When I hear about a mother’s inevitable challenge to "find balance" and "pursue her own interests", I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, I totally, totally agree. The times when I have felt the worst about parenting, when I was the most overwhelmed and frustrated, were times when I was not getting my own needs met. I was unhappy, stressed, and I am sure unpleasant to be around. It was pretty miserable at points, and I am so very thankful I am feeling so much more centered now. Whew!
On the other hand, I think there are times in a mother’s life, especially when her babies are very young, when one’s expectations for"balance" or "me time" may not fit with the needs of the baby, or the family situation. I absolutely don’t mean that a mother/parent should never get a break, or should be expected to do everything — definitely not! For me, though, it did mean letting go, at least temporarily (for either months or years) of a lot of things that I had enjoyed and come to consider the norm before children, or even when I just had one. The step up from one child to three highlighted this considerably! There is just less time to go around when you have young children, and it has to come from somewhere.
It’s hard! We adults can be so set in our ways; it’s difficult to accept changes to the way we think things should go with regards to sleep, meals, chores, socializing with friends, and especially "downtime" — the time you get to do the stuff you really WANT to do, be it cooking, reading, watching TV or surfing the web, going out to movies or meals, hobbies, sports or exercise, or (ha ha ha) lazing around doing not much of anything (that would be me, sometimes!). When you bring a new baby into the mix, some of those things may continue on as normal, but most often, not so much. And boy, is it tough to let go!
Often, I think how lucky we were to have Emma, a singleton, first, and twins second, because a lot of these adjustments were already done for us when Elsie and Delia came along. Emma was not the easiest baby in the world, and all the time and hard work (both emotional and physical) I spent dealing breastfeeding challenges, sleep woes, separation anxiety and various other issues prepared me well for the total lack of "me time" I was going to have when I had twins. I had already (mostly) adjusted to the "new normal" of life with a child, and Lonnie and I had worked through some (not all!) of our issues regarding parenting and how we as a couple were going to handle it. Knowing how hard it had been with just one (healthy) baby, my expectations heading into twins were extremely low, in terms of how "with it" I was going to feel, how little — beyond basic infant care — I was going to be able to accomplish, how much sleep I would get (!!!) and how much "free" time I was going to have on my hands.
Luckily, the worst of it seems to be over, and the balance I did not have when my girls were under a year or two seems to be falling into place more and more as they get older. Here are things I have learned to do (or wish I had done!) to help keep some sort of balance, and therefore sanity, in my life as a stay-at-home mama of three young children:
Lower your expectations. Drastically. Don’t expect you can do it all, especially in the beginning (which does not just mean the first few months, or even the first few years, in my book!). In the first year with twins, I started out expecting to pretty much nurse and hold/change/tend to babies 24 hours a day. This is all I did. Sometimes I got to shower, sleep, eat, surf the web or watch TV with babies on top of me in the nursing pillow, but not always! Do your very best to ask for whatever help you need (and don’t feel guilty!) and also know that this intense needy phase of infancy (or toddlerdom) will pass.
Eventually, of course, you may have to step it up. Up your intentions gradually, not all at once. I slowly added things to my plate (ha ha, pun intended), allowing myself months or longer to get used to the new routine before upping it again. First was taking on care of my toddler (once the grandparent help was gone) — making meals for me and her, and keeping us all clothed. Then, I added keeping up with dishes, and then laundry too (washing, not always folding!). Grocery shopping and cooking (or at least planning and prepping) dinners was next. At some point I got to other things like getting us all out of the house for outings, and cleaning the house (to some degree, though my standards are still pretty low for this now!). Obviously, different kid personalities or special needs can make this a much slower go; right now, I am reaping the benefit of having three kids who play together amazingly well, something I wouldn’t have with just one child!
Find a social outlet. This is huge. In our culture, parenting can be SO isolating, I think now more than in years past, when there was more of a focus, for many families, around a church or neighborhood community. With one child I could get out and socialize a lot more — either at "baby & me" type events, playdates, mom’s groups, or heading out into the city together to explore or visit friends. Once I had three kids, not so much! It was just too hard to get out early on, and even now when I do, it’s just too hard to tend to the kids and have any kind of meaningful conversation with another adult. So for now (and since my twins were born) much of my social needs are met online — on parenting forums (ideally locally based, so you can meet up occasionally!), social media sites, blogs and email. This is not ideal, and I have a goal to aim for more "face time" with old and new friends, but for now, it is what it is. I am not a big phone person, but I’m sure chatting with friends on the phone works well for some, as well!
