“Claiming Time to Be”
I am the primary caregiver of two young daughters, ages five and seven. My time with them is the best of times, and the worst of times. I experience the most joy and the most pain as I care for them, sometimes almost simultaneously. One moment, I’ll experience such poignant, profound bliss that I feel my heart might burst, and then in an instant I can feel completely overwhelmed and utterly spent—not sure how to manage meltdowns or what to make for dinner. The summer months can feel particularly long, where the relentlessness of caregiving weighs most heavily on me.
While reading the Fall 2018 issue of the Exponent II magazine several months ago, I came across a reprinted essay titled “On Balance,” written by Emma Lou Thayne for the magazine in 1991. I was captivated by Thayne’s message from the get-go:
It was late in life to begin. I was forty-seven, had brought five daughters to adolescence, had welcomed a husband home to dinner every night without fail for twenty-two years, had for fifteen years shared our home with a mother who had rooms in a wing of our home where she did not need to be lonely in her aloneness of widowhood. For seventeen years, I had loved having a preschooler. Our extended families included nearly forty on each side, all intriguing and close. I had friends I never got enough of, taught part-time at the university the English I never tired of, served for six years on the General Board of the YWMIA, and worked with projects and people I was captivated by. Once in a while I even got to write.
But I was never alone. And I was busy dying. . . . And I didn’t know why.
After reading this, I knew something in me was dying too. Even with my own part-time work, a supportive partnership with my husband, friends I could always use more time with, contact with family members both near and far, and blogging and volunteering for worthy causes, I too felt a significant imbalance in my life. I read on.
The following year I had back surgery, a fusion to repair an old skiing injury. I was away from everything for the first time in my married life, in the hospital for thirty-one days. I started a journal. . . . On those pages in a wobbly hand, there appeared, as if from invisible ink, explanations of why I was dying and reasons for finding ways not to, either physically on that high hospital bed of pain and turning grey, or emotionally in that wildly full home of love I would be returning to.
I found what I needed and had never had—time to be alone. Even in that hospital, too medicated to read, too hurting to move, it was succulent to lie and think, not to have to be reporting in or doing anything anywhere. . . .
Like Emma Lou, I had a surgery after many years of motherhood that required me to be on bed rest for several weeks. Despite the excruciating pain of recovery, those weeks convalescing felt like a vacation. With the endless demands of primary caregiving off my plate, I had time for myself—something I had not prioritized enough in my day-to-day life. Emma Lou’s solution to a similar realization was inspiring and empowering:
During those thirty-one days in the hospital, which meant a release, at my request, from the General Board, I thought, “Why not a Board night for the rest of my life? Only now, one reserved for my own agenda? [A] breather from being central to every day and night in a household of eight.”
So we talked it over, and mostly happily ever after, Wednesday was sacrosanct, Mother’s day and night away. I was to take it as a time to do whatever struck my fancy—in the same way that Mel went to a movie to relax after teaching [his] real estate class for three hours on Thursday nights. Sometimes I worked, sometimes I played, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. Always I came back fully feathered with “OK everyone, Mama’s home—really home—and feeling terrific!”
I realize that not every woman is a mother and that not every woman who is a parent is a primary caregiver. And I am aware of the exhausting “second shift” that mothers who are employed full-time often experience, which can involve a dearth of time for oneself and with one’s children. Some women are full-time caregivers of aging or ill family members. And then there is the economic and relational privilege of having the option to be home with one’s children, of being able to afford child care while being a primary caregiver, and of having a partner who is able and willing to share equitably the emotional and physical labor of nurturing children. I have personal experience with the exhaustion of having a nursing baby who refuses to take a bottle and who has a chronic health condition, whose health is too precarious to leave with anyone for long enough to truly recharge. And I’m aware that children with special needs or disabilities can require a level of care that is difficult to obtain from others.
And yet, no matter the circumstances, I think all women need time for themselves. Time to nurture themselves, whatever that may look like. Time to set aside the “to-do” lists and “shoulds.” Time to indulge in the yearnings of one’s soul. Time to pursue goals, or simply to dream. Time. To. Be.
But there may be seasons in one’s life where time and energy are so limited that adequate me-time may be nearly impossible. So to you, I send strength and a blessing to survive what may feel impossible.
Those for whom me-time could be an option but who can’t afford to pay for outside care, it might mean swapping care with a friend or family member, or passing the caregiving baton to one’s partner or a family member on evenings and/or weekends to help lighten your load.
For those struggling with life circumstances outside of constant caregiving, I understand how difficult taking breaks from the duties of daily living can be at times without those demands. Work, personal struggles, and other commitments can be all-consuming. I spent over a decade of my adult life saturated with concerns about marriage and future children when I had neither, and at times I felt rather hopeless that either would happen for me. Despite having plenty of opportunities for meaningful me-time, it often felt impossible to set aside my preoccupation with my future to cherish myself, despite being engaged in meaningful work and graduate school. But as Emma Lou writes, being present with oneself might be the difference between living and dying, on the inside.
I knew from the beginning that those Wednesdays would be respected only if I respected them, that in addition to being anxiously engaged in good causes, I had to believe that it was right that I should be engaged as well in my own cause. . . . Claiming time to be alone could be the difference between dying from the inside out and being very much alive everywhere.
This summer I’ve scheduled weekly, guilt-free, unstructured me-time, and I’m slowly feeling something resurrect inside me. I’m not sure I’ll ever have enough time for myself in this phase of my life, but thanks to Emma Lou Thayne I’m giving myself permission every week to follow my whimsy. It feels revolutionary, and sacred.
What roadblocks—internal and external—prohibit you from setting aside adequate time for yourself?
What would help you prioritize more me-time?
If you do schedule regular me-time, what benefits do you experience from “claiming time to be?”
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