Yesterday morning while my husband was out of town I took our three energetic children to ride their bicycles and scooter along the dirt bike path near our new home.
The ride had many purposes - sunshine, fresh air, exercise - but more than anything I really needed to get the three of them out of the house before (a) they killed each other, (b) they broke furniture, or (c) I lost my cool. I'll be honest, I was already dancing on the edge of extreme frustration with these kids who had been fighting like cats and dogs since dawn.
The ride over to the main path was punctuated by minor mishaps - a few cracks in the sidewalk big enough to derail a three year old riding with training wheels, my toddling girl ardently trying to jump out of the jogger stroller, the headstrong eldest son riding like a speed demon down the block paying no heed to driveways.
By the time we reached the relative safety of the wide dirt path and its meadow-like surroundings, I could really feel the exhaustion of the past few days creeping up on me. The kids were fairly adorable as they jumped packed dirt hills on their bicycles, played in mud puddles (literally) and drew with sticks on the ground. I only half noticed all of this however, feeling pretty lost in a "Calgon, Take Me Away" type moment.
What I wouldn't have given right then for a nap mat! A personal masseuse! A babysitter!
There is a really great author and public speaker named Dr. Gary Chapman famed for his work on the theory of the "Five Love Languages" - which apply as much to parents and children as they do to romantic relationships. I'm sure I'll write about his work at some point soon in another blog. Dr. Chapman has a metaphor that he likes to use in his private practice and writings - "the love tank".
"Is your love tank full?" he will ask a client, and he works with couples and families on how to keep each other's love tanks feeling full.
I was thinking about this idly while watching my children play in the grassy, muddy field when a elegant looking Hispanic woman in her late forties (maybe early fifties?) strolled down the bike path and stopped next to where I was standing with my daughter who sat at my feet making mud pies.
"Are all of these children yours?" she asked in a thick, lilting accent.
"Yes, they sure are!" I replied.
"You must be tired."
"I sure am..."
"I can relate. I had five children, all of them two years apart."
"Wow, five? You are a superwoman. I'm struggling with just three!"
"Do you have anyone to help you?"
"My husband tries to help whenever he can. He works very hard. He does his best."
"No no no," she shook her head. "There is no TRIES to help. You must take time for yourself. You must have help."
I laughed nervously, thinking that from the look of her large emerald and pearl earrings she probably had quite a lot of help around the house. "Sure," I replied.
Drawing near to me, she looked me in the eyes. "When I am young," she said, "And I have five children myself ~ I tell my husband: "My home is your home. My children are your children. Enjoy!" and I leave and take a day for myself, every week. I must have this time, even when I am only walking around a store in silence not buying anything. I need to have this time to be a better mother in the rest of the week."
I nodded, understanding completely. "Yes."
"Good luck to you, then!" she smiled and then, like a fairy godmother of parenting advice, she vanished down the path.
Returning to my reverie about Dr. Chapman and the love tank I thought, "In addition to the 'love' tank, there is also a mommy tank! When I'm on top of my game as a mother, my tank is full of love-patience-joy-teachable moments-thoughtfulness-creativity and even more patience. I think my mommy tank must be pretty empty today."
It would be another thirteen hours before my husband returned home from his business trip in Mexico, and as the day wore on that mommy tank felt more and more empty. I noticed myself struggling not to snap at the children when they whined about dinner and having to force myself to read their bedtime stories when all I really wanted to do was go take a hot shower and decompress.
By the time I finally fell to sleep at 1am, I could barely speak I was so exhausted... and my final coherent thought was, "Oh, I'm SO glad that tomorrow is my personal day and my husband will have the kids."
Of course, it didn't really work out as smoothly as I'd hoped. Our daugher woke up five hours later and proceeded to awaken the entire household. My husband was less than thrilled to be in charge of the kiddos first thing in the morning after returning home past midnight from his long drive back. We didn't have any coffee ready for him, and the morning got off to quite a rough start.
