Balancing parenthood and self.
As a parent of young children, there is NEVER enough time to accomplish everything that needs to be done in any single day— nevertheless, time to carve out for me. By evening I am exhausted beyond any recognition of a former self. I am tired from giving away pieces of myself; tired from all the “I wants” and “can I haves?”; tired from all the messes I have cleaned up and all the errands I have run; tired from all the noses I have wiped and arguments I have mediated; and tired of being tired! What parent has time for personal growth, self reflection, creativity, or to even honor their most basic of needs, I wondered?
By the time I had shrunk to a shadow version of my once full of life self, I realized just how long the hair on my legs had grown, and I began to pray to whatever god would listen:
“Just one uninterrupted solitary moment, please!”
I turned to the bathroom as my sabbatical, my place of refuge. “If they can’t see me maybe they won’t need me!” Only thing is, not even this is sacred space in my house. In fact, I think my children have a built in GPS, so that when mommy is in the bathroom their needs go into overdrive.
As a result of ignoring myself, I quickly became the kind of person I disliked: a whiny, complaining, ungrateful, impatient, negative person. I was growing resentful of my children. I was missing myself. I was withering away and dying a slow spiritual death. My ever growing need for quiet moments desperately outweighed my ability to be compassionate and loving of my family. Something needed to change. I was struggling to be present and adoring, while finding gratitude and balance in my life, all things that were once important to me.
This is what happened:
I made a decision to take a trip. On this trip I hoped to refuel my empty self. And I decided to embark on this journey ALONE: I would drive alone, eat alone, sleep alone, and tour my vacation destinations alone. I was going to travel by myself and I was looking forward to replenishing all those empty spaces within. And so it began—the search for my Self.
On this journey, I realized that the very things that were so important to me (a thankful heart and spirit, the wisdom of gratitude, creativity, finding passion in nature, finding purpose and meaning separate from raising children…) would never be realized unless I took the time to find them. But I feared that it was going to take a miracle to find my inner Self again.
But I began. And as I traveled, I allowed myself to just be.
To be still. To be in nature. To be in touch with my intuitive self.
I explored. I rested. I observed. I allowed myself to be patient, quiet, and adoring of the world. On this trip, I felt an aliveness and oneness with the earth so great, that I could actually feel the pulse of nature, the vibration of life. And I slowly emerged. I began to feel vibrant again.
And this became lesson number one: See the world with new eyes, learn to see the beauty of the earth—it’s all around you! I soothed my mind, rested my aching body, and healed my soul.
This was lesson number two: Honor thy own needs! I paid attention to my breath, making sure that I was experiencing every inhalation with purpose.
Then came lesson number three: Be fully present with self, with nature, with living.
I realized then (and continue to remind myself today), that all these qualities are possible to find at home, even with a house full of kids (and pets), but it makes it complicated when the space you inhabit is clamoring and competing with the sounds of TVs and game components, radios and other media sources. As it is not the same to drive on asphalt as it is to walk barefoot in the grass, it is hard to find stillness in chaos. The friction of tires on a paved road just cannot compare to the breath of the earth. When your world is covered in concrete, the sounds of the natural are enclosed and the rhythms of nature begin to recede into the background. And it takes real effort to listen, to see. And when man-made items take up more space in your life than the natural, you begin to set your internal song to the tone of simulated life. If you are like me, you begin to feel drained from this type of living. It is true that the more removed we are from nature, the more miserable we become. Harmony with the earth generates harmony within.
And I asked myself, how do I find a union with everyday life? I wondered how to align myself with the earth’s energy—even in those unearthly tasks that, unfortunately it seemed, took me far away (and far too often) from what it means to be alive and living—all of which have nothing to do with being in this overly processed world.
Then it hit me, another lesson for me to heed…
Lesson number four had been missing from my life for far too long and this lesson spoke of harmony, balance, and another disappearing spiritual concept called gratitude. In fact, I had realized that all the daily tasks, chores, and routines in my life had lost their purpose, their essence. I was missing time spent in gratitude and with a thankful heart, and spirit, for all that was provided for me. I was sad to discover that I had become complacent and entitled in most areas of my life.
I realized that I had been missing out on some very crucial concepts here. For instance, in order to eat, I must find food. And how did I do this? Like everyone else, I shopped at the grocery store, where wonderfully food was provided for me. No thought had to go into how the food made it to the store. No energy was spent in harvesting the grain, baking the bread, picking the produce. And when I shopped for groceries do you think that I walked the isles with a compassionate heart, having consideration for all that it took to bring food into the store? Was I present with the understanding and thankfulness of all the human effort behind me, which allowed me to be able to randomly place items into my cart? The sad fact was no, I was not. Instead, I was most likely complaining because they didn’t have the brand of bread that I wanted, or that I was tired and didn’t really want to be shopping for groceries to begin with. So, begrudgingly I walked the aisles, not present with the task, and feeling bitter and resentful. How very tragic of me. How was it possible that I could be in a grocery store and not be grateful for the abundance of food, the array of choices in which to nourish my body? How was it that I had missed the fundamental nature of what the grocery store represented? How could I have missed being thankful for all the human effort behind the walls? Instead of it being a thing of awe to be appreciated, it had become a task, a chore. How could shopping for food—for my body, and my family, whom I believed that I loved—become drudgery? Had I become the person who was asleep within my life? Yes, I believed that I had.
Then I realized all the other ways in which I had missed the point entirely: When I became upset in a traffic jam and forgot to feel lucky that I had a car in which to be stuck in a traffic jam; when I was upset because the dog was barking at the mailman, awakening me from a deep sleep, but not understanding that he was protecting his home, me, my family; when I was irritated at my children because they didn’t do the chores that I asked them to do, but missed out on the fact that how very lucky they are, or that I am, because they have the ability to do these chores to begin with; when I had to clean up after others’ messes, but missed out on the fact that I am lucky to have so many messes in which to clean—because this means my life is rich and full of others.
Or, any of the myriad of ways in which I blindly walked through life, missing out.
Life is not personal—why did I make it so? Life is miraculous—why did I focus on what was wrong instead? Why was it so hard for me to be gracious and present?
The question then becomes: How to find a balance between giving to myself and giving to others? To find a balance between the “I have tos” and the “I want tos” in my life? Finding a balance between being compassionate to others and finding compassion for myself. Remembering to be present, adoring, grateful and balanced. Well, I suppose that is the journey we are all facing in this life.
Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that even in the everyday moments we can find wonder. Every time you turn on a faucet, think about the source of the water. Offer thanks to the water for it is because of that water that life is possible. When brushing your teeth, remind yourself to practice right speech. When showering, imagine you are cleaning and purifying your heart and mind, as well as your body. When getting dressed, express gratitude for those who made the clothes. When cleaning, remind yourself “how wonderful it is to have this space.”
If I could find a way to practice and express just one of the lessons above, then this would be a step in the right direction.
Julie Williams is interested in deconstructing the rules and messages received from our culture in regards to women’s issues, spiritual concepts, and cultural ideals. Her hope is to assist others, as well as herself, in living a more authentic life. Julie believes that “we teach best what we most need to learn,” as quoted by Richard Bach. Julie aspires to teach, and learn, “best” through the way of Tonglen, along with other Buddhist and Taoist practices, including mindfulness, daily gratitude, and being present and still with the daily gifts and lessons life throws her way. Julie obtained a Master of Social Work and her professional specialty areas include: American Studies, Social Theory and Human Behavior. She is most interested in the history of beauty and how we internalize beauty standards and how this forms our body image; how society creates cultural norms for health, nutrition, and exercise; and quality of life and end of life issues.
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