I’m “just” a stay at home mom with something to prove to herself and to the rest of the world, having internalized the message of “not enough” from a career-focused culture. Because I don’t use my rest well, and end up frittering away hours of time on the internet or folding laundry or Accomplishing Something Important, realizing in a belated panic that it’s closing in on midnight and the baby will be up in 6 hours and it’s going to be another coffee-fueled Tuesday.

That’s not good enough.

It’s not good enough for a mama who is easing back into life with her newest little one and trying to figure out life with 3 or 4 or 6 kids at home, and it’s not good enough for a mother with a brood of 4 little not-newborn kittens who have lots of energy and need lots of attention.

A wise woman once pointed out that coffee and wine will only get you so far. (And despite the hastily concocted and now permanently-stuck title of this blog, I do not wish to live in a manner that is only sustained by balancing caffeine and alcohol in an endless 12 hour cycle.)  Coffee and wine are great, but not as life-sustaining medicine. As celebratory indulgences. Italian style, not suburban-american-housewife-style.

Things are starting to ramble here, but the point I’m coming back around to is that there have been so many moments in my short journey down motherhood lane that have been excruciating in direct proportion to how little I’ve been resting. Yelling at my kids? I’m exhausted. Can’t lose weight? It’s because I’m using sugar and easy carbs to mimic energy to keep up with my life. Stressed as hell and no time for prayer? It’s because I watched 2 episodes of something on Netflix and went to bed at 11:40 because I deserved some “me time.” Which I will now pay for the in the form of longest afternoon of your entire life plus a side of flopping preschool banshee.

Rest is important. Take it from a recovered shingles sufferer with a perfectionist streak and a persistent need to Please and Impress All the People.

I’m still learning to rest. And to be okay with rest, and all it’s apparent lack of productivity. I have to remind myself that after all, some of the most important work God has done in me isn’t evident to the outside observer.

But I do hope the peace will become more evident as I learn to be a mom who rests, and who believes herself to be worthy of rest.

Aaaaaaaand I think I’ll just bookmark this to read back to myself about a week from now when we close on the house and commence a month-long period of squalor and chaos. (Future Jenny, it will not kill you to sleep in a yet-unpacked house. But it may come close if you burn all the midnight oil in order to get things to 110% by day 3.)

An unrelated photo of an IKEA run with 4 kids. Because sarcasm is an art form. (Alternately titled: “DIY double cart.”)