I’ll Be Selfless in Just a Minute….

Portrait by Fiona. This is usually how I look by the end of the day.

I’ve started sneaking into the girls’ bedroom at night to watch them while they’re sleeping.

This isn’t something I’ve ever done before. As first time parents for whom a sleeping baby seemed like a magical accomplishment, then second and third time parents with increasing numbers of children — and always one baby — sharing a room, once the girls’ room goes quiet it’s never something we want to risk disturbing. But now we have three pretty sound sleepers, all over the age of one, and I feel fairly confident that if I tiptoe into their room after 9:30 PM, nobody will wake.

I watch them while they’re sleeping to remind myself how much I love them.

There is nothing more sweetly innocent than the sight of a child — or anybody, really — asleep. Their faces are peacefully blank slates, wiped clear of the tantrums, whining, anger, and sullenness that might have been written across them during the day. These are my girls: sprawled out in ridiculous poses (on top of the covers, turned completely upside down in bed, arms stretched out towards each other), and when I watch them sleep like this, emptied of the emotion and action of the day, I can re-center myself in my love for them. I can feel that night really is the time when we hit “Reset,” that tomorrow really is a chance to make a fresh start. It always amazes me that, no matter how difficult the day, no matter how contentious the bedtime, when everybody wakes up first thing in the morning, it’s like we’re each returning from a long journey and we’re all SO happy to see each other. Watching my girls sleep helps me pick at these threads of hope: that I love these girls, and that tomorrow we have a new chance to do things better than we did today.

I need those threads of hope, because I am struggling with what I currently consider to be the hardest part of parenting, the thing I was least prepared to handle: my annoyance at how intrusive kids can be.

I was expecting to be tired. I was expecting to have my heart busted open. I was expecting to be confused about discipline. I was even expecting to be angry – once in a while.

I never expected that I’d grind my teeth and feel like tearing out my hair whenever their needs intrude into my time.

To be clear: I did expect that motherhood would push me to make sacrifices, to be more selfless. And as hard as it is to make sacrifices and be more selfless, those are ultimately the challenges that I most appreciate about motherhood; I’ve written before about how miserable I was back when I had too much time for myself. Motherhood is helping shape me into a happier, more caring person. So I think my problem is this: I prefer to be selfless on a predictable schedule.

Whenever I’ve taken a personality assessment, like the Meyers-Briggs test, I’m branded an introvert. Introverts find their strength and sanity by being alone.  Certainly true in my case: if I don’t have some chunk of quiet time every day to read, write, or just wash the dishes in peace, I’m a frazzled mess.

And it’s endlessly frustrating how my 1-year-old, 2-year-old, and 4-year-old don’t seem to understand this.

I don’t think I ask for too much. I expect to be on duty when the girls are awake and active; I only hope for some predictable quiet, “selfish” time during the pre-scheduled blocks when they’re (supposed to be) asleep.

For instance: Naptime. Our two youngest girls still need at least a couple hours of sleep each afternoon. They go down without a fight, and every day I’m guaranteed a good chunk of quiet time while they sleep or talk happily to themselves in their beds. The challenge is our oldest: she’s always been our weakest sleeper, and at four years old she’s about ready to abandon naptime all together. But I force her to have “quiet rest time” while her sisters are sleeping, because she still has to nap at preschool and — I’ll be honest — I need the break.

Now I find myself dreading the days when she’s not in preschool, because almost without fail it means 90 minutes of continuous interruptions and frustration for me. She goes to bed with a stack of books, markers, and paper. We’ve tried books on CD. We’ve tried a “sleep ticket” that entitles her to call me ONE TIME and one time only, with penalties for repeated call-backs. I set the clock alarm so that she doesn’t have to call every 5 minutes to ask how much longer until 3:00. NOTHING WORKS.

Then there’s: Bedtime. This is slightly better than naptime, because at least we know that all three girls will eventually fall asleep. They love sharing a room together, so most of the noises we hear after closing the door are happy noises. Still, that last “Goodnight” is never the LAST “Goodnight.” There always seems to be something — on average, FOUR things — that require our immediate presence. Which means that the hour after we’ve put them to bed is completely unpredictable.

I’ve even tried this: Waking up 90 minutes earlier each morning in order to have some quiet time to write. I need to write daily, if possible, both because I love doing it and because it helps clear out my brain. I figured that if I had a guaranteed, predictable time to write every morning, I’d feel less frustrated by inconvenient, unpredictable interruptions throughout the rest of the day.

But I tell you, those girls are like heat-seeking missiles! It’s as if they can SENSE that I’m awake somewhere in the house, no matter how early it is or how quiet I am. And down they come. They’re supposed to stay in their room until the clock reads 7:00 — another attempt at creating a predictable schedule — and sometimes it’s possible to send them back upstairs until then. But if they’ve woken up the baby in the process, it’s all over.

And then there are those times when I’m not being selfish at all: I just need five uninterrupted minutes — FIVE MINUTES — to do something for the greater good of the family, like cook dinner or schedule a check-up or pay a bill. Even then –– always then — it’s urgent that I do or watch or wipe something. Right now!

By the end of the scenarios listed above — which means at least once a day — I feel like I’m reduced to some unrecognizable Mommie Dearest caricature: “What?!? WHAT?!? What do you need NOW?!? What’s so important?!? WHAT?!? And sometimes even, ridiculously: “Mommy needs this time to rest and get things done!”

Not that it’s wrong for Mommy to need time to rest and get things done, but it’s probably a waste of breath to try and make a four-year-old understand that.

I sometimes imagine that if you sliced me open, my insides would look like an onion: layers and layers of the next thing I have to work on. Peel away one thing (patience, say, or perfectionism), and there’s another flaw just waiting to be tackled. I’ve decided that this annoyance with my children’s inconvenient demands is the next thing I need to deal with.

So I tell myself that it’s not wrong to want quiet, to need “selfish” time, but that perhaps I should stop expecting these times to be predictable and convenient — for now. I tell myself that it’s okay to work on laying down boundaries, to help my daughters understand that their parents also need rest, but that maybe I could lose some of my annoyance with the process. I tell myself that this is a finite season, that soon enough I’ll have three daughters in school all day long, and soon after that I’ll have an empty house. And, as blissful as those things seem right now, I’m told that one actually misses the inconvenient, unpredictable interruptions.

And I sneak into their room at night to watch them sleeping. In order to remind myself how much I love them, in order to grasp at the thread of hope that we (I) can do better tomorrow. And because when I do this, it means I’m choosing to spend some of my precious “selfish” time not reading, not writing, not even washing dishes, but just being near my girls when they don’t even need me. I figure that’s a start.

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