Earlier this summer, I was walking in downtown Chicago, on my way to meeting an old friend for dinner. As I approached the CSO, I saw a mom with two children walking toward me. The baby, snugly tied to her mother’s back in a sky blue Moby wrap, held one of the mother’s riotous brown curls tightly clenched in her little fist. The mother’s right hand held the hand of a preschool-aged girl with wispy blonde hair, and her left hand held a violin case.
Earlier this summer, I was walking in downtown Chicago, on my way to meeting an old friend for dinner. As I approached the CSO, I saw a mom with two children walking toward me. The baby, snugly tied to her mother’s back in a sky blue Moby wrap, held one of the mother’s riotous brown curls tightly clenched in her little fist. The mother’s right hand held the hand of a preschool-aged girl with wispy blonde hair, and her left hand held a violin case. I smiled at her in pleasure, imagining that her name was Susanna, and that she was coming from violin practice, hurrying home to get dinner ready for the hungry children she had just picked up at the babysitter’s. I imagined that this little family would go home to a flat in the South Loop, where they would put a pot of water on the stove and, while they waited for their noodle water to boil, Susanna would play some Bartok while the kids rocked out, using wooden spoons and old pans as impromptu drum sets.
Then I looked at the violin case again, and realized that it was much too small for an adult-size violin – clearly, it was the preschooler, and not the mom, who was the family’s virtuoso. I felt a small pang of regret at the thought – and spent the remainder of my walk trying to work out the reason behind it.
I think that it is lovely when children play instruments at an early age. I think that music is a tremendously important (and often overlooked) part of education; aside from the fact that learning to play an instrument and follow a rhythm helps kids flex the cognitive muscles that they will need to smoke the quantitative portion of the SAT, music is fun. And it’s beautiful. And I think that it is completely impossible to overstate the importance of teaching our kids to do things that are fun, and beautiful, for no other reason than that they are fun and beautiful.
The reason why I felt such a twinge of sadness and regret when I realized that the violin did not belong to the mom was because in my work with mothers, I see very, very few women who do things for no other reason than that they are fun and beautiful. Most of the mothers that I work with, and many of the mothers that I know, feel compelled to find ulterior motives for the things they do – motives that benefit people outside of themselves. I know very few mothers who have an honest-to-goodness hobby, and even those who do take a photography class, or go to yoga, or arrange flowers, often seem to feel the need to excuse themselves for taking this time by saying that “it lets me be a better mom.” Of course I agree that everybody in the house benefits if Mama is happy and healthy, and that it is important for us to model good self-care skills to our children.
I feel terribly regretful when I hear a mother say that she exercises, or takes a 10-minute coffee break, or goes to the library and checks out a book only for herself, “because then I am a better mom for the rest of the day” – because if we think that it is only okay to nurture ourselves if someone else derives a benefit from it, then this means that we do not think that we matter. It means that we do not think that we are important. It means that we do not think that we are valuable enough to be cared for, by ourselves or anyone else. And that thought fills me with regret.
I understand that remembering yourself, or even noticing yourself, is hard. I know what it is like when you give birth, and your whole world collapses into this tiny little singularity that is your beautiful, treasured, beloved child, and everything else suddenly feels like superfluous fluff. I know how it feels when you give birth, and your child catapults into position as the most precious person in your life, a position that he or she will never budge from (but will have to share with later siblings). I know what a struggle it is just to stay on top of all of the millions of little chores – the doctor’s appointments, the permission slips, the meals, the clipping of toenails, the brushing of hair, the bathtimes, the finding of lost socks – that come along with having responsibility for a small person’s life.
In all of the chaos, in all of the whirl and the wonder and the madness and the privilege of being the most important part of someone else’s childhood, it is so important to find the time to be with yourself. For no other reason than that you matter.
How do you find yourself again? That depends on who you are, of course – and chances are, you are no longer the same person you were before you had a kid. So you may have to play around with it, and try several different things so that you can figure out what nurtures you. Maybe it is taking a violin class (if it is, please make sure to take a stroll past my house with your kids and your violin case). Maybe it is sitting on the couch for a half hour every day reading your book. Maybe it is sending your husband a scandalous text message. Maybe it is volunteering for an hour a week at an animal shelter. Maybe it is going to church, or meditating. Maybe it is subscribing to an obnoxiously expensive but interesting newspaper so that you know what is going on in the world, and how you are connected to everything and everyone in it. Whatever it is, I wonder if you can experiment with telling yourself (and others) firmly, and proudly, that you are doing this activity because it is fun, and because it is beautiful. I imagine that it will feel odd, even uncomfortable, at first. But I wonder if that discomfort will fade over time – and if it does, what feeling will replace it? Maybe you will share your experience in the comments section of this blog.
About Dr. Mirjam Quinn
Dr. Mirjam Quinn loves her husband, her kids, reading, drawing, yoga, concerts, her job, and heated arguments, and she would be ecstatic if someone would invent a laundry folding machine already. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Purdue University in 2007, and has been practicing independently as a licensed clinical psychologist since 2008. She has a private psychology practice in Oak Lawn, where she sees children, adolescents, and adults who are coping with anxiety, depression, AD/HD, and life transitions (such as becoming a parent). In addition, she runs a community clinic located in Blue Island, where individuals who are uninsured and underinsured can receive therapy for $2 per session.
For more information about Dr. Quinn or her practice, visit Southwest Psychological Care.