Once upon a time, there lived a mother who feared she could not love her children unconditionally. This troubled her, as she assumed, like most people do, that as a woman, selfless love should come naturally. But for her, it didn’t, and for that she felt ashamed.
It frightened her that when she yelled at her children for getting out of bed or when she dragged her daughter by the arm to her timeout spot, her body felt devoid of love. It was as if that rage consumed her. She noticed how it scorched her throat and left her heart pounding.
It wasn’t long before she began suffering from guilt. The hot waves of humiliation and regret would take turns swirling around her gut. Her spine drooped and hunched forward slightly, as if to hide the dirty secret lodged in her solar plexus: that though she loved her children, she reacted to them from a place of anger. The weight of that secret, combined with the daily duress of family life, threatened to push her to the edge of sanity.
Until one day, when something inside her shifted. That evening began in an ordinary manner. The children were jumping on their beds, carrying on as if she hadn’t told them three times to dress down and brush their teeth. She prodded and bribed, desperate to secure their obedience before that anger, that terrifying rage, came forth.
They continued to ignore her plea for cooperation, and then it came. It burst forth with the power of a million cries packed into one shrill scream. She felt the air rushing out of her. She shouted until all her energy was diminished.
Her children, sulking, finally pulled on their pajama pants and brushed their tiny little teeth. But it was too late for their mother. She closed the door behind her, knowing the damage was already done. She lamented the fear and sadness in their teary eyes, which seemed to say, “Don’t you love me?” Her eyes too became damp until the tears washed over her face.
She sobbed because she loved them dearly but felt compelled to act in a manner that contradicted her intentions.
And then it hit her. This was a pattern. By the end of every day, just around the children’s bedtime, she felt this resounding emptiness. It was physical, taking hold of her limbs as they fell slack at her sides after hauling a great sack of laundry. She noticed it too in how often she sighed and scoffed from exhaustion when the kids refused to follow directions.
She likened this perpetual state of exhalation to a slow air leak in a balloon. The moment that final puff of air escaped, she felt drained of every feeling that resembled love.
After wiping away her last tear, she knelt before her bedside table and rummaged through its drawers until she found a leather-bound journal. She rubbed her fingers along the spine. It ached to be opened. Her fingers tingled as she turned the pages to a fresh, unmarked page.
She scribbled furiously, running the pen from left to right, until thoughts began to take shape.
She free wrote for what seemed like hours, until a single little truth emerged: she felt overburdened. Everything she did throughout the day caused her to bleed energy, and she was doing very little—or nothing at all—to retain it.
“No one ever bothers to stop and ask me what I need,” she wrote. She shook her head and continued writing, until it read, “That is irrelevant. I should be asking myself what I need and I should then provide it. No wonder I'm so impatient with the children. My body and mind are completely depleted.”
She leaned back and took in a deep, slow breath. As she exhaled, her usually taut shoulders felt at ease. Her journal revealed something she wouldn’t have otherwise understood: that if she didn’t stop and care for herself more often, her quality of life would diminish and her relationships would suffer.
Before she fell asleep that night, she made a list of all the activities in her day, just to see which she could do without. Well, she thought, I have to get myself and the children ready in the morning, I can’t escape preparing three meals a day, runny noses must be wiped, the house needs to be reasonably clean, I must pay the bills….
It became clear that nothing could be subtracted and that routines could only be rearranged. So she cooked enough food in one day to last the entire week and allowed the laundry to pile up until she had no pants left to wear.
Though these changes improved her life a tiny bit, she still felt overwhelmed. She couldn’t help but think that she was missing the point.
The very next evening would prove her suspicions to be true. Her patience quickly wore thin after her children splashed half the bath water onto the floor. She screamed and spanked the little one into submission, as nothing else could cease the mayhem. She snatched them out of the bathroom and into their rooms.
By that point, everyone was screaming. One from the sting on her behind, the other for not getting to finish her bath, and their mother because she had run out of loving-kindness.
This time, she was too humiliated and ashamed to crack her journal. All she could do was put her flaccid, airless-balloon-like body to bed. She closed her eyes and closed herself off to the world around her.
Morning came slowly, as it was Saturday and the kids were already downstairs with their father. She listened with a smile to their spoons clinking against porcelain bowls and imagined milk dribbling down her eldest’s pajamas. She wished that this sentimental side were more visible to her loved ones. That reminded her of the previous night.
She flipped onto her side and curled herself into a ball. I loath myself, she thought. How can any self-respecting mother spew venom at her children? I am vile.
Her body ached and her mind weighed like a sack of rocks. Until a precious little thought wormed its way through. But I am human!
She was astonished by how simple this sentiment was and how clearly it appeared to her. It was as if someone whispered it into her ear. Had she never realized this before? Had she been trying to live up to some standard of motherhood that painted women as divine creatures with a preternatural desire to sacrifice themselves on the altar of family?
Yes. She had bought it, wholesale, over and over again. But the price was steep. In order to become the mother she thought she should be, she’d had to relinquish loving care for herself. She left no space in her life for teaching, reading, meditating, bike riding, singing, dancing, and writing. She left herself out of her family’s equation and all the while wondered why her self-esteem and self-love were withering away.
Sacrificing what was solely hers turned her into a mother she didn't want to be. With that came another moment of truth. It’s not what I need to take away from my day to lessen the burden; it’s what I need to add to my day in order to replenish myself.
Though her schedule was tight, she understood that she must take the time to participate in activities that she alone enjoyed and exceled at. She pledged to plug herself in. I matter and I am worth being filled beyond capacity with loving-kindness, she thought, and if I don’t do it for myself, no one else will.
The next day shone brightly as she stretched from under the warmth of her covers. She smiled and said, "I can love myself. I deserve it." It was a positive affirmation, one of many she would soon adopt. As she rolled the final syllables off her tongue, she took in a deep breath and promised to breathe more often and more deeply. She believed her sanity depended on it.
She slid out of bed but stopped abruptly. Silence. The children were still asleep. It was a Sunday morning, so why get up? Breakfast can wait. She tucked herself back in and dusted off the novel sitting atop her bedside table.
After reading that first delicious sentence by the light of the sun now beating on her pillow, she felt whole. Though she knew reading in bed was only a drop in the bucket, she had to start somewhere. And it was the most delightful place to start. The more she would fulfill her need for self-love, the more loving-kindness would spill over into everyone around her.
And so, with a novel in hand and a pillow tucked behind the small of her back, she rekindled self-love, and she lived happily for the next few moments.