I always assumed that having kids would teach me how to love. I just never imagined that parenthood would teach me how to love not just the tiny humans I created, but to also love myself.
It’s back-to-school time, and that means many things to many different families. For us, it means a whole new stage, because this year our youngest is going to school five days a week for the first time. This milestone has all of us in a bit of a whirlwind of nerves, excitement and confusion. It has struck me with quite a bit of nostalgia as I’ve looked back over the last seven years, the time that’s passed since I became a mother.
I’ve changed in those seven years. Before kids, I was an ambitious, stressed out, insecure, frenzied workaholic. I used to spend my weeknights “catching up” on work and my weekends drinking beer. I worried about what my boss would think about my latest client presentation and how to impress my friends and relatives. In the last seven years, I’ve gotten library cards and museum memberships. I’ve learned how to change a diaper and cut grapes, get by on three hours of sleep and invest money in a 529 college savings plan instead of a Mexican vacation fund. I now worry about screen time and not letting my kids down. The ways I spend my time, money and energy are completely different than they were seven years ago, yet those things pale in comparison to the real change that has happened inside of me.
I didn’t use to have to take care of anyone but myself, yet I took on the responsibility of pleasing others and being a Good Girl and doing everything that was expected of me. Taking those burdens onto my own shoulders wasn’t helpful to the people I thought I was helping or supporting or impressing, and it sure as heck wasn’t helpful to me. Once I had children that truly did depend on me caring for them completely 24/7, my priorities changed.
The paradox is that in actually taking on the responsibility of doing things for completely dependent little infants, I’ve stopped taking care of the stuff that doesn’t matter. I’ve had to focus, and let go of the extraneous junk, and prioritize. In prioritizing, I’ve found out what really matters.
I’ve found, to my great surprise, that I am on the list of stuff that matters.
Somewhere along the line, my love and devotion for my littles started overflowing into my own life – first as a trickle, then as a steady stream.
I first observed it when I was carefully steaming organic carrots for the little guy who just started eating solid food, and I said, “You deserve the best food, buddy.” Then I thought, “Is organic food something I should consider for myself?”
I saw it when I stood up in defense to a fellow mom who couldn’t believe that my 4-year-old didn’t know all his letters yet. I said, “We each grow and learn in our own time. Huck excels in a lot of areas, and he’ll learn his letters eventually.” Then I thought, “Maybe it’s okay that I haven’t figured out my next career move. I’ll figure it out eventually.”
I noticed it when I watched my sons in summer sports camp, spending three hours a day getting to know four different sports. I heard them rave over their newfound love for basketball and I said, “Let’s get a basketball hoop, guys! A real one!” Then I thought, “Hmm. I wonder if they’re offering an adult ballet class at the rec center this fall. I used to LOVE ballet.”
I heard it when I told my 6-year-old that he didn’t have to be friends with the kid that called him ugly. I said. “You have to go to school with him and treat him nicely, but you don’t have to be his best friend. You can choose your friends, buddy.” And I thought, “What about the people that make me feel ugly? Can I let them go? Can I choose to let go of toxic friendships and focus on the people that lift me up, instead?”
I felt it when I pulled out of the school parking lot on Monday, letting Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” blast from the radio while I wiped tears away from my cheeks and laughed at myself and choked back a giant sob. And then I drove home, and I put on my running shoes and took off down the street. Because this mama is training for her first half marathon. Because this mama finally loves herself enough to do something half-crazy like that.
Just a year ago I was touting the benefits of self-care as a great way for me to be better able to care for my children and husband, as if the only acceptable reason for me to do something for myself was if it directly benefited someone else. I said that an hour away from the house was okay because I would be more energetic and my kids deserved the best of me. Now, I see that self-care is a great way for me to take care of me, not only because my kids deserve the best of me but because I am worth it.
I knew I would love my kids. I knew they would teach me how to love on a level I had never experienced before. But this kind of love – this all-encompassing, heart-searing, spirit-lifting love that takes my breath away and is powerful enough to flow beyond my offspring and flow into my own soul? I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect that at all.
I used to think that other people were much more important than me. I used to believe that making other people happy was the only thing I was good for. The truth is, I didn’t like myself very much. It took having children and seeing the wonder of their existence to start to see the value of my own.
I’ll never be able to fully express the gratitude I have for my children. They’ve taught me so much – about patience, wonder, imagination, empathy, perseverance and strength (to name but a few).
But most of all, they’ve taught me love.