When my son was a toddler, he splashed water all over the bathroom during tub time. My response, more often than I would like to admit, was to yell in annoyance and bring the bath to a hasty conclusion. One day, after exploding with even more frustration than usual, I plopped him in front of Thomas the Tank Engine and returned to the edge of the tub where I sat and bawled. When Thomas’ adventure ended, I explained to my son that it wasn’t his fault that I yelled; it was mine. I said that I would fix myself. He looked back at me with his easy love and asked me if we were still going to read a book. After reading to him and tucking him into bed, I returned to the lip of the tub and cried some more. How could I possibly fix myself?
Eventually, I left my seat of shame and did what I had always done: I made a to-do list. I threw down a few bullet points: no wine; work out five times a week; and, most helpful, “be more calm and loving.” But, how? My entire education and upbringing had taught me to take action to improve situations. But this wasn’t about doing; it was about being — being calm and loving. I remembered what it felt like to fall in love, how everything looked good and felt good, as if the world were made of love and beauty. If I could find my way back to that state of being, I could handle water on the bathroom floor with grace.
I had heard about ashrams where people wake up at 4 a.m. and chant and meditate and clean the toilets with loving concentration and feel at one with the universe. Sounded good. Too bad I didn’t know the names of any ashrams but, oh well, I couldn’t have jumped on that caravan anyway, what with 8:30 drop off and noon pickup, music at 4 and playground all the time. I was going to have to find that love but do it while living my life, with the sippy cup in one hand and the saggy baggy of Cheerios in the other.
At my former job in business turnarounds, my boss’s refrain was, “What gets measured, gets managed.” So, if you need more sales to save the company, rigorously measure revenue: by salesperson, by region, by time of year, by product. In the pattern of the data, you will see what action to take in order to increase your sales. Perhaps the trick is to have all good salespeople or to only sell the gold toothbrushes in certain zip codes. What was the one thing that I could measure that would result in a sweet and gentle tubby time? More than any external event, the one thing that made a difference in the day with my son was my mood. I know it sounds hopelessly vague, but if I had a warm and lovely feeling in my heart, then all went well between 5 and 7 p.m. I bought a small notebook at Staples and I drew a vertical line a third of the way across the page. At the top of the left column, I wrote and underlined “Mood.” And above the right column, I scribbled and underlined “Activity.” Perhaps I made 10 entries a day. “Anxious” and “Woke up late, got to drop off late. Sweating.” It was Bain and Company meeting Oprah Winfrey.
A few things brightened my spirit. I liked cooking and baking with my toddler. He sat at the tiny formica bump out at the end of the kitchen counter and bathed his Rescue Heroes in a metal bowl while I made chicken cacciatore. Legos dropped my pulse to 50 and reading aloud made me relaxed, even drowsy. The playground was great if we didn’t have to rush, but I lost patience prying him away from the jungle gym if we had a time constraint. I got harried and shaky when pushing a stroller through a crowded store and I didn’t especially like playdates. That Mommy and Me music class was the most stressful thing of all. I said nothing while the anxious moms compared notes about their perfect little Booboos. And at those classes, my kid could sometimes get aggressive — which made me feel even worse.
I consulted my little book one night, after a particularly frustrating day at Mommy and Me, and arrived at my first rule of motherhood: Sit on your fat ass. I began to do less because I realized that the running around that other moms seemed to love overwhelmed and depleted me and when my mood headed south, I was harsh with my child. At the time, I didn’t think I had any kind of insight into motherhood. I was simply trying to edit out the activities and tasks that made the lunatic inside me rear her mouthy head. But now I realize that all mothers are overwhelmed. There is no way to do the laundry, cook or even assemble meals, get a little exercise for you and your child, meet up with friends or relatives so you don’t get too isolated, shop for groceries, and shuttle a toddler back and forth to a school program that only lasts two hours anyway. (What is with that? For what they charge…) For parents who also work outside the home, there’s a whole additional set of tasks to juggle. So, I dramatically pared down the things that didn’t make me feel good. I was dropping tasks every day anyway — why not flush the things that sucked me dry?
What started as an exercise to manage the downside of being me became a practice that is now at the center of my identity as a mother. I try to only do things that invite my best self to run the show. I hang with my toddler a lot, spend time listening to them, and when I take them on an expedition it is an isolated adventure which we do at a leisurely pace, soaking it all in.
Remember the words of wisdom from the FAA: Put the oxygen mask on yourself first; only then can you help others.