The Audacity to Breathe: Seven Thoughts on Taking a Break (7QT, Vol. 26)

I have breaks on the brain these days. Like, taking a break. Like, having the audacity to put one’s mothering tasks on-hold for hours (or days!) at a time to stop, step back, and breathe.

As I’m finally finishing up this piece on a Friday, and as I have an oh-so-convenient seven general thoughts to share on the subject, I figured I might as well link up with Conversion Diary’s 7 Quick Takes Friday. If you need a break, I hope you’ll find some comfort in my musings on the subject.

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

—1—

Everybody needs a break once in a while. But sometimes that need is acute.

Back in January, I spent a long weekend alone with the boys while my husband went to Minnesota for his stepfather’s funeral. I had originally planned to fill up that time jumping from one fun outing to the next, aiming to entertain and wear out my little ones while distracting myself from the fact that their father was gone. Then we all got sick. It was just a cold, but it was our brand of cold, which left me with copious amounts of vomit to deal with. (Congestion = coughing = gagging = vomiting. In case you were wondering.)

As you might expect, those four days were a little rough. It’s no fun to be on vomit duty by yourself for days on end. All in all, we did fine. We stayed in, we watched a lot of movies, and (most importantly) we kept our expectations way low. Still, a few hours before my husband’s flight was to arrive, I had reached my limit. I was tired. I was frustrated. I was cranky. I felt like I had nothing left to give.

It’s not an unfamiliar feeling.

And I know I’m not uncommon in my familiarity with it. Indeed, it’s probably one of the most universal feelings in modern motherhood: whether you work inside the home or outside, you’re constantly moving, working, doing, pushing, giving… And sometimes you’re just done. You’ve reached your limit. You need a break.

Then you need to figure out how to actually get one.

—2—

You yourself can be the greatest barrier to getting the breaks you need.

Lately, I’ve been very lucky in the break department. But not because I’ve been trying to do something good for myself. Rather, a random (providential?) combination of events and tasks – plus the generosity of others – have had the happy effect of giving me some time to myself.

I went to a morning retreat at church. I had my hair cut and highlighted. I did a bit of solo shopping. I went to a few doctors’ appointments and a board meeting. My parents gave my husband and me the (wonderful! amazing!) Christmas gift of a weekend at a B&B while they watched our boys.

For most of these “breaks” (yes, I realize that a doctor’s appointment probably shouldn’t be considered a “break,” but when you spend nearly every waking hour with little ones, you start to find breaks in unlikely places), I felt the need to justify my alone time to myself.

I went to the retreat because it was given for those involved in ministries. (I cantor and I’m in the choir.) I saw it as a way to deepen my involvement in my new parish. I had my hair cut and highlighted because… well… one needs to do that a few times a year, you know, if one aims to maintain a certain look. (Even if that look can be described as “Kind of taming an unruly, wavy/curly/strong-willed beast of a head of hair.”) I went shopping solo because I was already out by myself anyway, and it was more efficient, wasn’t it, for me to just pop into a couple of stores without boys to get in and out of cars and carts? I went to the doctors’ appointments because… well, that’s self-explanatory.

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The new ‘do (I love when they blow-dry my hair so it looks all fancy and put-together!) with (an old — 29-week) belly shot.

I know that I shouldn’t feel like I have to justify every little escape. I know that they’re good for me, and I know that that should be enough. But it’s so hard to let go of the idea that I should always be engaged in that moving, working, doing, pushing, giving. It’s so hard to not feel guilty about leaving my boys with a friend, or choosing my own need for a break over my husband’s need to get something accomplished at work or home. It’s really, really hard to just go ahead and do something for me. Unabashedly. Because I would benefit.

I’ll bet that’s a familiar feeling to other mothers too.

—3—

When it comes down to it, you’re going to have to just look around, take a deep breath, and leap in.

Or at least that’s what my gut tells me. I’m not very good at doing it. Sure, we hire a babysitter once in a while, but it’s almost always because we’re going out to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary or going to my husband’s annual work party. Usually, any “breaks” I get are at home, in the quiet afternoons when I put on a DVD for the boys and order them to lay on the sofas. (Older son has always been a terrible napper and this is the only way I can get him to lie still for an hour. Younger son goes out like a light about 3 minutes in. Which is why I have, like, a million pictures of him asleep on the sofa.)

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Or on the floor.

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Sometimes the big one even falls asleep.

Jenny’s been writing lately about hiring a mother’s helper and I think that makes so much sense. I probably have unrealistic expectations, but I imagine that if I had a mother’s helper for a few hours at a time, a couple of times a week, my life would be so different – more peaceful, more organized, more all-the-wonderful-things. I’m completely with her in that I would much, much rather have someone come take care of the boys than clean for me. My brain needs quiet, child-free time much more than it needs someone to whip my bathrooms into shape.

