One of the first full length novels I read as a child was Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. In 1968, a movie based on the book was aired in the U.S. Many remember it because NFL coverage of a game was ended early that night to air the movie. (Britannica.com) I remember it for a different reason. In the story, Heidi has been sent to work as a companion to Clara, a young girl confined to a wheelchair. On several nights, the household is disrupted when an apparition appears in the middle of the night. One night, they discover that the “ghost” is actually a sleepwalking Heidi—desperately homesick and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted because she is trying to meet the expectations of the adults in her life. In a poignant scene, Clara’s grandmother, whom Heidi has become close to, tells Heidi, “You have to take care of you.” Grandmother makes sure Heidi is sent home to her grandfather in the Swiss Alps where she begins to thrive again.
When I was a much younger mom, there was a women’s seminar at our church on personality types. The speaker started out by giving us a blank page and assigning us to draw something to illustrate how we each saw ourselves. I drew a raised hand. It was one time in my life that I openly admitted to being an overachiever, a trait I got honestly from my mom. When kept in balance, it can be a good thing to volunteer, to be useful, to help others, to do things that matter, to have purpose. It’s a good feeling to really meet someone’s needs, not for recognition, but simply to do something that genuinely helps someone in a real way.
But, if I’m honest, the admission was also a cry for help. When you continually pour into the lives of the people in your life, you can find yourself exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally. You can crash and burn—burn out. “You have to take care of yourself.” But, I didn’t heed the warnings. I continued down the path.
One of my favorite poems is by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.”
It can be a glorious light—but at what cost? “You have to take care of you.”
A few years ago, I qualified for the Boston Marathon. Boston is amazing. It’s one of those ultimate experiences for a distance runner. Marathon training, however, lasts for months. Everything you eat, how you sleep, your schedule, all of it focuses on the goal of getting to the starting line in top form. It can be all-consuming. I have always done my best to make sure my running never interfered with my marriage or my family life, so it has included late night/early morning runs and late night/early morning chores, always trying to do right by my people.
But this time there was a problem, Boston is always run the third Monday in April. This time, Youngest was set to graduate from college that same week. I wanted to focus on her that week and in the weeks leading up to it. She was the most important thing. So I didn’t enter.
Then, something I’d never have imagined happened in March. My mom was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. She was so ill we didn’t think she’d make it until Youngest’s April graduation.
Suddenly, my entire focus was on doing everything I could do to help her survive to attend her two grandaughters’ graduations, Youngest in April, my niece in December. I dropped every commitment I had except a few most important ones. Mom made it to youngest’s, but she missed my niece’s by one week. We came together as a family during those weeks, and I was so glad I had stepped back from all my commitments.
In the weeks after Mom’s passing, I began to feel the old pressure to do what was “expected” of me, meet “everyone’s” approval. That old false guilt started to creep in. I wanted to raise my hand and take on all the things. And then one day in a quiet moment, I saw that scene from Heidi. “You have to take care of you.”
Finally, I realized something that I think God had been trying to teach me for a long time. In order to be the best you can be to others, you have to be still, step back, just stop sometimes. “You have to take care of you.” Not in a selfish, self-indulgent kind of way, but in a restful, enriching, re-charging kind of way.
“You can only do a few things well.” But, you need to choose wisely. And those things you choose will be different in different seasons of your life.
If you choose the things that encourage you to best meet the needs of the people in your life, that enrich the relationships God has blessed you with, and then go all out at those few things, you will better fulfill your purpose, live a full life, best love those you care about. It was an “aha!” moment for me, realizing that self-care is not really all about self, it’s about being my best self for the life I’ve been given to live, and in giving, finding fulfillment and purpose.
So, Mom, if you’re like me, it will take some effort and it may take a lot of trial and error, but it is possible to, over time, learn to set realistic expectations for yourself. It is possible to learn to “take care of you” while taking care of your people. Seasons of being exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally are part of the job requirement of motherhood, but by looking at life with the long-term perspective of aiming at caring for yourself too, it is possible to have joy even in the hardest uphill seasons.
Remember, “You have to take care of you,” and Mom, you are a pretty special person. Don’t lose sight of that.
Happy Mom’s Day!