While I raised my children I remember watching myself over-expend energy. I was aware of what I was doing: helping and working, sharing and caring for everyone who needed me. However, it seemed there was never enough time in the day to slow down and provide for myself what I routinely (and for the most part happily) provided for others.
At work I was a skilled and compassionate nurse. At church I invested heart and soul as a primary teacher, den mother, young women’s leader, choir member, whatever I was called to do. At home I was a deeply devoted and exhausted mom to three kids. Honestly, most days I was overwhelmed by all the responsibilities. But I did the best I could. We ate cereal for dinner on really hard days. Other days it was a rotating menu of tuna casserole, spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburger patties with Rice-A-Roni. Taco Time, Arby’s and Stan’s Drive-In fed us more times than I can count. This was a time of endless giving and comparatively little receiving on my part.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t gain anything from serving and loving all those people at work, church and home. I gained a great deal of understanding about the human condition via those relationships. My capacity for love was enlarged because I believe God gave me strength beyond my own when I chose to serve people in need, especially my own children, and that was a good thing. But I learned lessons along the way about how to give and receive in more enriching, nourishing ways, rather than just “on the run.”
Amazingly, the most empowering example of how to be a good mom and good caregiver came from our cat. My daughter named her Midnight because, well, what else can you call a black cat? Midnight was an indoor-outdoor cat, a combination of street cat and diva and I came to love her for this. We had no pets in my own childhood home and I recognized being pet-less was one of many tragedies of my early years. (I’m both sarcastic and serious when I say that, depending on the day). So, I let my kids have pets. Through the years we had gerbils, mice, rabbits, fish, lizards, frogs and the occasional garter snake. But mostly cats. By the way, it turns out cats like to eat frogs, especially in the middle of the night. And then leave the remains in the hallway for you to step on in the dark on your way to the bathroom. Just in case you were wondering.
Anyway, one afternoon I retreated to my bedroom to fold laundry on the bed, away from the sounds of TV and whatever else was going on in the house. It must have been a Saturday because it was mid-day and I was at home. A few days earlier Midnight had given birth to a litter of kittens in a blanket-lined box in my closet. As I folded towels and matched socks, I watched her caring for her newborn kittens. She nursed them, cleaned them, let them cuddle next to her. Then she did something that surprised me. She left her babies.
She got up from where she was lying, stepped over them, and left those newborn-blind, helpless kittens mewing plaintively in their box. They began feeling around, smelling for her, trembling as they tried to walk on tiny paws. And she just walked away. I stopped what I was doing to watch. I remember feeling sorry for the kittens. But I also felt compelled to follow Midnight to see where she was going.
She went to her food dish. She ate. She drank. She went outside and did her business. Then she came back in the living room, found a spot on the floor where a shaft of light had warmed the carpet and she lay down. She cleaned herself, stretched her legs, laid her head on her paws and closed her eyes.
That’s when it hit me. BAM! This cat instinctively cares for herself. No one has to tell her what to do. She doesn’t buy books about feline co-dependence or how to be a good mommy cat. She doesn’t call her cat sister on her cat telephone to cry about how hard it is to create balance in her life. She leaves her kittens safe and sound and follows her natural instincts to care for herself so she can care for her offspring. Period. End of story. Her cat brain does not allow her to over-ride her instincts like a human brain does.
Maybe you were raised in a home with a mom who provided a good example of how to do this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. So, this was a big deal for me. In fact, I was permanently altered that day. Midnight’s example of self-care was all I needed to let go of mommy guilt that held me hostage. I stopped feeling bad about the time I spent in my garden. I made sure to provide regular lunch dates for myself with friends. I joined a writer’s group. I started paying attention to my physical, emotional and spiritual resources and began responding in a more organic, instinctive way to cues of stress and exhaustion. This may be the time when I began taking routine afternoon naps. I no longer made excuses for my particular energy level or lack thereof when it came to church callings. I realized that my own instincts were the landmarks God gave me to define my mothering and care-giving limits.
I also began to understand better that each woman has different capacities and only she can interpret her own inner cues in context of her mothering.
This moment of enlightenment has stayed with me for more than twenty years. Initially, I thought about it every single day. Now, it’s only on occasion. But I do still think about it and remind myself to pay attention to what my body, heart and mind are telling me. I also use the Midnight-the-Mother-Cat allegory to provide support and counsel regarding caregiver burnout for my patients and their families. I did this just last week for an eighty-year-old spouse of one of our dialysis patients. He became misty-eyed as I told him how I learned about being a good caregiver from my cat. I think Midnight’s example helped him. I hope it will help you too.
How do you nurture yourself?
Are you planning ways to provide good self-care during the holidays?
Do you have a cat?