This is a society where moms are inundated with the pressure to create gourmet meals, and cute crafts and activities for our kids, but when you’re mothering in mayhem, looking like a put-together woman seems like a far and distant world. Tackling the overwhelming and incredibly taxing responsibility to try your best to maintain any sense of “normal” for your kids when everything is crumbling around you is no easy feat. But there are a few things I’ve learned in my experience of caring for my dying husband and three children under 3. So here you go, from one mother in mayhem to another:
- The small victories: You might not remember even the last minute, but trust your mothering instinct. I don’t remember a lot of the day-to-day when I was the caregiver, at age 28, for my 34-year-old husband who was dying of cancer. I’ve heard the comment: “I don’t know how you did it…” to which I usually respond, “I don’t either!” It’s strange how I can remember some of the finest details of the chaos that ensued around my family the last few weeks of my husband’s life, but the basics seemed to just happen on autopilot…I think.. I still can’t remember how everyone got fed, bathed and the twins off to daycare, manage tantrums and the surge of drugs and dosages that my husband needed to remember to take, but couldn’t; not to mention that small detail of keeping a newborn alive by nursing all hours of the night, pumping and storing milk, and changing diapers and clothes—over and over. This juggling of all the other people I was responsible for, while trying to recover from delivery (strong emphasis on trying…well, there was no trying actually, I just didn’t “recover” from delivery and post-partum, my body just patched itself together and survived it). There were people who tried to help, but didn’t know how, so the majority of responsibility still landed on my shoulders. I managed…I probably didn’t do a stand-up job, but I did it! There’s not enough time to treasure every moment with your kids when you’re just trying to survive, to fight through another day, to keep yourself, your spouse and your kids alive. Pat yourself on the back and celebrate the small victories—when my husband was alive and in home-hospice, those victories included: nobody getting tangled in his oxygen cords; keeping the liquid morphine out of my twin toddlers reach when my husband would forget and accidentally leave it on the nightstand; and the nights when none of the kids woke up while I was carrying my husband to the shower and back—those were victorious nights! After my husband died, my toddlers may have watched countless hours of television and eaten pizza or frozen lasagna for three days in a row, but they were fed, the baby was fed, happy, dry and still getting tummy-time, and at the end of the day, we’re all still alive and somewhat sane—that’s a victory not to be overlooked.
- Realize you don’t need to be supermom and go it alone: In our society, independence is revered and treasured, but mayhem, crisis and trauma reveals a deeper human need—connectedness and community, both of which require asking for help and revealing vulnerability that you can’t, and shouldn’t try to go it alone. The “zen” part of your mayhem is simply asking for help and humbly receiving it. That knowing, in your mayhem, you have people in your corner and if you don’t, ask for it. When you are tackling your kryptonite, whatever that may be: lack of sleep, grief, illness, etc., that someone can help bear the load, there’s always someone who can help—they can’t take it away for you, but they can help. Many people who help in small ways add up. When we ask for help there is a peace and humility in knowing we’re not supposed to be alone in this life, and we’re especially not supposed to mother alone.
- Self-care is not selfish: In caring for my husband and children, I honestly forgot about myself—even the basic needs. When the helpers in my home took more showers and wore clean clothing more than I did, that’s a sign that self-care went out the window. I mentally was not able to take care of myself at that time. You know how the mom-thing goes—everyone else is taken care of first. When I came home with a newborn and realized absolutely none of the nursing clothing I had fit, it took me three or four days of wearing oversized t-shirts and wrapping my chest in a towel when my breastmilk came in to finally ask a friend to go shopping for me. I couldn’t even fathom leaving the house to go shopping for myself, if I did, it would have been a scene from “Night of the Living Dead,” I’m sure of it. After my husband died, the self-care situation didn’t get better until recently, when I finally started giving myself permission to take care of myself and convince myself that it isn’t selfish to do. I did myself a huge disservice and made it much harder on myself trying to take on the “I’m strong, I can just carry on” attitude for the better part of three years. And the best part, to the joy of my frugal self, is that self-care doesn’t equal expensive. When I started to look at baths, showers, naps, walks, reading for a few hours in a coffee shop, or even finding a really good deal on a hotel room for a night as therapy, it was easier for me to wrap my head around investing in those things, even if it meant paying for a sitter to make it happen, to spend a little time on myself.
- Permission to retreat: Taking time away from the mayhem may not be an option, but eventually, if you find a small sliver of time, take it and don’t feel bad. Even if it means locking yourself in the bathroom to pray or meditate (which might include not doing or saying anything at all and just being quiet). I didn’t want to leave my house for long periods of time when my husband was still alive, but I did use the bathroom as a sanctuary. I didn’t have any privacy as my make-shift bedroom was in the living room and people were ALWAYS around, so the bathroom with a lock was the best bet for alone time. I remember just sitting on the floor for even just 10 minutes to escape helped to gain enough strength to handle whatever was going on outside that door. I didn’t have a lot of mental energy to pray, but I know my spirit was crying out even when I was silent. Leaning into the silence and retreating to a sacred space only my spirit could access was finding tiny eyes in the storm. After my husband’s death, showers became my retreat. Now , I have gained enough strength (and the kids are in school for a few hours a day) walks or just sitting in nature to be with myself and God have become my retreat. It only takes a little peace to make a big difference, but you have to fight to search for it sometimes. It’s worth the effort, I promise.
Ultimately, it took me a long time and many trials to realize that I can’t throw a proverbial life preserver to anyone else, including my children, if I myself am drowning. Someone I respect once told me: There is peace in the waves of crisis. If we stop treading water and fighting for the shore, just hang on and let the waves bring us to shore instead. I’m praying for you, whomever you may be, going through the mayhem. You can do this. You can hang on. You can reach the shore.