I couldn’t stop turning the words over in my head. “It’s your life, too,” my friend had said to me. It was an off-hand, supportive reply to me cataloging my overwhelming 24-hour-a-day job as mother to three young daughters.
But why couldn’t I let the words go?
Was it really my life too? There was so much I enjoyed about my days with my daughters. So much I loved. But when I took a step back and looked at my life with my friend’s words in mind, I saw clearly that there was little in my life that felt like mine.
I had lost myself to motherhood. I hadn’t meant to. I fought it hard in the beginning but when it came right down to it, I didn’t really see any other way to do it. And I had been doing it for eight years straight.
Motherhood was so much harder than I’d thought it would be. I struggled with the usual agonies of early parenthood: complete sleep deprivation, the hourly torture and triumph of breastfeeding a perpetually-squalling infant, and the constant worry that everything I was desperately juggling would soon smash to pieces at my feet.
I also experienced peaks of joy I had never imagined—watching my daughter take in the world was breathtaking, and holding her little body against my own was total bliss.
But being the mom meant that I was the final line of defense for the most precious person on earth. How would I ever survive it?
I decided I was going to have to just grit my teeth and power through the early years. I hushed that little voice inside me that tried to whisper her fears that I was losing myself. I assured her that these sacrifices were temporary, never expecting how long they would actually last.
Baby screaming through the night and sobbing herself miserably to sleep so that I could spend her brief sleeping moments pumping more milk for her? Power through.
Retching into the toilet next to a positive pregnancy test when my 14-month-old hadn’t yet figured out how to string three hours of sleep together all in one go? Power through.
Negotiating the sticky and exhausting world of two-kids-under-two when I hadn’t slept more than a few hours in a row in years? Power through.
Struggling through my daughter’s two-hour meltdowns while dry-heaving as inconspicuously as possible through my third and worst bout of morning sickness? Power through.
Welcoming my third daughter earth-side a week before my two older girls started preschool and Kindergarten? Power through.
As often as I encouraged my friends to take time for themselves, wholeheartedly cheered their professional and personal accomplishments and recognized on an intellectual level my own burning need for self-care, I was completely immersed in motherhood and saw no real alternative.
My girls were just too little, money was too tight and my husband worked long hours to keep us afloat. I was too tired to come up with another way. It just never seemed worth it somehow.
I savored my time with my daughters, leaned on other parents and did my best to make the occasional token offering to the self-care gods—usually in the form of a walk around Green Lake, a pedicure, or a new pair of jeans that might actually, briefly, fit my ever-changing body. These things helped, certainly, but they never really seemed to fill the void. What I really wanted was to find meaning outside of motherhood. But for a long time I had no idea how to make that happen.
Here I was eight years in with a toddler and two young girls and I still found myself powering through long, exhausting days.
Around the time my youngest daughter hit two, I had been running on fumes so long that I missed the warning signs that things had gone south for me.
There was the anger that came on as fast as an August thunderstorm, electric fury that I wouldn’t let myself direct at my daughters—so it came out at my husband instead.
There was the feeling of suffocation, a claustrophobia that I’d convinced myself was just one more roadblock I needed to power through.
But it was the loss of joy that finally got me. I was depressed and depleted and I couldn’t see the light anymore. Something needed to change.
Like a lot of moms, I put my own needs off as long as I could. And then I just couldn’t anymore.
I was so strong and had powered through so much that I thought I could make it through just a few more early years running on empty. But finally I realized I needed to make a meaningful investment in my own self-care.
For me, the first step was asking for help. From my family, my close friends, my children and my husband. It meant admitting to them that everything was not OK and I couldn’t carry it all anymore. It included taking time for my own wellness, from telling my doctor what I was going through to prioritizing my own need for sleep, movement and rest. It also meant learning to shut out outside pressures and say No to doing “it all.”
More than anything, I needed to feel like myself again. It started with a book and ended with a hammer. Some of those closest to me worried that I was taking on too much and would burn myself out further. But I knew that I needed something just for me.
It worked. I won’t say I found myself exactly—it was more like being reunited.
I also saw how well everyone else did in my occasional absence. Everyone thrived. We all needed more than just me.
Raising a hammer to build houses for the homeless last spring, I surprised myself by finding that I could be helpful to some of the most vulnerable people in our community. I will never forget my oldest daughter’s face at a fundraiser I organized— here I had thought I’d been neglecting her all day to throw this thing together and she beamed at me. Doing meaningful work for others was my last step out of the darkness.
Don’t get me wrong. It is still really hard to parent these three kids. But the way I see my role as their mother has fundamentally changed.
I am no longer powering through. When I’ve had too much I ask for help. I don’t feel guilty about taking care of myself alongside the rest of my family. I have also lowered the bar for my mothering and the pressures I used to put on myself.
The early years of childhood are full of so much magic and beauty but they take so much out of us parents. We lose ourselves completely if we’re not careful. If you find this has happened to you, ask yourself how you’d like to find meaning outside parenthood. Then carve out space to make it happen. Everyone will be happier if you do.
This piece is the last in a series called “Beyond Baby Steps.” The series explores my journey out of the early survival years of parenting.
About the Author
Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter who occasionally catalogs her personal chaos at Critical Playdate. She is mama to Quinn, 8, Ruby, 6, and Nora, 3. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.