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Finding yourself in a vacuum

Every day I have a method, a routine, to my housecleaning: get the downstairs into good shape and hope I have time for a little tidy up for the upstairs.

I vacuum the hard floors downstairs every day. With two kids, multiple pets, and the way traffic flows here, it's necessary.

Plus, I say I like vacuuming. I call it my Zen time. The white noise soothes me and focuses part of my brain---the anxiety part I think, the part that requires some level of tune-out-able noise all the time---so the rest of it can think, peacefully.

The noise isn't so soothing to the rest of the family: children and pets scatter and hide until I put the vacuum away. Now you know my diabolical plan for alone time.

On one morning, I was humming along, doing my usual routine---cleaning the downstairs bathroom as it happens---when it struck me: I need to clean my own bathroom. My immediate next thought was, "Oh but the guest bath, the one guests see, is so much more important. And wow, the kids' bath has to be next, it's a mess."

Then some strange little voice in my head whispered, "Yes but...what about you?"

Yes, what about me?

I know the airlines always say put your own mask on first before putting it on your child but seriously...who among you is sure that's what you'd do, and what percentage chance are you sure that you actually would? In the melee, in the confusion...would you really see to yourself, first? Are you able to care for yourself while your child is in distress of some sort?

Me? Not so much.

I have a habit, you see, of saying, "Yes, yes, I'll get to fun/self-care/etc. as soon as I accomplish...(whatever it is that needs doing to hold back the chaos tide)."

Clearly "care for self first" is not very well ingrained into my brain. I also clearly don't comprehend the "you can't care for others very well unless you care for yourself first" concept. At least, I don't accept it as "okay."

Thus, as I cleaned---cleaned for the public and the family---I realized, this is what I do: others and family first, me last, if there's any time left over, and really, is there ever?

I sat back on my heels and thought. What else in life, besides cleaning, reflects this priority list?

Okay, house renovations. How's the priority list? Living room first, followed by dining room (the room in which we entertain), kitchen next (currently), and then we plan on moving upstairs to the girl's rooms, and maybe trying to add on to the outdoor patio simultaneously. The master bedroom? Somewhere near the bottom of the list, after "add cabinetry to utility room."

This week's schedule: outside obligations first, followed by family obligations, and lastly, personal obligations.

The last time I got a haircut was...five months ago? Last doctor appointment for me...ummm, also five months ago? How overdue am I at the dentist? The women's health professional aka the OB/GYN? I last indulged myself in a treat like a massage errrr over a year ago, and that was a gift boss scheduled a time for me instead of handing over the certificate.

So I steal time. For example, I sneak in TiVo'd shows while the kids rest, or stay up too late doing Something For Me and cheating myself of sleep. I lie to the kids and say I have a meeting and skulk out to meet friends for coffee. I make wants into needs, feel compelled to justify things as "must dos" in order to justify not doing in that same time slot the things I consider "should dos."

I'm sure this is typical. I have many friends and we all say things like, "My hair's a mess...hasn't seen scissors in six months!" and "I keep meaning to clean out my closet but can't find the time!" and "What I wouldn't do for one day..."

We all use words like "steal" and "skulk" and "lie" when referring to doing something for ourselves. We laugh, often defiantly, sometimes maniacally, and are frequently unrepentent, "I deserve this time away!" we tell one another defensively. We each nod to the other and say, "You go girl!"

Inside, though, we're wondering what we'll return home to find, and worrying about what we left, and maybe, just maybe, thinking, "Someone somewhere out there is actually judging me for this."

And we know that's true, because we hear it. In our heads, in our lives, we hear it, the little judgmental comment said to you, about you or another, but that stuck with you, nevertheless.

A good mother doesn't need to get away, a good mother enjoys herself while she is away, a good mother doesn't enjoy herself while she is away. This is it. Stiff upper lip. There's no whining in mommyhood. Oh go on sweetie we understand.

Whichever road we take, we can feel the other behind us, and it invokes some guilt.

I work, I volunteer, I write in a blog...because I need more. But...I do none of these things with a purely glad heart. I do them also with guilt and defiance. In fact, sometimes? I do them just to test myself. I force myself, for many reasons, some of which defy clear explanation, really. I do them to train my family. "Look, you must learn to be patient and wait until I can make time..." and "You must learn to do for yourself...sometimes I can't be here."

It goes back to Parenting as if I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.

But more than that, it cries of desperation, "Take notice, my children, my husband! I'm a person! A person with wants and needs! Look at me! See ME! I have value! I am more than the chief cook, bottlewasher, and all around girl cinderella."

I think this desperate sense of self loss might have begun when Patience first started a mother's day out/school program, and I morphed from Julie---a person people paused to get to know, for myself, and learned my name because I was the the relevant person---to Patience's Mom.

Still, sometimes I'd like to be just Julie, unencumbered, not choosing a want over a need and flush with the guilt of it, the guilt of choosing me over kids or another thing I feel I ought to be doing instead. And I'd like to not get the Big Mom Guilt Trip from my beloveds just because I do choose me for an hour here or there.

