Health & Family

Universe to Mom after 31 years of parenting: I hereby give you permission to rest

I confided to my acupuncturist the other day that I had been resting.

A lot.

"Sometimes," I whispered, looking over my shoulder to make sure nobody else was listening, "I can lie on the couch and watch 'The Waltons' for hours."

He turned from his notebook to look at me, a middle-aged woman who had just come off a 31-year stint with kids in the house. He knew I had worked my way through college and put my husband through graduate school before forgoing quality sleep to tend my three kids' leg aches, nightmares and millennial wanderings, that I had spent years setting the alarm to assist Santa, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy; that I had monitored homework, illnesses, hurt feelings and piano scales during my "off" time; that, for years, when I wasn't doing anything else, I was dutifully signed on to neighborhood parties, aerobics classes, church committees and trying to be the best wife, friend, daughter and sister my husband, friends, mother and three sisters ever had.

"I imagine this is the first time in years you've been able to rest like this," he said. "Whether you're watching Netflix or staring out the window, your body is screaming for balance, and for once, you're able to listen. You'll eventually find a new equilibrium. For now, rest is good."

I come from a culture of do-ers. We Americans all do. If the Puritan work ethic set us on the rutted road, the deal was sealed by Fitbits on our wrists, 24-7 jobs on our calendars, LED lights telling us to stay up all night and the bogeyman breathing down our necks lest we go to bed with stuff on our to-do list. Add to this the mantra, "A woman's work is never done," and the concept of rest becomes especially unacceptable to the perfectionist-leaning American mother, if not downright shameful.

It would be years before I would begin to rethink this.

In particular, it was an article I read seven years ago in The New York Times called "The Busy Trap," which sounded all too familiar, that jarred me.

"If you live in America in the 21st century, you've probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are," wrote author Tim Kreidler. "It's become the default response when you ask anyone how they're doing: 'Busy!' 'So busy.' 'Crazy busy.' It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: 'That's a good problem to have,' or 'Better than the opposite.' "

And yet, argued Kreider: "Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets."

There came another ping moment around the same time, this one from a health consultant named Meg who took one look at my face and my life and said, "You need rest."

"What does that even mean?" I asked her.

I knew about sleep, how quality sleep has emerged more important than exercise and food on the health continuum. Rest is different, Meg told me. Rest is a conscious gift we give ourselves. Rest is daydreaming. Rest is thumbing through a magazine. Rest is sitting in front of a window watching the birds. Rest is extra. Rest is luxury.

The very word sounded, well, restful. I liked it enough after that conversation to write it in calligraphy on a Post-It note, which I stuck inside my wallet where it stared back at me for years, every time I got out my debit card to pay for soccer, piano or take-out Thai.

It wasn't until the last of the children left a month ago that something came into deeper view: the yellow couch in the living room, former home to lots of children and their friends, to ice-cream droppings and cat lollygagging. It was empty.

With nobody in the house looking, I seized the couch. First one day, then the next and the next. First sitting, then slouching and eventually lying.

Eventually I felt not so much like a sloth, but a mother bear convalescing after a long summer of chasing bees.

To be clear, I am not growing tendrils on my couch-potato self. I take long, strident walks every day. I make and edit photos for my business. I write. I keep up with my children and my friends. I cook food and go on outings.

But when my friends ask what I'm doing any given week, I've taken to saying: "Rest. I'm doing a lot of other stuff. But the priority on my list is rest."

The words felt funny at first. I giggled when they came out of my mouth.

But as the awkwardness moves past my vocal cords, sometimes alongside the chocolate and coconut ice cream I have also spent years depriving myself of, I feel myself gathering in a few new mantras.

"Almost everything will work again, if you unplug it for a few minutes," says author and single mother Anne Lamott, "including you."

That and the anonymous: "Some days you eat salads and go to the gym. Some days you eat cupcakes and refuse to put on pants. It's called balance."

"Trust your body," a healer friend once told me. "She has the secrets."

(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at dlbhook@yahoo.com, or join her column's Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.)

  Comments