At last though, he decided to take the kids down for breakfast at their grandparents house and to my great relief, our home was quiet. Ardently I yearned to go back to sleep; but there was writing work to do for my husband's company and a full day of running errands ahead.
Unfortunately I have gotten into the habit of devoting my personal time on Sundays to completing household chores and errands that are more difficult to accomplish during the week with three small children in tow. In an ideal world my personal days would be filled with lunch dates with my girlfriends, seeing new movies, going shopping, working in the garden, reading a good book, getting a massage or anything to rejuvenate me for the week to come.
In reality, my Sundays are filled with multiple loads of laundry, grocery shopping for the week, paying bills, and running to Target. I realize this isn't the healthiest way to decompress but at least it alleviates a little of the stress of the coming week. It's also nice to drive in the car in total silence if I want to, or listen to my music without any kid yelling at me that they don't like the songs.
Today one of my special errands was to stop by the homes of a few wonderful friends to deliver birthday presents for the two children whose parties we missed last weekend when my kids were sick. I was very happy that my dear friend and her three precious boys were home when I knocked on their door, and so happy that she invited me in for a little visiting time.
My friend is the most amazing mother and her great sense of humor and kindness really shine through in the way she parents. I always love to watch her in action with her sons and I think she falls into the category of 'natural mother' that I so yearn to become. In the years I have known her family I have never once seen her lose her cool with her kids.
Her little boys are bright as buttons and quite adorable. I have been telling her for years that we need to arrange a marriage for my daughter with one of them, and this afternoon we joked about that with her eldest son who is nearly six.
"I think I know which one of us your baby girl should marry!" her six-year-old grinned. "She should marry -" and he pointed at the littlest brother - "because they are about the same age as each other!"
"Actually," his mommy corrected him, "Her little girl is a little bit closer to your middle brother's age. She is almost two, just like he is."
"Or," I teased the biggest brother, "Maybe she'll like older men... maybe she can marry you!"
"No, I don't want to," he said very seriously. "I don't know who I want to marry yet."
Such a adorable little man!!!
Spending thirty minutes with my friend and her brood was the highlight of my day and it made me miss my own three kids and feel *almost* ready to return home and play with them again. "Why is it so much more relaxing to be here with you and your three precious little ones than at home with mine?" I asked her. "Maybe because I don't feel responsible for yours, so I can just enjoy them..."
After I left her house I did turn the car around toward home and on the drive I reflected more on the mommy tank. "What fills my mommy tank and makes me ready to be a great mom?" I wondered, thinking about all of the nice things my children do for me on a daily basis.
Every day they draw me pictures, write me stories, make me cards, give me hugs and kisses, want to spend time with me, want to please me, want to capture my full attention. These are their ardent attempts to fill my mommy tank.
Yet I don't think this is actually what does it. In the end, I think what fills me up with patience, good will and all of the good things I wish to shower on my kids each day is actually having the chance to be alone and remember who I am WITHOUT my children. When I get enough space from them to remember that although they are the most crucial aspect of my life, they are not ME and that their drama is not my drama... when I have time to simply be Myself for a few hours... that is when my mommy tank fills back up.
I never realized before having children just how critical it is for every human being to have time in their day just to be alone. It doesn't necessarily make sense but the time I have alone by myself - even if it is just five minutes alone in the shower - makes me a better mother during all of the time that I share with my kids.
It doesn't take much alone time for me to feel restored. I've been away from my children for a night or two here or there during their lives, and by the end of 24 hours away I am ALWAYS anxious to get back to them. I love them so much, it isn't really about being apart from them. It's more about reclaiming me.
The meaning of life today for me is this:
When parents take a little time away to remember who WE are, it fills us with vital life energy and joy until we are brimming over and ready to give warmly and enthusiastically again. Taking a few hours for ourselves isn't selfish. It is self-preservative, and will ultimately bless everyone around us - especially our children.