Self-care in the midst of chaos: is it even possible?

** This week’s podcast on self-care and was inspired by this blog post, originally published on Vie de Cirque in 2015. **

As a mother of many, I am often asked about self-care and finding time for oneself in the midst of chaos. Where can a mother find peace when the things that bring her joy — like hobbies and travels — are incompatible with parenting a tribe?

The question of “me-time” is one that is close to my heart because everyone wants to know. In an article for the Ottawa Citizen published in January 2014, I answered that I had to find “me-time” in the midst of chaos. It’s true but simplistic. The ability to find inner peace when your life is a pinball machine is a work in progress. I often feel like I am hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. So how do I go about finding my place in a household where my work is forever answering everybody’s pressing demands but mine?

To explain my understanding of self-care, I must go back a few years. I got pregnant with my oldest child when I was 21, unmarried and in Law School. My boyfriend (now husband) was a junior officer in the Armed Forces. He was deployed overseas and we didn’t move-in together until shortly before our first child was born. Our second child was born 14 months later. People around us quietly believed that our hasty marriage was doomed from the start. My husband deployed overseas again and our third child was conceived upon his return. I finished my law degree while expecting her. My husband’s traveling schedule and the demands of providing for a growing family were such that we decided that he would work while I stayed home with the children. I decided not to write the Bar exams at that time: the cost of putting 3 children in daycare while I pursued my studies for an intense year of studies, work placements and exams.

After our third child was born, we decided that our family was complete. I always dreamed of having 5 children, as had my husband, but I was hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. That’s when our fourth child was conceived and born. When I think back on that period of my life, I hear the song from Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl:

Nobody knows when she started her skid, she was only 27 and she had 5 kids

I was severely struggling with my imposed vocation as a stay-at-home mother of four young children. I had studied to become a lawyer, a challenging course of studies where I had excelled. Now I was a full-time mother in full downfall from my pedestal. My peers were starting to advance in their careers, moving into cute houses in trendy neighbourhoods. I was moving out of a world of visibility and rewards and into a world of invisibility feeling like a failure. People my age had no children, my friends with children had 10 years on me and had chosen to stay home. I was dreaming of living in a trendy neighbourhood with matching furniture as opposed to my perfectly adequate little semi-detached house with a mismatch of hand-me-down pieces.

I was neither very good or very happy in my vocation. I was trapped in a spiral of self-loathing, grasping at anything that made me feel better, regardless of whether it was good, healthy or moral.  I believed that my unhappiness was the result of forgetting myself for too long. Of neglecting my goals and ambitions in the pursuit of an ideal that wasn’t mine. But the more “me time” I took the deeper I sank.

It took a ride to rock bottom before I understood that my family and I were in this together. That focusing on me at the exclusion of my family was robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Mothers: there is no amount of stuff, credit, spa treatments and girls nights out that can buy you happiness in your marriage and family. So often I read desperate pleas from mothers who cannot find peace and happiness in their own family and there is always someone to suggest more “me time”. A night away, a day at the spa, a week in a resort, working outside the home. Don’t get me wrong: I love a pedicure as much as the next girl. But your happiness and your physical and mental health cannot hinge on an expensive getaway. Or even a cheap one. What I learned from my stay in the trenches of unhappiness is that you can’t outrun yourself. Indulging in temporary make-beliefs only makes the return to reality colder and darker.

Addressing underlying causes of unhappiness can be difficult. Children are too young to understand that they need to give mommy some space. Your life partner should be the one caring for you. If you don’t have a supportive partner, maintaining your sense of balance in family life will fall on your shoulders and you will have to build fences around the non-negotiables of your life. Fences and families don’t mix. If your life partner — husband, boyfriend, mother — is not looking after your needs, you need to fix your relationship. A happy marriage is the most important self-care you can give yourself, not to mention the very thing your children need the most to be happy and secure as they grow.

After I had my 4th child and disappeared in the fog of depression, my husband and I came to the conclusion that I was simply not cut out to be a homemaker. I still believed that having a stay-at-home parent was best for children but I simply couldn’t be that parent. I headed back to school to pursue graduate studies in law. But even though I excelled in my academic studies, the belief that I wasn’t cut out to care for my children was haunting me.

I found work as a political attaché and juggled family life and paid employment for the following 4 years. I learned that nothing was going to be easy. I could work to make our family-work balance manageable or I could work to become the mother I always wanted to be. I chose the later. Nowadays, I am a homeschooling stay-at-home mother. I have the large family I never dared to dream I would have.

Self-care starts with physical and mental health. I try to eat well, not too much, and exercise. I get regular medical check-ups to make sure that any physical or mental struggles are properly identified and treated. I make room for spiritual practices like prayer and a sacramental life. I see a friendly spiritual director and I receive the Sacrament of reconciliation once or twice a month. But where I draw the line for myself is the type of self-care that takes away from my family, whether it is by causing financial strain or emotional absenteeism. If you need to spend money you don’t have, or if you need to completely check-out of your role as mother to feel alive and whole, you need to address the underlying causes of your feelings. Going out with friends, sharing a meal, being pampered or getting relief from your daily occupations are some of life’s greatest pleasures. You should seek these opportunities for the joy they bring you, not as a matter of survival.

My husband and I have turned the self-care equation around. Instead of seeing me as the result of the equation, we’ve made our common vision of family life the result of the equation. Self-care happens in the context of the vision of family life we want to achieve: a happy, united, and well adjusted Catholic, large, homeschooling, family, living in the country. The pursuit of my dreams and ambitions are part of the equation yielding that result. Being physically and mentally fit, growing in faith and fortitude, laughing, looking pretty, feeling like I can leave for a weekend without societal collapse and starvation, are all part of the equation. My husband and children benefit from the result and therefore are part of ensuring that I get enough and adequate self-care. Knowing that they have my well-being in mind frees me from having to worry and pursue my well-being selfishly, like a desert wanderer searches for water. I am no longer afraid of disappearing behind my children because we are a team, not a competition.

Caring for a family of 11 is still hard on a good day and there is precious little time for self-care in the traditional sense. I have to rely on a “broken windows approach” to keeping my essential space in a large family: I don’t share my morning coffee and I am almost obsessive about using the bathroom by myself. I find great joy in having coffee with an old friend, seeing my siblings and my parents, and enjoying a few seconds of quiet in a tidy house  (not between 1 and 2 am). There is always someone in my personal space and I have worked hard, emotionally and spiritually, to learn to love it.

Finally feeling good at what I do: that’s better than all the pedicures in the world.



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