When Greeting the Limits of Strength

For those of you who know me, you can attest that I am not a drama queen: which is why when I thought I was actually dying  a few weeks ago you know that it must have been serious. The past several months have had me dabbling in a complete physical breakdown, immune system and adrenal fatigue, and nervous system burnout. There was the cough, the flu, the stomach bug, the sinus infection, the strep throat, the month of antibiotics. Then there was the 4am wake up with rib pain and shortness of breath. Was this just a nervous breakdown or was motherhood actually killing me, I wondered (literally)? It turns out the rib pain was either stress induced (acupuncturist’s conjecture), or a pulled muscle (doctor’s conjecture). Whatever the cause, the culmination of so many repeated illnesses and physical rarities has shown me the absolute limits of my strength. A trip to the doctor was like a visit with a prophet. “No – I’m not worried at all,” she said, even after I listed the above maladies and she checked my ribs. “I see this type of immune system lapse and extreme stress all the time with mothers of three or more children…Some years are just harder than others.”

What!? This is “normal?” Apparently so, at least here in America. I pondered over and over again how I got to this place of ultimate burnout. I took it upon myself to conduct experiments about whether the 24 hour needs cycle of young children was really true. In 10 minute blocks I began tracking needs, requests and necessary interventions (i.e. for safety). The exercise helped to infuse some humor into the situation and indeed confirmed that burnout is perhaps a predictable response when you are responding on average to 5-9 needs and interventions in any 10 minute period. There is the crying for milk. There are the poopy diapers to be changed. “More nuts!” “Water!” “Help!” Then a head bonk with tears, then the toy yanked from a hand by older sibling, then a smack on the head from the toddler to said older sibling. Today I tracked four needs in less than a minute. It is usually about water, food, sleep, poop, pee, help up or down, comforting a fall or mitigating a conflict. And, it’s all day long.

So yes, some years are harder than others. And yes, this period of motherhood is showing me the limits of my strength. But what to do in the meantime? Beyond rounds of antibiotics, doctor visits and trips to the acupuncturist, how to cope? How to function and do what needs to be done without getting sick every other week? How to enjoy my life again? I’ve looked outwards to what supports I can put in place, but I’ve also recalled the importance of looking internally. Most importantly, I’ve remembered the essentials of practice. Here are a few insights that have emerged over the past few months as I’ve reckoned with my limitations.

First, slow down the whole orientation. This is primarily an internal gesture and requires taking my time responding to everything. I’ve been practicing using less energy talking and moving in general. The degree of exhaustion I’ve encountered has actually been a gift in that each time I’ve been in process of recovering, I’ve been able to assess what personal habits contribute to wearing down my reserves. We as women reach our limits at different times in our lives. I’m learning for the first time what its like to live from a place of depletion, and how unsustainable it is. Slowing down our orientation helps shed light on what we can do with more ease. Where are we unnecessarily depleting our reserves? How can we move and speak in ways that reflect parenting from a calm, resourced center? For example, raising my voice depletes me (and actually when I slow down enough to pay attention to the subtlety of my experience, raising my voice actually hurts). So I’m making it a practice to find a quieter and slower way to parent.

Second, make nourishment a practice. This means drinking enough water, eating good foods, getting enough sleep. For me, it also means lighting a candle nightly, becoming best friends with a heating pad, and making time for yoga and walking. The key here is making time. We can make time for what is important – and as cliche as it sounds, self-care has to be up there. Since the moments of extended self-care and nourishment are scant with a newborn (and during other phases of parenthood at times!), the practice becomes the smaller gestures of nourishment. Relish drinking water. Make sure to drink enough of it. Relish the 2 minutes of lying down. Take time washing your face. Eat slowly…

Third, relinquish desires for anything beyond what is arising in the present moment. I’ve noticed that my suffering is greater when I’m pining for something other that what is. Since I’ve been so short on restfulness, I’ve been grasping for early bedtimes and longer naps. Rather than settling into the work and joys of the days, I’ve been reaching for what lies beyond the moments of parenthood when I can “finally get some peace of mind and time to myself.” Warning: this is a trap! In fact, this habit of assuming something more restful and desirable lies on the other side of the present moment is in fact what slowing erodes us. Instead, in order to be more present and fully surrendered into any given moment I have been practicing relinquishing all desires and ambitions for anything beyond what is arising. This means my personal agenda of what I’d love to do when the kids are sleeping has to be set aside. If I cling too tightly to the hope that I’ll get a moment to read, write, call a friend, finish any of the projects I’ve started, have time for “me” in general, I’m trapping myself into a passing of time that isn’t rooted in the present; I’m succumbing to grasping. So I notice that and come back again and again to just giving myself to the present moment. It doesn’t mean my desires for self care are invalidated. It doesn’t mean that my “ambitions ” to accomplish anything else beyond parenting are forgotten or made subordinate. It means that instead of holding on too tightly to a hope that I’ll get to do any of these things, I can instead just be open to what is constantly arising with my children and let that be enough. When another moment presents itself where my needs and desires can be tended to, I can embrace that too with a non-discriminatory acceptance. If we get stuck in thinking some ways of passing time are “better” or more desirable, this can yank us from settling into what is in front of us. So, I let my personal preferences be true and I absolutely do not forget what fills my cup of inspiration and nourishment – and I hold these preferences and desires in a way that doesn’t interfere with a full giving over of myself to the present moment with my children, with love. If I’m living with a “if only…then…” I suffer. I can’t settle in. And this subtle pattern fosters a restlessness that only serves to further wear me down.

