I spent the first 34 years of my life dealing, in some way, with anxiety. As a kid, I didn’t know that I even had it – or that what I was feeling was called “anxiety.” I was always nervous about getting everything done, and doing it well. When homework and extracurricular activities piled up, I went into turbo mode. Even at the young age of twelve.
Over the years I became all too familiar with the heart-racing, manic feeling of needing to stay on top of everything. I learned to channel my anxiety into productiveness. People would witness me in turbo, and would say things like “Calm down, it’ll get done.” Nothing would irk me more than these words, because to me, I couldn’t just “calm down.” And I knew full-well that everything would get done. It would get done because I would make sure it would. I had lists upon lists. I was hyper-organized. And when I did something, there was no room for error in my mind.
And then I had children.
I went from working full-time to staying home with my first son. After a few months, I began working from home. This meant that when my baby was asleep, or when a babysitter would come over for a few hours, I would work. What that also meant was that I was always plugged into my job via email on my smartphone. I was never not working. Similarly, I was never not “momming.” I would do my work in one room and listen to my son scream something unintelligible to the babysitter. She wouldn’t know what he was saying, but I would. So I would quickly run in to give him the item that he was requesting – his milk, a certain toy, a particular snack. When it was my time to be with my kid, I would be distracted by a work message chiming through. While whipping up dinner or playing with trains and trucks, I would quickly bang out an email or send a request to someone so that I could have what I needed when the time came to sit down and work again. I would manically, yet skillfully, bounce back and forth from one activity to the other – my anxiety in full-swing. I would feel my heart racing, and my blood pressure rising as the intense need to get everything done crept up through my core.
I have been doing this work-from-home-while-parenting dance for three years now, and we have added a second child (now nearly 10 months old) to the mix. And more times than I am able to count, I have felt on the verge of a full meltdown.
People joke about meltdowns all the time, but I don’t think I ever felt one coming on as I have since my second baby was born. I have said to my husband on several occasions that I felt as if I were about to break – mentally, physically, emotionally.
The sleep deprivation – difficult in any situation – became unbearable. I piled that on top of the needs of two children, which are far more time-consuming and challenging than caring for just one. With less time and energy in the day, my work suffered. I felt that I was being spread too thin – unable to devote myself to any one person or task well. All the while the anxiety continued to boil within me, clawing at me to GET THINGS DONE. I needed to be a better mother. I needed to be better at my job. But with not enough money to hire more help, I found myself with few options. I simply had to figure it out.
Every week or so I would be on the brink of another “break” as I desperately tried to find hours in the day to do my work. When I couldn’t, I would lash out at the little people who were keeping me from my tasks. It wasn’t their fault – they were just being kids. But one naughty moment from my three-year-old, or another sleepless night from my infant would send me spiraling without a moment’s notice. I would “see red,” as they say. And then the moment would pass. We would all be left feeling vulnerable. And I, weighed down by unbearable guilt and helplessness, would inevitably cry, feeling like the worst mother in the world.
Surely no one else was acting like this. Most of my friends had children – they must be able to manage without full-on meltdowns. But how? How could they handle the constant ups and downs of toddler emotions and the incessant neediness of an infant without losing themselves (or their work) in the process?? How could they push through the boredom that comes with doing the same things day in and day out with little kids? And still be productive human beings on top of that?
I began to feel schizophrenic and in desperate need of change. I needed work that would take me out of the house a few hours per week. I needed more money. I needed time away from my kids. I needed to focus on one thing at a time, and not everything all at once. And with these feelings came another, insurmountable wave of guilt.
A friend recommended the book Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, and when I opened it, I gobbled up the first chapter before succumbing to my exhaustion one night. The author articulated my state of being to a T as she discussed the expectations of “good mothers,” and how we become “bad mothers” as a result of failing to meet those expectations. She writes:
A Good Mother is never bored, is she? She is never miserable. A Good Mother doesn’t resent looking up from her novel to examine a child’s drawing. She doesn’t stare at the clock in music class, willing it along with all the power of a fourth grader waiting for recess. She doesn’t hide the finger paints because she can’t stand the mess. A Good Mother not only puts her children’s needs and interests above her own but enjoys doing it. If I wasn’t enjoying myself, then I wasn’t a Good Mother. On the contrary, I was a bad one.
It’s that very wondering, it’s the being unfulfilled, that makes us feel the worst. That’s what triggers our most intense anxiety. Feeling dissatisfied, bored, and unhappy is unpleasant, yes, but what really scares us is the very fact of our dissatisfaction, boredom, and unhappiness. Because a mother who isn’t satisfied with being a mother, a mother who wants to do more than spend her days with her children, a mother who can imagine more, is selfish. And just as the Good Mother is defined by her self-abnegation, the single most important, defining characteristic of the Bad Mother is her selfishness.
In my moments of desperation, I now knew, I was normal. I was not a terrible mother for not being able to do everything, and I was not a terrible mother for wanting change. My anxiety, screaming at me from within, wanted nothing more than for me to channel it into something productive, as I had always done. But I was unable to cater to its needs anymore, and I felt broken as a result.
I suspected that if I talked about the topic more with friends and acquaintances, I might uncover similar feelings among them. The reality is that it is taboo to talk about how hard parenting is, and how utterly impossible the juggle can feel. We’re supposed to love every minute of caring for and tending to the needs of our children. We’re not supposed to put self-care above anything else. We’re expected to enjoy playing with dolls and toys, shuttling our kids to activities, and preparing meals for them. At pickup and drop-off, no one wants to hear how hard things are. But the truth is that we can’t do it all. I can’t do it all. And none of are bad mothers as a result.