I know this is unreasonable. I'm not even sure that when the kids are 40 they will be able to accept me as a person. I watch adults cringe at totally normal grown-up activities their parents engage in after the nest is empty. We may grow up, we may understand, but at the end of the day...they're still the parents, and we're still the children. It's a lifetime role, is parent. That means a degree of self-sacrifice for the rest of my life.

I'm okay with that.

The irony is, inside I still feel like the same self-centered person I always thought of myself as. Inside I still get irritated or frustrated when I have scheduled time to accomplish something for me and it gets bumped. This "me last" concept isn't simply is how I apparently think I must triage. And I don't do it very gracefully.

I'm happy to do mom and wife, friend and daughter, sister and relative. But my, oh my oh my oh my do I ever need to just be Julie. Just...sometimes.

Unfortunately and semi-inexplicably, it's pretty fixed into my head that it is my obligation to sacrifice myself on the altar of mommy-and-wifehood. It's pretty fixed, no matter how often I espouse the virtue of matter how often I encourage myself and other moms to put the oxygen mask on yourself matter how often I try to talk the talk.

Still not walking the walk.

But I am vacuuming. I vacuum, therefore I think. I think, therefore I am. And someday, I'll figure this out, just in time, I'm sure, to pack the last box for the last kid and wave her tearfully,but proudly and happily, on her way to her own independent life.

Mary tagged me for the real moms meme. I thought I was going to escape notice if I kept wearing camouflage and skulking back by the plants, but I ought to have known if anyone would flush me out it would be Mary. :) I have enjoyed all of the "real moms..." meme answers I've seen, but each time I read one I thought, great scott, what would I say, what could I say? What the heck is a real mom? Can I be as funny as...? Show great photos like...? Be as insightful and honest as...? This late in the game, what can be left?

So here's my little tidbit:

Real moms put themselves last sometimes (often) out of necessity, but it doesn't mean they feel last, or cool about being last.

And, real moms sometimes (often) vacuum as escapism.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert


Unknown said…
There's a lot I'd love to say here but it is 7:15 in the a.m. and guess what? I've got to focus on my kids right now! ;)

So, I'll start where you finished. Your real moms meme is perfect. Short, but true--profound even.

Next I'll say that I had this running commentary in my head as I read this post, beginning with "Julie, you NEED to take care of yourself." It then zigged to my thinking that maybe, I'm not too bad at the self-care before zagging over to recognizing a lot of myself in what you were saying. So, maybe I'm not THAT good at self-care. It was a quick little hop over to nods, like the Amens someone says in a service when they agree with what the preacher is saying, at the nature of motherhood and sacrifice.

It was quite a little trip, this post.

I'll end by saying that I intend to come back and say more... once my obligations to others are fulfilled today. (Oh brother! When will that be?)
S said…
Oh my, who put you in my head? All of this is SO true for me. Down to my list of priorities. Down to the 'no-haircut-for-so-long-my-grey-is-not-only-showing-but-has-taken-over.'

And the real mom's meme? Perfect.

(For me the Zen activity is sweeping, but same diff, no?)

And that photo of the 50's gal sweeping -- I had to laugh at that VACUUM. It looks like a chihuahua!
Gwen said…
I wonder if this really is just a mom phenomenon, struggling with how to balance competing needs. In my family at least, and in some of the families around me, I see that Dads are getting the short end of the stick. Just because my husband gets to leave the house and go to work away from the kids doesn't necessarily mean he gets "me" time that women are always demanding. And I know he struggles with it, with wanting time for his own hobbies and interests and wanting time with his kids and needing time to get boring life shit done. Sometimes I think there's such a culture of "Girl's Night Out" we forget that the fathers need their own space, too. HOWEVER, this may be true in my social circle only. I know there are many fathers who live on another planet all together, the planet where they get to do whatever the hell they want while their wives pick up slack everywhere.

And I would totally put my mask on first. Therapy is good for some things ......
Aliki2006 said…
I love this post, Julie! One reason is because I too vacuum for therapy--I actually find it soothing, in a strange way, and am often teased about it. But there you go...

I am terrible about putting myself last. I have improved somewhat but you're right--my kids get their hair cut before I do, they are always right on time with doctor's appointment while I am seriously behind getting appointments out of the way for myself.

Yes--real moms don't want it this way but we do it, out of necessity; it just doesn't mean we're cool with it!
thailandchani said…
This is an interesting topic...

I'm not certain what to add that hasn't already been said. I think we balance our lives in the way that works for us best. No one has an obligation to be over-extended.. and, like all choices, consequences come into play.

I believe these things are something we have to balance consciously.


Julie Pippert said…
Mary, for me, it's a fine thing to know that I need to care for myself and quite another thing altogether to accept it as okay. It's so complicated for all of us I am sure. I do go out and do things for myself, but like I said, not per se with a light heart and easy mind. Your paragraph is a good description of what I think, too, LOL.

There are also a lot of mixed signals. Do for yourself on the one hand, but then if you were to do all the things to be a Great Parent...well...

Or spending money. Save save save! But...go out and have fun.


SM, sory to mind meld there. ;) Sweeping is same difference.

I loved that photo!


Gwen, oohh ahhh part two. No, you aren't alone. You make an excellent point.

