Mommy: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
(Not really thinking Madeline grasps the meaning of this question.)
Madeline: “A doctor.”
(Okay, so I don’t always give her enough credit.)
Gaba (my mom): “Don’t you want to be a mommy, too?”
(Perhaps this is my mom’s attempt to make me feel better about my own job title instead of facing the reality that Daddy’s job as a radiology resident is way cooler to a preschooler.)
Madeline: “No.” [Brief pause.] “I can’t do it all.”
We all laughed at Madeline’s matter-of-fact observance; however, I couldn’t help but think, “Ain’t that the truth?”
Then I started thinking about a resident in Dave’s program who is due in a few months with her first child. She recently asked Dave if I’d read any sleep books because she was determined to get her baby sleeping through the night by two months, the time she has to return to work. (Good luck with that from the mom who has read every book on getting your kids to sleep out there after having given birth to nocturnal Madeline.)
“When do they stop needing you at night?” she asked Dave.
He didn’t have the heart to tell her, never, really, at least not until you’re empty nesters. Even then my mom says you still occasionally get late night calls from a stressed-out older kid.
Nor did Dave tell her that our almost 3-year-old still doesn’t always sleep through the night. No sense stressing the poor preggo out. She’ll learn soon enough about the sleep habits of wee ones.
Still, I felt a little sad imagining her dealing with all the unknowns of new motherhood on top of the stress of having to be back at work in a job that demands more than its share of mental acuity after only two short months postpartum.
She probably assumes she can do it all. Don’t most of us? But even a preschooler knows it’s not possible to be everything to everyone. Like Madeline points out, we can’t do it all, at least not well.
Now don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying you can’t work outside of the home and still be a good mom. Not at all. There are plenty of women who balance work and home life quite well. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t feel like we have to do it all.
Yet, all around us society is telling us it’s not enough to be a mom anymore. You’re much better if you’re an actress/humanitarian/mom or a doctor/researcher searching for a cure for cancer/mom.
But in our quest to be more than just a mom, we’re suffering and often our families are, too. I know I’ve struggled with this very issue. When I’m not freelance writing or measurably contributing to what I refer to as our FGDP (family’s gross domestic product), I feel like I’m not doing enough. As if caring for two little ones wasn’t enough “work.” (If you think the work of an at-home mom doesn't amount to much, consider this: In a recent article, Mothering magazine estimated the annual salary of a stay-at-home mom who nurses to be around $168,000. That’s about what I could be making nowadays had I finished law school instead of dropping out after a month!)
Yet, when I start to take on too many assignments at once, I feel frazzled. With multiple deadlines looming over me, I find it more difficult to focus on my family. I’ve learned that just as with eating, I have to strive for moderation and only accept a few assignments at once. I have to say no to some things. I can’t use writing or any outside activity as merely a means of self-gratification of self-fulfillment. First and foremost, I have to put myself at the service of my family. That means sometimes saying no to new assignments, even ones I’m really interested in exploring, and even turning down volunteer opportunities at this stage of my life (something else I frequently feel guilty about; I want to serve on every committee, but I just can’t do a lot of volunteer work at this stage of my life, especially since my hubby works long, unpredictable hours). Charity begins at home, as Mother Teresa said, and I don’t have to feel like I’m not doing anything for the greater good by just being a mom. If I can raise happy, productive and most importantly, caring people, then I’d say I’m doing plenty for society at large. (And if my girls decide to be at-home moms, too, then they will be considered productive members of society in my eyes. Like the Mothering magazine article pointed out, just making milk for our babies counts as productivity. Truth be told, I secretly hope Madeline one day changes her mind and decides to be a mom when she grows up!)
Moreover, even if I keep outside work to a minimum, if I try to be too productive and efficient even just in the home frontier (i.e., keeping the house in tip-top shape, trying to be Rachael Ray in the kitchen instead of relying on simple recipes for most days of the week), I often end up feeling a bit out of control.
I'm not alone. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly warns about the dangers of multitasking. Walter Kirn, the article’s author, cited research revealing that multitasking forces our brain to sacrifice its higher functioning related to memory and learning just to keep tabs on all the menial tasks we’re trying to juggle simultaneously. He writes, We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.
So instead of making us more efficient, multitasking really just makes us slower and maybe even dumber. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly.
Other research has shown that taking on multiple tasks boosts the level of stress-related hormones.
Moms are the queens of multitasking. We can whip together dinner while simultaneously entertaining a toddler by belting out some peppy kids’ song. In a the carpool line, we can schedule a well-child visit with the pediatrician on our cell, catch up on the daily news on the radio and file our nails. At bedtime, we can nurse an infant to sleep while brushing the teeth of a toddler while wiping down the bathroom counter. Maybe that proverbial “mommy brain” we all hear about and sometimes feel like we suffer from isn’t really a result of sleepless nights or reading monosyllabic books over and over. Maybe we’re stressing ourselves out and dumbing ourselves down simply by trying to do too much at once.
If we take multitasking to the next level and attempt to juggle two jobs, one of which is completely all-consuming (I’m referring to being a parent), just imagine how we’d feel?
Is it any wonder moms sometimes complain about bone-aching fatigue, constant chaos and high stress levels?
Personally, I recognize that I get the most impatient with my preschooler when I’m trying to do something else while still “parenting” her. Just the other day I was trying to shoot off a quick email to an editor for a freelance assignment while nursing the baby and simultaneously admiring Madeline’s doodles on a MagnaDoodle. “Oh, that’s a nice picture,” I mumbled, barely even looking at her artwork.
Suck, suck, from the baby.
“I did look,” I said. Now why was I emailing this editor again?
Not surprisingly, I felt my stress levels rising and so did Madeline. She started randomly pressing keys on the my laptop, vying for my attention when I abruptly pushed her aside and shouted, “Stop that!”
Madeline looked at me with her big brown eyes glassy with tears and I realized I just couldn’t do it all and that the editor could wait. I’m not Super Woman. I only have finite amount of energy. I can’t change the laws of physics and create more hours in my day. And my priority right now is my children – not the dirty dishes, not freelance work, not my blogs. If I have extra time, fine. Then write (or clean) away. But when it’s playtime, let it be playtime. Don’t try to make Madeline’s little plastic animals talk while emailing, meal planning and making a grocery list or sorting laundry.
So let’s all embrace my preschooler’s wisdom and make a deal. At least for today why don’t we all hang up our Super Woman capes and just concentrate on being super moms? Let’s play with our kids. Stare at our babies’ round, moving cheeks as they nurse. Watch our toddlers sleep. Twine a wisp of our little girl’s hair around our fingers. Coat our kids with kisses. Smother them with hugs. And know that we’re all doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing at that moment.