But. That decision takes two to make, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong – my husband is super helpful. He changes diapers, he cooks, he cleans, he gives just about all the baths and does bedtime nearly every night. He’s Superdad, for sure. And if I really, really insisted, I think he’d tolerate the mother’s helper thing. However, for a variety of reasons, he would not be happy about it. So right now, at this particular point in our family’s life, I don’t think it’s the right fit for us.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not right for you. Definitely check out Jenny’s posts. (Here, and especially here.) Let her, as she puts it, “bring you into the happy, light-filled place where well-rested and highly satisfied mothers dwell: the land of helpful teenagers.”

Of course there are ways other than a regular mother’s helper to get some breaks. There’s hiring a sitter or nailing down your husband (in my case, he’s got a long line of home improvement projects calling his name) to be in charge of the kids for the occasional Saturday afternoon. There’s switching off with another mom friend who’s in the same boat as you. There is – when you’re truly at your limit – trusting your gut enough to call your hubby home or a friend over so you can escape before you blow your top. (Note to my local gals: I would TOTALLY be that friend for you – call anytime.)

—4—

Even when you’ve got one right in front of you, it can be hard to let the break sink in.

Usually when I’m presented with the opportunity to take a break, I hardly know what to make of it at first. I sit down for my thrice-yearly visit to the hair salon just about shell-shocked: nervous, waiting on pins and needles for a small voice to start crying out for me. I feel like an animal newly emerged from hibernation, blinking at the bright sunlight. Without my boys, I feel like I’ve lost my bearings.

I am used to being tired. I am used to being pulled in different directions. I am used to deciphering squeals from shrieks from screams. I am used to running around, bending down, stepping over, and wrestling. I am used to feeling stressed out and annoyed and amused and joyful in a span of just a few minutes.

I am not used to quiet. I am not used to sitting still for extended periods of time. I am not used to people serving me. I am not used to choosing what I want to do.

Maybe this is just me. And (very likely) maybe I sound pathetic. But I find that it’s hard to make that adjustment from the whole moving, working, doing, pushing, giving thing to just… relaxing. Which is why I think it’s important to not let your breaks be too few and far between.

The Saturday after the aforementioned weekend-without-my-hubby, I had the good fortune to have just about the whole day to myself. I started with that retreat at church. For the first hour or so, I was antsy and distracted and (I regret to say so) too critical of the program. But as I got further into it, I began to relax enough to absorb and appreciate what I was in the middle of. By the time I got to the hair salon that afternoon, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I chatted happily with the hairdresser and didn’t feel as on-edge as I usually do when I’m there. A week later, I was able to set off on my weekend away with not a trace of guilt. It was great to get that little taste of freedom and even better to get to share it with my husband.

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—5—

Your breaks aren’t just good for you – they’re good for your family too.

When I was engaged to my husband, I came to the realization that every single time I went to mass – every time I sat in God’s presence, soaked in a little silence, engaged in prayer with the people around me, and took part in the Eucharist, I loved my husband more. I’d exit the church with a little spring in my step and a little more love in my heart.

Now that I’ve got a couple of little ones in tow, I may no longer have that spring in my step when I leave mass, but I most definitely have more love for my family.

And I feel the same way every time I come back from a break. Whether it’s a date night or a solo trip to Target, I return home loving my boys even more than I did when I left the house. My chances to breathe and relax and get a little distance (read: perspective) not only refresh me, but they intensify my love for the very beings that were driving me crazy just hours before.

That’s good for me, of course, but it’s good for them too.

When I take the opportunity to get away for a bit, they get me back happier, more relaxed, and more in love with them. Win, win, win. They’ve also had a chance to enjoy someone else’s company, become a little more independent, and maybe even grow more in love with me too. Win.

—6—

It’s also important to take breaks so that they’re there for you to draw upon when you need something to cling to.

Two days after my husband and I returned from our weekend away, I wrote the following, intending it for a blog post, which I never finished:

Fresh off a weekend AWAY (seriously – a weekend away, with my husband, without children), I started Monday feeling peaceful and refreshed – energized, even. Just before the boys woke, I stole a few minutes to begin a disgustingly cheerful post on how wonderful it feels to get a break. Given that I’d begun last week by ruminating on death, I dunno… I figured I should begin this one by blogging about something… happier, more hopeful, maybe.

Then it all came crashing down.

Now, I can’t blame this one on the boys. They did wake up a little extra-tired and grumpy from an indulgent weekend at Grandma’s (love you, Mom!), but we had a little “talk” in the morning about what Mommy’s willing to put up with, and it all went pretty well, considering.

No, I got some big news on the phone. Not necessarily bad news, mind you, but BIG news. News that, if it comes to fruition, will change all of our lives. And, if it indeed comes to fruition, I will undoubtedly blog all about it. (I know, I’m a brat for mentioning “the news” without telling you what it is. I hate when people do that. Shame on me.)