Find things that you enjoy that you can do at home and DO IT, in stolen moments throughout the day or (even better) in planned periods of rest built into the day. Dealing with young children is extremely draining, physically and emotionally. It was critical, in the early days, for me to build in times for me to chill — after breakfast (while the babies roll around on the floor or hang out in bouncers, the kids play or watch TV), during naptimes or when I was nursing my girls down. For me, tea is a treat that I love, and having my tea while I watch TV (back in the day when Emma was wee) or sit down and surf the web, edit photos or work on my blog (nowadays) is how I stay sane. I try to NOT let myself feel guilty about all the housework that needs doing — because my sanity is more important than those things, most of the time. That said, there are also (rare) times when a quick clean-up or checking a few things on the to-do list does wonders for my mental state, so that’s something to consider as well.
Prioritize sleep. Oh, the sleep woes I have angsted about when my girls were babies. This is one of those parenting things I am obsessive about. My worst times as a parent always, always, always coincide with either myself or my kids not getting enough sleep (for me, the book Sleepless In America really impacted my thinking about this). I have learned, over the past four years, to get by and feel refreshed on so much less sleep than I used to — and have learned to accept interrupted sleep as well — to a point. But there is a breaking point, and going beyond it is NOT healthy for any of us. For me (especially once there was more than one of them) getting my kids to be able to sleep without being held, not ON me, not having to nurse down every time, was a major, major step towards feeling balanced and happy about my life.
First, I had to get them on a good sleep schedule — one that we rarely, if ever, deviated from. This was SUPER hard to fathom for me at first, having never done it with Emma, but man did it pay off. What you lose in flexibility, you gain with reliability, and for me, that’s totally worth it. They all learned the routine (though it was hard at first, admittedly), and the sleep slowly fell into place. My kids are so much happier and better behaved when they have gotten enough sleep, as am I.
Next, getting help from my husband — having him take on bedtimes (and early evening wake-ups) with the girls more and more regularly — was probably the single biggest things we’ve done that’s helped our family. We started this with Elsie and Delia around 6-7 months (Emma a bit later), though I wasn’t comfortable leaving the house until around a year or so — obviously, this is very kid and family dependent. On one hand, it gives me a break — an ability to go out for a few hours at night, to go shopping or meet with friends, and or attend meetings or events that interest me (currently, a positive discipline class once a month, and various events & board meetings for my twins club). On the other, even more importantly — it allowed my girls to learn to fall asleep without nursing, which led to much better, more solid sleep for them (and me) as time went on. I will not say that there was not crying (oh, indeed, there was! But it was in the arms or presence of their Daddy!) or that I never nursed them to sleep (I still do, almost every day for nap, at age two!) but adding options, as gently as possible, was absolutely key. And now, we also have those evening hours from 7:30-10pm as grown-up time that can be spent together or separately, reconnecting or getting things done around the house.
Schedule it. It’s so easy to talk about all the things that you could do to feel better (I am guilty of this!!!) but harder — for mothers especially I think — to actually DO it. In order for me to get some things done, either household projects or fun leisure activities, I need to not be "on duty" with the kids. I am too easily distracted and the kids are too used to coming to me for every little thing. I don’t have an office (or the garage!) to retreat to, to get some space for myself. Naps are short — and I am too tired then, at least during the weekdays when I am alone with the kids, to accomplish much more than the usual chores. So I need to schedule it — either with my husband or a sitter — even if what I plan to do is within the house. This was all much more of an issue when my girls were younger, when sleep and bedtimes were more precarious — now, I generally can get my time in during the evenings. Whew!
Hire help, or make a trade. Obviously, this can make a huge difference, though sadly we all cannot afford it! We were lucky enough to be able to hire housecleaning twice a month when my girls were babies, and it was absolutely worth every penny. We also got groceries delivered for a long time, and still do, occasionally. Hiring a mother’s helper, or a sitter a few hours a week also sounds divine, though I haven’t tried it! Another thing I hear great things about, but have not yet done (as it’s a lot harder with three kids!) is swapping childcare with like-minded parents. I love the idea, but it hasn’t panned out for us — we aren’t close enough to any families that this would work with, sadly! And who would agree to take on three more kids, including their own, anyway?
Plan ahead & do preventative maintenance: This is something I’ve recognized as being really important, though I am not there yet! I am a procrastinator by nature, and motivating to do things ahead of a deadline feels nuts to me — why get off my butt before I truly need to? But it’s so obvious that doing work ahead of time — whether it’s packing the diaper bag or snacks the night before, planning ahead for the week, clearing clutter so it takes less time to clean, or putting things away so that I don’t spend way too long looking for them — really pays off, in time and sanity saved. Keeping on top of things lowers my stress, and that is absolutely worth it!
What do you do to find balance in your life? Do you have it, yet? Any of these things worked for you? If not right now, just keep working on it, I promise, it will come!