I read a story from a mother the other day that stuck with me because it just felt wrong. “The Day My Son Gave Up on Me” by Lauren Cormier is the story of a mom, like so many moms, who is running herself ragged all throughout the day because from the moment she wakes up in the morning until the kids are in bed at night (and even beyond that) she is thinking about other people’s needs. And so she ends up making a promise to her son that she won’t keep.
All I could think about when I finished reading her story was this: she was set up.
Cormier was set up by routines and expectations that weren’t working for her. She was set up by an attitude that didn’t recognize and value her needs as much as everyone else’s. She was set up to say “yes” to everyone besides herself first, so that she ended up making promises she couldn’t keep.
After she is finally finished taking care of everyone else, she sits down next to her husband, who decides it is a good time to launch a guilt grenade at her. Yet, the husband has been doing what exactly all this time? It seems like he was already sitting on the couch, not helping. I could be wrong. There could be a lot about what the husband has been doing that has been left out. Regardless, he should see how hard his wife is working and realize that relaying his son’s words to his wife is hurtful and unhelpful in that moment.
This mom feels convicted about her sour attitude and her failure to deliver the attention she promises to her children, but in focusing on the expression of her attitude, she misses the root of it. She feels convicted and resolves, like we all do, to be more patient and attentive next time. But when she decides to dig deep and simply find more of her weary, over-extended self to give, she reinforces the message that moms setting limits and getting their own rest is wrong. And also that women are the ones who should be endless fonts of energy and generosity, while husbands are observers, couch-sitters, providing testimony to a mom’s every failure.
What’s wrong with this story is not that a mom didn’t spend enough time with her son. What’s wrong isn’t even primarily that a mom didn’t keep her word to her son. Cormier not keeping her word to her son is a byproduct of the family not prioritizing her needs and protecting them with routines that work for her too.
Cormier’s kids’ bedtime routine goes like so many: baths, PJs, teeth, stories, cuddles. But this breaks down because for some reason there is a break between stories and cuddles. She goes downstairs and then is called back upstairs again for more cuddling. Inevitably, as soon as she leaves her children’s room and walks downstairs, she sees the visual chaos of a lived-in house: the dishes in the sink, the toys strewn all over the living room, the baskets of laundry waiting to be folded. And as soon as her foot leaves the last stair, she is aching for rest. Yet she still can’t. The bedtime routine still isn’t over, so now she has at least three competing demands: the kid, the house, and herself.
What if, instead of having to come downstairs, each parent grabbed a glass of water for each boy right after brushing their teeth and took it into the bedroom? Then they could read stories, have cuddles, say goodnight and be done. No calling Mom back into the bedroom, because she didn’t have to leave in the middle of the routine. Her son couldn’t be disappointed, because she doesn’t have to make a promise she can’t follow through on. And what if, during the end of cuddles, Dad was downstairs finishing up dishes and packing up lunch so that by the time Mom gave the last goodnight kiss, all she had to do was sit down on the couch and rest?
I’m tired of reading stories about tired moms who determine that the answer to their feelings of failure is to simply love more, appreciate more, be more. We are doing the best we can. We love our children and wish that we had the energy to match our endless love. We expect a lot of ourselves and the world expects a lot from us. But moms need love poured into us as well. That means the solution is prioritizing rejuvenating rest for moms and creating routines and rules that allow rest to happen. That might mean being more intentional about the time we do spend with our kids, creating rituals that aren’t necessarily longer, but are dependable.
I had a meet and greet with a new doctor the other day and she asked me how I was getting time for myself. She said I should take time to read or work on my own project every day, and it didn’t have to be when my son is asleep. “Sit him down next to you with some toys and tell him he can play next to you while you do your thing for the next 30 minutes, or if he throws a fit he can scream in his room where you can’t hear him.” When I thought of leaving my son in his room to scream just because I wanted some “me time,” I thought of all the voices that would tell me I’m a bad mother for “abandoning” my son or “punishing” him for no reason. “It will be good for him to see you taking time out to take care of yourself, so that as he grows up he will know that he can do that, too,” the doctor explained.
This kind of parenting is not popular right now, with the rise of attachment parenting and because of articles like “The Day My Son Gave Up on Me.” But I’ve done co-sleeping, I’ve done babywearing, and I’ve done the middle-of-the-night nursing sessions past when he “needed” them. Although I would do much of it again, I’ve learned that I have limits. I also realized that if this doctor, who knows about child development and who has treated a lot of weary mothers, is telling me that this is not only ok, but necessary, I should listen. She sees the repercussions of mothers who don’t take care of themselves.
Let’s strike a balance. Children need parents who will follow through on their word. But they also need to see us taking care of ourselves and being intentional with our time. Children need to learn that just because their parents’ love for them is limitless, doesn’t mean life is limitless. Other people have needs and there is a time and place for everything. That means Mommy gives you a glass of water, cuddles up and reads a story, says goodnight and doesn’t come back upstairs just because you want her to.