Then I heard about a sad, sad story from a friend, who, like me, had a nice start to her day before her fateful phone call. And then I read about more sad, sudden events on Facebook and in my email. There seemed to be a theme: you’re rolling along nicely, happily… whistling, maybe… then, WHAM! Something hits you and you realize just how fragile your peace is.

My day proceeded accordingly: I kept swinging between loving gazes at my beautiful boys, extra softness, extra hugs, extra cuddles – and snapping, hard and fast, at their misbehavior. Because underneath all the softness, I was brittle. The aforementioned news and sadness and stress had put my nerves on edge.

I’m trying, trying, trying to cling to the peace I felt early Monday morning – to the hope and brightness and energy that my weekend, and some other recent breaks, gave me. Monday, I mostly failed. Since then, with some sleep and time and perspective under my belt, I’m doing better.

I know that many of my posts lately have been kind of dig-in-my-heels-crotchety on the parenting front. I mean, there was the whole “I do NOT treasure every moment!” one and the “Boys are NOT easy!” one. I feel like both could have been followed up with a “Gosh darn it!” and a little stamping of my feet.

But lest you think I’m a perpetual pessimistic grump or currently hovering right at my breaking point, let me assure you that these posts belie my overarching mood these days. The fact is, we’re in a pretty good place right now. We’re settled in our home, content in our marriage, and we have two children who can do things like walk themselves to the car and bring me their sippy cups when they need more milk. One can even use the potty and put on his own shoes and coat! I’m well aware that in approximately 10 weeks’ time, we’ll be back into the helplessness that is baby mode.

So really, life is good right now. I just need to keep reminding myself of that. And those breathers I mentioned: I’m soaking them up, folks. I am soaking them up.

Thank goodness I had just had those breaks. Because they shored me up for the news and the worries awaiting me. I am so grateful that I was able to face them from a place of peace and rest rather than one of exhaustion and frayed nerves.

—7—

I’m going to try to be more deliberate and unashamed about pursuing breaks. You should too.

Given some impending big changes in our family (umm… baby?), I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to how our household functions, how we react to happenings in our daily lives, how we interact with each other, how I feel about it all, etc. I know that when the baby’s born, he’ll arrive bearing a massive wrench to throw at us. So I figure this is my last chance to get things in order for a while. (And I mean that in more than a physical sense.) I suppose it’s my way of nesting.

I remember the exhaustion of having a newborn. I remember the baby blues. I remember not feeling like I’d ever be able to dig out from it. But I also remember feeling like I had to do everything. Make everything work. All the time. No stopping.

This time, I want to go into the newborn period with a very different attitude – a more forgiving one. I want to be able to count it as a ‘win’ when we’ve all survived the day. I want us to be easier on each other, take a break from our other responsibilities, and just focus on the five people here in our little family.

Part of that, I know, will require me to be easier on myself, to make sure that I’m getting what I need to care for my children and love my husband. I’m going to need to be re-filled every once in a while. I’ll need some breaks.

And by gosh, I intend to get them.

Which is one of the reasons I was so intent on going to The Edel Gathering this coming July. I think it will be an amazing opportunity to meet some fabulous women. And it will be an incredible break from my daily life. I’m confident that I’ll return happier and more in love with my family than ever before.

They will benefit. But mostly, I’m doing it for me.

This is post five of the 7 Posts in 7 Days challenge at Conversion Diary. Stop there to check out the hundreds of other bloggers who are also participating.

One thought on “The Audacity to Breathe: Seven Thoughts on Taking a Break (7QT, Vol. 26)

  1. Julie, this is great. It is SO hard to take breaks. I’m an MBTI geek but it has helped me in this regard. I’m an INFP so my instinct is that doing anything for myself is wrong, but if I indulge that instinct I burn out and serve no one. It’s a real struggle. I used to get so mad at my husband because I felt like while he did so much like diapers, cooking,etc., there were times I felt like he saw me drowning and I was just waiting for him to tell me to go lie down and he never did (not that I need his permission but in my mind if I just went it would be abandoning the team) until I realized that his #1 value as an INTJ is autonomy. The way he’s put together if he were to tell me to take a break it would be disrespectful of my autonomy. I learned if I ask for things not only does he want me to do them, he respects me more for speaking up for my needs. It goes so against the grain for me that it is still majorly uncomfortable for me every. single. time., which is a lot because since I’ve been working in being more autonomous I’ve been swimming at our local Y or doing Pilates 4-5 times a week, up from leaving 0 times a week for something that was just for me (that wasn’t a doctors appointment). All that to say, I’ve been struggling with this too, especially after the past year of being such a burden to my family. I realized just what you said, if I don’t take this time I won’t be the best Mom and Wife I can be and that doesn’t serve them at all. I wish it were easier to do/believe than it is to type.

    PS. You look beautiful.

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