Finally, don’t over-identify with any given emotion or feeling. Yes, some days, weeks, and years are harder than others. I keep remembering gratitude for past spiritual practice and teaching that sustains me always, but particularly during challenging times. Instead of becoming fully identified with any emotion related to challenge or difficulty, I find that resting in a loci of observer or witness reminds me that my Self is greater than any current emotion or experience. The practice of simply observing my breath and observing my thoughts and emotions serves to keep my perspective broad and rooted in possibility and freshness. Depression, sickness, stress, frustration, anxiety, and fear can all can be observed like the passing of slow clouds overhead. We don’t have to become only sick or tired or stressed. We can practice feeling and being these things in their truth – but also witnessing their sway from a part of ourselves that is beyond and before all of the drama of life.

In these hard days this is where I rest: slowly witnessing, still loving, remembering that this too shall pass – but not wishing for it to pass. Instead, this is the present moment life that merits full embrace…


5 thoughts on “When Greeting the Limits of Strength

  1. Kelli K may

    Omg Deb axing lay written! I will pass this forward for its deep wisdom and strength of heart and compassion for Self. I love you my friend and cheer to surrender into this NOW present moment before us! Wish we were swimming in a shared one more often. Love~

  2. Sue Rosenfeld

    Gambina – 

    This was my favorite post of yours EVER in this series.   I actually took notes as I read it so as not to forget what I wanted to write back to you about.

    As it turns out – really only two points, even though the whole thing resonated w/ me.

    I appreciated your adding ‘in the USA’ to the part that ‘apparently this level of stress is normal for moms w/ 3 kids or more.’

    I wonder if, e.g. African moms get stressed.  I wonder, if they are stressed, if they even recognize feeling stress for what it is.   Someone w/ 3 kids here might almost be pitied for having ONLY 3 kids.   So you recognized the cultural aspect of your post and I liked that.

    I have often reflected on ‘stress’ and whether it is culturally bound.   I remember once when a wealthy younger relative, in high school at the time,  was going through a bad spot and in the AM, he told his mother, ‘I’m feeling stressed today; I might stop at the therapist’s on the way home from school.’

    I was glad that he recognized his feelings and had the means to do something about it but I also thought, ‘Can you imagine, e.g., a Fulani herder saying, ‘I’m feeling a little stressed today so on the way home from pasturing the cows, ‘I’m going to stop at the therapist’s?’

    I also really appreciated point 2 of how you are dealing w/ stress.  You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others (like being in an airline and the message comes on – ‘if you are traveling w/ small children, first put on your own oxygen mask before you help your children’).  Absoutely.  If you are totally depleted you’ll be no good to anyone.  So taking care of #1 is not ‘selfish.’   It’s logical.

    And I loved how you charted all the ‘mommy requests.’  Actually that was fascinating.   Maybe prior to having done that, you didn’t even realize how much you were doing.

    I really think you could publish what you wrote in some parenting magazine.

    Thanks for sharing that w/ us.  Now go change a diaper!

    Sue in Niamey   Sue Rosenfeld BP 10652 Niamey, Niger (office) (cell)

    1. Sue – thanks so much for your thoughts here. Yes – I often think about my time living in West Africa and wonder why parenting feels so difficult here sometimes. I find myself reflecting on what parenting seemed like (based on what I witnessed) living in a small village in Mali. The main difference I grapple with is the isolation. For me, I feel isolated as a mother a good deal of my time, EVEN with support. The nuclear family model feels isolating – particularly where I’m living now (having to drive most everywhere we go). I don’t know my neighbors. There aren’t many other families (visibly at least) nearby. Meeting up for the occasional play dates is supportive and wonderful but it isn’t like living in a coherent fabric of community that surrounds me at all times. It is like dipping in and out…Where in Bilasso community seemed to be flowing everywhere. I’m guessing there you are rarely mothering alone. There is always somewhere to commiserate with at the very least. So yes – the stress of having 3 or more children does feel very rooted in my cultural context. We are going to look at a home in a co-housing community this weekend. I know there are pockets of people in this country finding ways to live differently and more and more I want to move towards a different vision of how we live, parent and work. Everything feels so compartmentalized…even me going back to work Monday (part time). I go from wanting more help with my children to feeling TOO separated from them…I am not ready to hand over my 3 month old to another person. There are so many challenges that are indeed specific to being a working mother HERE. And, I count my blessings. Do I ever! I remember the days of witnessing my neighbors in Bilasso pulling water from the well at 5am before a full day of farming, cooking and raising 10 kids. What on earth do I have to complain about? Nada! And, each scenario has its gifts and challenges… Love you, Sue…Thanks for your perspective!!!

  3. Deb – I agree with Sue! This post totally resonated with me as well. I’m glad you are finding ways to reduce stress in the midst of the chaos, and we are so lucky that you share your insightful observations with us here!

  4. Brooke Gessay McNamara

    Deb, this is so moving. I always feel a shift in myself when I get a peek into your inner world. Thank you for sharing the fruits of your challenges; I continue to look up to you as a mother & woman. I hope we can find/create a way to live more interwoven in support. Love you, Brooke

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