When you want to do more than survive the early years

Friday, December 12, 2014

You and I, we're doing something hard. We're devoting our energy to meaningful lives, to sharing our souls with our children, to staying connected with our spouses, and to nurturing our wider communities. Then we're waking up and doing it again the next day. It's grueling work. Rewarding - yes. Beautiful and worthwhile - of course. Honoring to God and to the little people made in His image hanging onto our legs - to be sure. Still. It is really hard.

The question I ask myself most often is, how do I maintain my pace? How do I keep giving my best to the people I love? How do I keep showing up and being present, really present, day after day after day? How do I keep up with both the physical and emotional needs of my family? How do I keep pursuing the ideas and projects that nurture my soul? How do I do more than just survive the early years of mothering a large family? How how how how how?

There are entire blogs and sites devoted to answering those questions. They usually focus on making time to relax - taking baths, carving out silence, reading the Bible, getting together with friends, going for a walk alone. But in my opinion, they are only treating symptoms. By the time we're chucking our kids at our husbands and fleeing the scene the second he walks in the door, it's too late. We're already burned out. We'll be working from a place of need for weeks (sometimes years) until either our kids get older and need less, or we somehow dig ourselves out of that pit of exhaustion by our fingernails. My goal is to avoid the pit altogether. Fatigue is a natural part of life, of course, but I don't want to live my life in spurts. I want to find my rhythm, I want to build rest and renewal into my routine. I want to keep a steady pace.

For me, I keep a steady pace by maintaining two things: perspective and energy.

I read an interesting statement recently. A study of optimism in children (of course I don't have the source handy now, but I promise I'm not making it up) found that the happiest kids are able to see their problems as temporary and specific. Negative/ unhappy kids saw their problems as permanent and pervasive. As I thought through this idea, I could easily see how true it is for me. For example, for the past several weeks, my two little ones have been waking up multiple times a night and climbing into our bed. We let them cuddle a while, then take them back to their rooms. An hour later, they're back. Rinse and repeat, all night long. It's exhausting.

When I tell myself I'm never going to sleep through the night without children in my bed again, my energy for dealing with the whole thing tanks. I get frustrated and impatient, I complain all day, and I get next to nothing done. But when I remember sleep patterns change, even the worst sleepers usually even out in time, and the older boys went through similar phases and it only lasted a few months (though at the time it felt interminable) - when I remember how temporary and specific this issue is, I have the energy to deal with it. My perspective either either nourishes my energy or steals it. I can't really make my children sleep, but I can focus on how temporary and specific most issues are. I can change my perspective, and it keeps me steady during a frustrating time.

Maintaining energy is more complex. Let's be honest: sometimes you just can't. Stomach flus, the last trimester, month-long business trips, family crises ... some situations are just flat-out exhausting, and there's no getting around it.

Outside of crises, though, there's a natural flow to life. Certain seasons require more energy from us. Right now I have a toddler, a preschooler, and two elementary-aged kids. The two little ones need a LOT of my energy. I am constantly working to teach them how to interact, to keep them safe, and to keep up with their schedules. One is in diapers, the other needs help on the potty, they both need assistance getting dressed, and they can't really be a part of household chores yet (though they try). We're in a high-need, high-energy stage of life.

For years, I thought getting away from my kids was the only way to maintain that level of intensity. I thought I was supposed to work until I was exhausted, escape, then come back and work until I was exhausted again. The problem was, no matter how long I was alone, it was never enough. I loved them dearly, and I genuinely liked being around them. Yet I was always always exhausted and on the edge of frustration. Everything I read fed this idea that I needed more space. Everyone in both my face-to-face life and online said I needed to find more time, and more still, to recoup from our exhausting stage of life.

Over time, what I've learned is time away from my kids is not the answer. 

The answer is to discover what activities energize you. Is it exercise? Sewing? Chatting with friends? Writing? Gardening? Figure out what gives you energy, and carve time into your weekly schedule for that thing. Just getting away does very little except maybe make you feel guilty and crave more time away. But when you spend a few hours doing something you love without interruption ... you can ride that wave all week, friends. My workload is higher than it was five years ago, and I have fewer people to ask for help than I did back then. Yet I have more energy and more patience than I ever did when I was simply trying to escape. I've found the activities that nourish me, and I make them a priority.

As I write this, my time alone is coming to a close. I'm staring down another week of solo parenting, followed by two birthdays and Christmas. But I'm not dreading all that I have to do in the next few weeks, and I'm not working in spurts anymore. I've finally found the key to a steady pace lies maintaining energy and perspective.

(After publishing this post, I realized that, though all of the content here originated in my head based on my personal experience, I am positive my thought process has been influenced by Jen Fulweiler of Conversion Diary. In years past, she wrote extensively about rhythms and finding peace while mothering a large family. Her writing has helped me navigate this road for a long time, and I am so thankful for her honesty and perspective. If you've never read it, please take some time to look through the archives of Conversion Diary. You will be glad you did.) 

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie, I really enjoyed reading this. I have a unique situation in that I live with my husband and three sons (six year old twins & a three year old singleton) in a tiny village in rural Alaska. (My husband's a teacher.) We are thousands of miles from family and friends, and I am the only stay-at-home mom. I am lonely and exhausted most days. I do have a "getaway" coming up (five days in Anchorage with my bestie) but I'm already feeling guilty about it, and hate the transition to "home" from vacation. You're right, my energy is instantly zapped once I am back in the day in/day out caretaking.
    I like the idea of getting energy from energizing activities as opposed to getting energy from breaks, which rarely come.
    I am going to work to maintain energy & perspective this next week. To remember "this too shall pass" and to do some things I'm passionate about.
    Thank you!!!



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