On Choosing Myself is the fifth guest post in a series called “Your Life in Progress.” In this series we will hear from other women like you and I – women who are learning to love and care for themselves well. They are taking risks, making mistakes, trying new things and letting others go, sometimes struggling, but ultimately living beautiful, gentle lives.
There was no defining moment, no specific crisis or chaos that spun things out of control in my body or my head. There was no death in the family, no illness beyond the common cold, no financial emergency that couldn’t be held at bay by some disciplined frugality. And yet somewhere along the line I felt myself slip away.
Somewhere, at some moment, I stopped dancing. I stopped laughing. I stopped celebrating my life. And I started to cry.
It happened gradually, the daily monotony of holding a home together for six humans, four of whom were tiny, continually messy, and who needed me every waking (and often sleeping) moment of every day. It happened slowly, as the weight of mothering four and homeschooling three and feeding, cleaning, washing, wiping, dusting, vacuuming, gardening, shopping, organizing dentists and doctors and activities and library books and and and and …….. began to feel like an overwhelming burden and I just wanted to escape it all and walk away.
Except that they are my breath. These little people and this man. They are the air in my lungs, and I needed to admit that in trying to be everything for everyone I had somehow forgotten to breathe.
Walking away wasn’t the solution, so learning to breathe again was my only choice.
For the first 11 years of being a mother, I had refused over and over again to allow anyone (except my partner, and even then sporadically) to be as important as I was in my children’s lives. The fierce mama bear in me somehow believed that somehow only I was capable of caring for my beloveds enough, and that I had to do it all. I can see now how much of this belief stemmed from anxiety and from the mistaken belief that I could somehow, by taking on everything myself protect them (and me) from all of the grief and fear and pain that life can offer.
But here is my truth. In trying to control everything I lost myself.
I lost the ability to stop. To enjoy a moment. To feel the sun warm my skin and have it be enough. To listen to a little person’s story and actually hear their words and what they meant. I lost wonder. I became filled with a frenetic type of stress that demands constant attention. I couldn’t sit still, focus for long enough to read a chapter in a book, or enjoy a day with my little people. If I left home for an hour, I would return and feel the anxiety and chaos of our home descend on me the moment I walked back in the door. I no longer found refuge there, but instead often dreaded returning.
And somehow, somewhere, after months of crying and panic attacks and through the kind words of a soul sister or the compassionate touch of a friend, I managed to stop for long enough to begin to listen to my own story again. This was not an easy task.
I was so afraid that if I stopped the frenzy of activity in order to truly feel my emotions, I would lose myself in the grief of life and not be able to climb back out of that hole.
But listening to the stories of my soul sisters who had been walking this same path gave me the courage to begin the process. The details of their stories were different, but the journey forward was the same. There had to be breath. There had to be acknowledgement of the emotions being experienced, and there had to be vulnerability.
When I began to listen to my own story, I heard these things. I heard the story of a woman terrified of loss, that she might not survive it when it comes for her or for someone she loves. I heard the story of a woman who needed to learn to avoid media because the suffering of the world wrings her heart and leaves her afraid and aching. I heard the story of a woman who has been her own worst critic, but who also believes she’s actually pretty fantastic.
I heard the story of a woman who needed to send her kids to school instead of homeschooling so that she could have some time and space in her day to breathe and fill her own cup. I heard the story of a woman who needed to leave her family for days at a time so she could return to them with renewed patience and grace. In years past I would have judged myself broken or less than for admitting to these things, and yet out of necessity I have learned something about vulnerability and speaking my truth.
Because in pausing to listen to my own stories, and subsequently in honestly sharing them with others, I managed to hear some other voices chiming in as well.
I heard my mom reminding me that she believes I am raising lovely littles, even in the moments that I am too tired to see the lovely. On a recent visit, in a move not common to our relationship, she wrapped her arms around me and rocked me tenderly as I cried, and assured me that I am loved and loveable, and that no matter how difficult these days can be, she is proud of me.
I heard my husband reaching out to support me and at the same time asking that I not wound him in the process of trying to navigate my own healing. I need to allow him the space to find his own way with our family, and to appreciate and value the unique (and very different) ways he chooses to deal with things. I need to trust that our shared love for our family is enough to bridge the gap between his way and my way, and I need to let go of enough control that he can truly participate in his own right, without being afraid of anxiety driven criticism from me every step of the way.
I connected with my little sister as we commiserated over the challenges and joys and griefs of parenting. We have parented very differently from one another and this has at times been difficult to bridge. But in sharing honestly about our own moments of difficulty we have found a deeper link to bind us.
I heard my brother in law offer his unwavering support, assuring me that his love for our little people and his commitment to them included taking them on epic uncle dates (which they LOVE) and helping us again and again when we needed help with childcare because dad was at work and I could finally, finally admit that I needed a break. His voice was the sage one that reminded me that no one could take care of my mental health but me, and that I needed to make choices to support my own well being. In finally allowing him autonomy with my little ones, I have lost nothing, and gained everything. They have an amazing relationship with someone who loves them endlessly and who challenges them in ways I might not.
My soul sisters have been called upon countless times on this journey towards greater honesty and vulnerability. They have reminded me over and over again that I am beautiful in my brokenness, that it is my vulnerability that makes me approachable and my tender heart that opens me to joy.
They have walked with me when I couldn’t walk alone, stroked my hair while I wept, polished their nails with me because it’s frivolous and fun and makes us feel beautiful and assured me that every moment that I claim my own needs matter too is a moment that my children learn about self care and balance. They have encouraged me to breathe, to feel every feeling that comes and to watch it with interest until it fades away. They have opened themselves up in response to my shared weakness and shared stories of their own growth, grieving, and learning to live in new ways.
My kids have resisted, but also risen to, the challenge of having a mom who makes herself a priority. It doesn’t mean they don’t miss me when I’m gone, or that they wouldn’t prefer me at their beck and call, but I think that even they can understand when I tell them that I need to take care of myself first so that I can love them how I want to…with abandon. This doesn’t mean I don’t bend for them when it’s important, but now they are learning that there is give and take, and that they can bend for me too.
I have chosen to embrace the kindnesses and affirmations shared with me by these people in my life as I open to the full experience of being alive, to being a forty two year old mama of four and wife of one and caregiver to many, including, for the first time, myself.
One friend called me luminous. And I think, just maybe, as I rediscover the joy in life, that I’m starting to believe her.
Thank you, Anno, for sharing your story with so much honesty. xo
Anno Bell is a 42 yr old veggie growing, baby raising, colour adding, homemaking birth and postpartum doula. She believes in building and celebrating community (especially communities of women), and that true vulnerability and honesty is the only way to do so. She is too old to waste time worrying about what other people think, and too young to believe that she’s got it all figured out.