Last month, we invited readers to share their responses to a writing prompt inspired by Lania Knight's essay, "Drink Me," and Christie Megill's essay, "Books Bind Us." We invited readers to tell us about gifts their children have given them. Below is Denise Lilly's response.
by Denise Lilly
There's no accountability like toddler accountability. When my three-year-old tells me to calm down while I rush everyone out the door or tells my husband and me to stop arguing over the volume of the radio, there’s no denying it—my children are watching my every move.
It took two years of parenting for this to really seep into my soul. When I looked into the mirror, I realized that whether I liked it or not, my children were constantly reflecting me. Whether exasperated by their impatience, quick tempers or abrupt communication, I have to own that, in part, they are mirroring me.
Two years into motherhood, I found myself on the brink of unraveling—too exhausted to function with a newborn and toddler, too stressed with the transition of moving and becoming a four-person family, too lonely despite constant touch and needs of two other human beings, too overwhelmed to be fully present.
My whole life, I've had a propensity to ignore my own needs, but my children felt like an extension of myself, and in those early days, months and years, I began to understand the unselfish value of self-care. I began to see my life as entwined with theirs. I began to see that I could only be who they needed if I became fully me.
Whether babies, toddlers, or little-boys-growing-big, they need me to be healthy, whole. On-the-fritz mama can't provide the best possible life for them, and of course, I want the best possible life for them. Paradoxically, this sometimes means taking care of myself.
Early on, self-care looked like a cup of tea with a book. It was radical. Me leaving. Alone. In the evening. Spending a bit of change on myself at a coffee shop. More than an hour of touch-free, question-free, crying-free time (unless I cried in the car, which was often).
Now self-care is yoga, a run, reading, writing group, errands ALONE, hanging out with a friend (not a play-date, gasp!), volunteering. It's a little space where who I am, the ways I’m made, play more of a role in my day-to-day life.
While my children's reflection suggested something must change, it also confirmed that my self-care was ironically family care, too. My "me" moments create a current of calm for everyone. Of course, there's still clinging and crying and fussing about mom going to do something on her own or not being present for every possible thing (by husband and kids alike), but there are also moments when we're thrilled to be back together, when I really want to hold them until they wiggle away, when my writing helps me process my parenting, when my reading connects me to other passions, when hanging out with friends makes me laugh and love my life, when volunteering makes me feel useful outside the four walls of our home.
My children taught me that caring for myself matters for all my other relationships. It matters for me, so it matters for them. My needs and my family's needs are not mutually exclusive; they're entwined.
Denise Lilly is a writer, blogger, and the author of Cling: Faith Lessons from my Son's Early Years. She lives in Maine with her husband and two sons. To read more of her writing visit www.deniselilly.com.