Two years ago, my husband and I went to a counselor for help, not with our marriage (though we have seen a marriage counselor in the past), but because I was at the end of my rope. People often use this expression when they’re frustrated or under stress, but this was more than mere frustration. I was completely worn out, exhausted and defeated, and I felt unable to cope with the demands of my life as a mother at home. I was a mom who yelled too much, rarely smiled, and was never happy. I felt like I had nothing to look forward to, and life had stopped being fun. More often than not, after the kids went to school and DJ had settled into an activity, I would sit in a chair and just stare into space. I had plenty to do – I always have plenty to do – but I wasn’t interested in doing any of it. I wasn’t even interested in doing things that I previously loved, like scrapbooking, or reading. Reading used to be my primary hobby, and I could plow through a half dozen library books each week, but suddenly it took me two months to get through a book – or I might never get through it at all. I just couldn’t concentrate anymore, on anything. I would find myself starting the same paragraph over and over, and eventually I would just give up and return the book to the library. It was really very sad for me because I felt like I was losing that last little part of myself, the one thing I had left that made me Heather, and not just “mom.”
My husband, who loves me and was tired of watching me slog listlessly through the days, insisted that I get some help. I balked and argued and dug in my heels, but eventually I agreed. We made an appointment with a male counselor at Keys to Living, a Christian counseling group, and we went together. At first I was reluctant to see a male counselor because I didn’t think he would understand my concerns, but I soon realized that it was actually easier to talk to him. I say this not to disparage female counselors in any way, but I believe many women worry that if they confide in another woman she will silently (or even openly) criticize them, or judge them through the lens of her own experience, so they hold a part of themselves back. With a man, it doesn’t feel like there is comparing and contrasting going on behind the scenes, so it’s easier to be completely honest.
I told the counselor that life felt like one big chore, and that my time was never my own. I told him that I felt like I had no freedom, like I was stuck in an endless cycle of work and demands. Everyone wanted something from me, but no one cared about what I wanted, and I was weary and drained because I could never even think a complete thought without interruption. I explained that my children, though I know we taught them the word “dad,” seem incapable of using it, and I could no longer stand the relentless barrage of questions and demands that was always directed at me, and never at him. I told him about 11 years of chronic sleep deprivation, and how I’d gotten so accustomed to being woken up several times each night that I was no longer able to sleep through the night at all, even when the kids didn’t get up. My brain seemed to wake me up in expectation.
Basically, I told him the truth which was, in simplest terms, that I needed a break. Instead of being everyone’s nurturer, I needed to be taken care of myself for a change.
Even as a child, I did not feel that I was cared for. I grew up with a mother who had not yet grown up herself, and by 4th grade she and I had completed a bizarre role reversal in which I was the parent and she was the child. While other kids played after school, I picked up my brother from preschool and cleaned the house. By 7th grade I added cooking dinner to my after-school schedule because I knew that if I didn’t establish some kind of stability and routine in our house, nobody else would. By the time I had children of my own, I had spent so much of my life being everyone’s caretaker that the selflessness required by motherhood came quite easily to me…..until I had nothing left to give.
Our counselor explained that I should not feel guilty about taking a break from my children, and that the reason they always sought me out is because I was always there, and they’d never had to learn how to do without me. He suggested that my husband and I agree on one day each week when I would be free, and we decided that Saturday mornings would be my time, and he would handle the children. This was fine…for a while. The problem was that if I tried to stay home and work on a scrapbook page or something, the kids would still pester me because I was there. However, if I left I didn’t know what to do with myself. I believe I’ve mentioned many times in the past that I’m a very introverted person, and being among crowds of people is neither relaxing nor energizing for me. I hate shopping, and while working in a quiet place like the library is nice in theory, packing up all of my scrapbook supplies and papers and photos and hauling them there was really kind of a pain. Saturday mornings began to feel like a chore instead of a break, and I actually resented that in order to not be harassed constantly, I had to leave the house. It felt like yet another injustice.
Slowly and surely, my weekly time “alone” began to fade away, and before I knew it we had settled back into our old routine, wherein I took absolutely no time for myself until I was so angry and fatigued that I was forced to leave in order to keep my sanity. I know this isn’t the right way to handle this problem, but I’ll be honest – I can’t seem to find any other way. Fortunately, it seems that my husband can. Last night, he could tell that I was very tired and fed up, so after dinner he told the girls to clean up the kitchen, and then he put me in the car and took me out for coffee. Other times, he’ll tell me to go take a bath, and when the kids try to come in he yells, “Hey! Leave your Mom alone!” These are not perfect solutions, but they do make a difference because it’s so nice to just be taken care of. Sometimes it’s incredibly helpful for me if he just takes charge and tells me what to do, because it’s such a relief to not be the one who is orchestrating everything….to let someone else be in control.
I honestly believe that most men really do want to help when their wives are tired, frazzled and at their breaking point, but they just don’t know how. Really how can they, when most women don’t know how to help themselves? It seems ridiculous that so many mothers, especially mothers who stay at home, are reluctant to take time for themselves unless someone makes them. Why are we so terrible at this? I think there are lots of reasons, not the least being that if we stay home, there are still too many people who think we do nothing all day, and therefore we have no reason to be tired. However, I think there are bigger issues here, mainly guilt and control…or the loss of it. We feel guilty for leaving our children because somewhere along the way we became convinced that no one but us can care for them adequately, and therefore it’s impossible to give up control over their care to someone else.
I would like to tell you what I always tell my children – mothers are people, too! Mothers need sleep, and food, and fun, and time to pursue things we’re interested in. We’re not unfeeling robots with an endless supply of energy, and I don’t believe that we’re called to be martyrs who sacrifice every last bit of ourselves for our children. Jesus tells us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) God wants us to be happy and enjoy our lives, and I know too many mothers who are not enjoying their lives at all. They’re walking around in a perpetual state of fatigue and misery because the enemy – the thief – has stolen all their joy. Psalm 127:3 reminds us that children are a gift and a reward from God, but the enemy will do everything in his power to make us forget that. He wants to keep us frustrated, aggravated, and depressed. He wants us to doubt our choices, and to fantasize about having a different life when what we really need to do is claim the abundant life Jesus has promised.
If we want our needs to be met we need to surrender some control, and take responsibility for our own health and sanity. Most importantly, we need to listen to the wisdom of Psalm 37:4-5 which tells us, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you.” I can tell you that when I’m unhappy or depressed, the first thing I do is neglect prayer. While I’m mired in self-pity my Bible remains closed, and this is exactly what the enemy wants! True happiness can never be found if we ignore God, or seek fulfillment apart from His plan for our lives. The Lord says, “I know of my plans for you…..plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Too often we forget who we are, and what God has done for us. He loves us, and He created us for a purpose! We are infinitely valuable to Him, and what God values we should also value.
Trust me when I say that I’m speaking to myself here, as well as to you. My husband and I have decided that on Saturday mornings he will take the children somewhere for a couple of hours so that I can have time for myself here at home. This means that I must train myself to actually take this time, and not fall back into my old, self-destructive habits. My family will probably tell you that they don’t believe I’ll actually do it, because they’ve watched me stumble, in my frustrating, headstrong way, over the same obstacles again and again on my path to abundant life, but I’m more determined now than ever to learn how to enjoy the journey.
“You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” ~Psalm 16:11[print-me/]