Harper had quietly snuck down the stairs earlier than usual, and surprised me with her little voice at the office door. “Hi mommy.”
Startled, I turned around from my chair. “Hi love. Good morning! You’re up early, did you sleep well?”
“I think so,” she said as she rubbed her eyes. With her blanket and stuffy still in her hands, she came and sat on my lap, looking at all that was on the desk in front of us: my Bible, an open computer screen, an assortment of colored pens and stray pieces of paper with all manner of verses and quotes and ideas I’m still trying to organize. Taking it all in, she asked the simplest question. “Mommy, what are you doing?”
“You have to take care of yourself first,” the speech therapist kindly, but firmly, told me. “There are support groups, and they can help you find qualified babysitters if you don’t have someone who can watch your kids while you get out.” She handed me the pamphlet for one of the local gatherings of special needs parents. "You'll be a better mom to all of your kids when you practice some good self care."
“Thank you,” I smiled back. As I glanced down at the information, all still too new and too raw for me to read without tears in my eyes, the theme was clear: We will not have it in us to raise a child with special needs alone. And the resolution to that was being offered right back to me: you have to take care of yourself first.
And you know what, more than a year later, I agree.
When I look back at the first five years of my own motherhood, it’s marked with both incredible memories, and a sufficient amount of fear. I remember holding my 8-day old baby girl when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened, and with so much of the nation, sat on the rocking chair sobbing uncontrollably at even the thought that something like that could happen to a classroom of kindergartners. Cannon was just over a year old when the Syrian refugee crisis finally grabbed our attention, with the image of a little boy’s body washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. I was weeks away from giving birth to Jordi when the terrorists chose Paris as their target, and there have been countless others since then. I spent many nights awake and anxious and wondering what kind of a world I was raising children in. And all of this was before autism, which brought an entirely new set of anxieties and inconveniences.
Being a mom has surprised me in so many ways - the highs of irreplaceable joy and lows of sleep-deprived fighting with whoever catches me off guard first. But it is not a stretch for me to say that the most surprising thing it it has shown me is how ugly my heart can be. When fear and frustration and exhaustion and the completely unexplainable descend on my home, the person that has showed up is not the one I am most proud to be. I’m irritable, impatient, arguing with my husband, and oh yes I did yell at my daughter for spilling three cups of water that she was bringing to me on a tray. To serve me. It still hurts to remember that convicting moment.
So when it came to self-care, it was becoming painfully obvious that a little time away and a pedicure, while wonderful, were going to fall short.
The sirens were going off around me: the fear, the what-ifs, the “how do I talk to my children about this” and the diagnoses – and it was only then that I started looking for safety.
What motherhood has taught me more than anything else can be summed up in one simple lesson, the same thing that pamphlet the therapist gave me said: I cannot do this alone. The problem with the solutions, with the ‘take care of yourself first’ mentality, is that it encourages escapes, not healing. As wonderful as escapes are (I don’t even need to tell you how much I love a good spa day), they make the surface look pretty, they don’t sustain you from day to day. There isn’t a wrinkle cream, injection, nail polish, aromatherapy, essential oil, or massage strong enough to do what my heart constantly needs: to be examined, and then healed.
God’s Word, however, has an exceptional way of doing both.
Time and life and motherhood and the reality that life is an unpredictable dance of truly beautiful and remarkably hard has taught me that self-care is less about what I do and more about who and what I am consistently with. When God’s Word is churning in my heart before the tasks of the day and three little people ask me to consistently adjust what I had in mind, everything changes. I’m humbled by this work, not inconvenienced by it. I’m heartbroken by the reality of sin and evil in a broken world, not paralyzed by it. I’m patient with autism, not bitter about it. I’m rejoicing about the work God saw fit to give us, not comparing it to the work he gave others. And I remember that no matter what changes around us, we have “the promise of the unchangeable character of His purpose,” which is to make His name and glory known in all things and to all people. The way I live in this world, with every victory and every challenge, is either going to do that, or it's not.
And more than anything, I want it to.
So yes, I had better take care of myself first.
When Harper asked me that simple question, “Mommy, what are you doing?” I thought about the many ways I could answer her: I’m studying the Bible, I’m writing, I’m praying, I'm asking God to show me who He is through this book He left us, or simply that I am just spending time with Jesus. All of those are good answers, and all things I think she would understand. But in that moment, I told her exactly what I was thinking.
“Mommy is just taking care of herself this morning, sweetie.”