I know my husband is reading and he REALLY ought to tell his own side of this. I know what it is, but it's not mine to tell.

Suffice it to say, the truth is, all things considered, my life has more in it. More chance to have all of the elements we say we need for happiness. He does just schlep from work to home and family work and back again.

But there are more differences than just what we do and gender; there's also who we are.


Aliki, thanks! A fellow zen vacuumer! We should start a new style of yoga or something. :)


Chani, it is complicated because priorities are ever shifting. I find juggling myself among four people is so much more complex than I ever could have imagined. My husband and I were recently talking about the difference among married versus single and childless workers at his office (an interesting extension to this). The bottom line is planning and scheduling...I find it is necessary to make quick judgments in almost every minute for almost every plan because almost nothing ever sits according to plan.

It's not quite having too much on my plate from overextension.

It's more having a full plate and choosing which bite to take next---which is most important in that moment.
Lawyer Mama said…
GREAT real moms post.

And you've clearly been skulking my head too. Dentist - I've rescheduled my appointment 4 times; hair - had to take half a day off from work to get it cut 4 months ago; ob/gyn - waaaay overdue. I could keep going on but I don't want to hijack your post.

Gwen made a really good point about men getting shafted here too. My husband's alone time only happens when he's doing yard work or something like that. That really made me think. I'll have to ask the hubs what he thinks.
Her Bad Mother said…
Perfectly said. Putting ourselves last doesn't mean having to *embrace* putting ourselves last. It doesn't mean making a habit of it.

I love the idea of 'parenting as if you were going to be hit by a bus tomorrow.' Perfect.
boogiemum said…
This is so right on Julie. I was having a similar conversation with myself in the shower this morning before I was interrupted by someone looking for shoes... It has been a year since I went to get a hair cut; I have been trimming a bit by myself. I actually turned bright red when I went to see the dentist last month and they mentioned it has been 2 years! I am struggling trying to decide whether to homeschool or not and all I can think is - I will never get a minute to myself!!!
Girlplustwo said…
i do laundry as escapism. vacuuming a close second. nice post, friend.
Scribbit said…
Sometimes you just have to have time to feel like you have a real identity outside of the diapers and dishes.

Especially when you're at home during the day.
atypical said…
I used to mop floors or scrub tubs for my sanity, but in the Age of Living Lazily I have had to redirect my energies to the lovely game of Spider Solitaire. :)

I can relate to this post on so many levels.

I think there are some factors that really contribute to the unsettled nature of things too. For instance, the feeling seems to grow exponentially with the passage of time. For me, the most overwhelming aspect of it all is the weight of years.

There is so much more I want to say, but I may just have to let it simmer for awhile and pop out with a blog post in a year or so. ;)

For now, thank you for putting into words so much of what I am feeling.

Rachel Briggs said…
Absolutely true! the things I consdier "treats" are sometimes laughable! Actually they're "jobs" but just not as bad as some of the other jobs we all have to do! THis is so important - I am going away for my wedding anniversary tomorrow - 4 nights, no kids, luxury hotel - how guilty do I feel!!!!????
K said…
Great post Julie.

I struggle with the I know I should take care of myself with the not wanting to miss out on the kids. Of course, if I stop letting them be so dependent on me then there would be more time. I really have to do better about this because I am not doing my job as a parent if I don't teach them to be independent.
Alice said…
Julie - I think we are so heavily programmed into the mother role that it takes conscious effort to retain (or regain) our identity as something other than mother. One way I have found to navigate the boundaries is to create certain times when I am off limits (unless someone is bleeding). Mine are when I am doing yoga and when I am cooking (cooking is my meditation). In exchange I give each of my daughters some individual time with me each night when they can talk about whatever they want or ask me to do whatever they want to do. It is my way of balancing my own need for personal time against their need for mommy time. It is just as important for them to get your time as it is for them to see you as a separate person with your own needs.
Julie Pippert said…
Lawyer Mama, I'd love to hear more men's POV---if only mine would guest post. Anyway regardless of gender we do get trapped in a place of constant personal rain checks all too easily.


HBM, thanks! And exactly! It's important to be cognizant of when it happens too often and make sure it's not detrimental.


Boogiemum, absolutely! And the bit about getting your thoughts interrupted, oh yes, know that well too. I think, actually, that we start getting agitated and thinking about it right about when it gets out of balance, and as long as we pay attention to ourselves, we can manage it all. But that's the trick.


Jen and Kyla, thanks!


Scribbit, absolutely, totally agree.


Atypical, I think you found a lovely bit of insight with this, "I think there are some factors that really contribute to the unsettled nature of things too. For instance, the feeling seems to grow exponentially with the passage of time. For me, the most overwhelming aspect of it all is the weight of years."

I hope you do blog about it...sooner than a year maybe? :)


Rach, hear you on the guilt but oh wow how marvelous! You enjoy!


K, thanks...and that's exactly the summation of what I think about this.


Alice, I agree, and so I do try to be conscious of it. A challenge for me is the age of my kids---not quite to the "we respect mom's personal space and understand it" age yet LOL. I find that usually to accomplish the time I need to leave the house...easier said than done.

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