To Power-Down Periodically


Periods of complete exhaustion are inevitable for a mother. Her nursing baby makes quality night sleep impossible; her exuberant toddler requires constant vigilance; her preschoolers need activities; her school-aged children can entertain and help themselves but challenge her mind with questions as they approach the age of reason. Just that is enough to make her head spin, because she wants to do it well, with love. All the while, her home has to be cleaned and maintained, food must be obtained and prepared, laundry piles up. She is careful with their money, and that requires intelligence and effort. Her loving husband needs her whole self, and she needs him. Her friends need a friend, and she needs them. The Eucharist, the source and summit of her life, is celebrated every morning at 8am and she wants to be there… with her crew in tow. She teaches them to adore Jesus too, day by day.  She wants to present an appealing picture of a thriving Christian mother, so she maintains her weight and her appearance. Every day is different; she can’t set many expectations, because with so many moving parts, plans are bound to change. She attempts a coherent thought from time to time, but it’s usually interrupted.

And she is blessed, because her life is full. It’s an offering. She doesn’t have to decide to pour herself out. It’s done for her. She’ll sit back when she’s old and remember these happy, full days. And she’ll be exhausted just thinking about them.

Oh these days are exhausting! And exhaustion is complicated for women, perhaps especially for mothers. Women aren’t wired simply. When our mental, physical and emotional tanks are drained, they don’t just stay dry until we find rest. They immediately begin refilling themselves with all kinds of poison–first impatience and anxiety or sadness which quickly give way to self-doubt, guilt, blame, jealousy, irrationality, hysteria and panic, hatred. Rest is the solution, but where do we find it in these full days and eventful nights? Motherhood does not have built-in breaks.

It is crucial to find a chunk of time for daily mental prayer. But how to achieve refreshment during the other 23.5 hours of the day?

I am practicing the ability to “cube up and shut down”, a la the Pixar movie WALL-E: to close myself off for a few seconds amid the noise and needs in order to clear my mind completely, recenter, and utter a quick prayer. It’s like a little water break in a long, hot race. I read the story of a holy mother who would fling a sheet over her head whenever she was nearing her breaking point. This signaled to her children that she needed a few moments to gather herself.  She’d take deep breaths and say a few prayers then begin again.

Hiring help and taking a mother’s Sabbath occasionally are wonderful. Nonetheless, things can get ugly if I am not able to combat the daily exhaustion with little, regular periods of refreshment. At best, I fly through every day in desperation; at worst, I behave like a hysterical monster. And since I’m supposed to be the heart of this home and all, “Where the Wild Things Are” isn’t a pretty picture.

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  • Mary Alice

    My husband is big on what he calls “setting yourself up for success”, or what, more pessimistic, I call giving yourself at least a fighting chance.nnThese days I do what I can to make life a little bit easier on all of us.u00a0 This means that I go to the grocery store that has a nursery, even though I know that my kids watch a barbie movie while I shop.u00a0 One child is too young for the nursery, but he gets gum.u00a0 This is what it takes to make grocery shopping a pleasant outing instead of a hassle.u00a0 Then, I fill two carts with a weeks worth of food for eight people.u00a0 By the time I have it home and unloaded, even with the kids help, I am wiped out.u00a0 My kids love cold cuts, but they don’t keep well, so broiled turkey and swiss sandwiches make a good grocery night dinner.nnThis is just one example, I am going to come up with more.nnAlso, I think that I have more free time than I realize, but I need to use it in ways that are truly refreshing for me — which means, in my case, not doing errands or lesson planning on the internet.u00a0 For me, those things are just a different kind of work.u00a0 Most nights I am taking a long bath and going to bed early.u00a0 It means I am behind on the laundry, so I’ll have to work that out in other ways, but we do what we can.

  • Anonymous

    JM, this is so well said, thank you! I love your point that when our tanks are devoid of the “good stuff”, they start refilling themselves with the “bad stuff” rather than just staying empty. This is so true.nI often think of what my mother-in-law says: “Leave well enough alone,” which means that if the kids are happy, let it be. So, if the kids are happy making forts together, “leave well enough alone,” even if the living room is now a mess and you were planning on taking the kids to the pool for the afternoon. If they’re happy, let it be. Or, if you were going to have a yummy casserole for dinner but the kids are hungry at 4:30, and are happy to have crackers and cheese and grapes for dinner, “leave well enough alone” and save the casserole for another night.nThis also brings up a lesson from the “Love and Logic” philosophy: Mom and Dad need to structure the family in a way that works well for them, according to their values and priorities. So, if you’re sitting at the dinner table and your 3 year-old asks for another glass of milk, it’s perfectly okay to say that you will be happy to get them a glass of milk once you have finished eating your dinner. You could ask her to bring you her glass and the milk jug so that you can pour her another glass without standing up, but you need to do what works for you. Basically, know yourself and what makes you crazy vs. peaceful, and then try to structure your days to your advantage. As Mary Alice says, give yourself a fighting chance!

  • M Severson

    This was the perfect thing for me to read today. It’s the end of a long, busy, exhausting week (aren’t they all??) and I’m spent. Sometimes just knowing that others are swimming upstream with me makes it a little easier.u00a0

  • Lauren G

    JM, I recently read something about Elizabeth Anscombe that is apropos–she often went around the house with earplugs in to block out the noise of her seven children romping around.u00a0 Bad idea or good idea??u00a0

  • Sally Faye

    This is EXACTLY how I feel! Wow, you have found the words that I could never find. I just always say, “I’m so tired!” But, it’s more than that, it’s ALL of that!I like the idea of “leaving well enough alone”. In fact, I’m sitting here thinking…why didn’t I think of that? Simple, yet genius. I recently read an ebook u00a0″Tell Your Time”. It was a quick read, but was really great at giving tips on how to practically manage your time based on the roles you have and how you want to live out those roles. I really recommend it. It is by Amy Lynn Andrews.

  • B-mama

    I can see the good in this, especially if the children are just being children and playing to their hearts’ content. u00a0Sometimes for me, dulling the noise is key to my sanity–as you know, I turn down the baby monitor so I only see the lights. u00a0Then I can be aware but not frazzled by the crying! u00a0Taking the edge off with the earplugs sounds like just the ticket!

  • Jurismater

    Kat, “leave well enough alone” is SUCH a great line. I’ve never thought of it like that, but it seems that we are just falling into living this way to stay above water here in survival mode. For my entire run/quiet time this morning I was reflecting on how very sensible and necessary this is. My question is this: then how do you ever make plans for activities outside the home? We haven’t been able to make/keep many plans at all since our fourth was born 3 months ago, precisely because when things are going well, I have to be able to leave well enough alone in order to keep my sanity. It seemed like, as soon as the baby got going with a long nap and the kids were playing contently, it was time to head out the door for whatever plans we had made. That was making me crazy and panicked all the time. So I have just stopped making any plans.

  • Jurismater

    Yes, that’s an awesome idea to take the edge off.

  • Texas Mommy

    Great post! I sometimes close my eyes and take a deep breath when the kids are driving me crazy. They ask what I am doing and I tell them, “Asking Jesus for patience.” I think it is good for them to see me struggle!u00a0nnEar plugs are a great idea!u00a0