“I think I need to go to the hospital.” Those words felt really melodramatic, but I had just texted them to my husband.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Help is on the way.” I couldn’t move; I just kept staring into space. It felt like my brain was broken. I was terrified.
A knock at the door broke my paralysis. I hugged the police officer on my steps and said “Come on in!” like nothing was wrong. He was followed in by another officer and two EMTs. We talked for a few minutes, bonding over shared homeschool experiences, before he finally asked: “Do you still feel like you need to go to the hospital?”
I looked at the floor in shame. The thought of getting immediate help sounded wonderful—an ambulance ride sounded like a lifeboat cutting through frozen waters. But I did not want to scare my children. I developed post-partum depression after my fourth child, and though prescribed exercise and a mild antidepressant had worked well for several months, a creeping dread had been quietly stealing back into my life. I had been slowly and soundlessly losing ground but refused to acknowledge it until I was in the grip of full-blown clinical depression.
The police officers and EMT workers standing in my living room were the wake-up call that I needed. I had already made an appointment with a local therapist, but I really needed more help. I was lost under a mountain of pain so heavy and so crippling that crossing the room felt like a monumental achievement.
Years of stress, long hours, little outside help, and a husband who frequently traveled meant I was almost constantly working. Instead of balancing my needs with the needs of my family, I ignored my own fatigue, depression, aches and pains, personal goals, and aspirations. I concentrated on what my children needed—which was considerable. I had moved well beyond simple burnout.
Having children with special needs, for me, had translated into a pattern of behaviors. Those behaviors became habits. And those habits became beliefs: I could not give myself rest, community, creative space, good boundaries, permission to relax, or grace. There was too much at stake.
I mistakenly thought if I only worked harder, things would get better faster. But children with special needs require more help and for a longer duration. It is easy to convince ourselves that their needs are always more urgent. While this might be true in the acute short term, prolonged denial of our own needs begets neglect—of ourselves and our children.
Our Needs as Mamas
Getting back in touch with our own needs as mothers is paramount. We want our children to have our best, not our “leftovers” after we are spent from days and weeks of overworking ourselves. We must have boundaries that allow us to preserve our own resources.
How do we balance our obligations with our personal needs? We do this not by neglecting husbands and children, but by becoming ruthless in protecting our time against the constant non-essential demands made on us. We must prioritize good nutrition, regular exercise, adequate sleep, good hygiene, and stable finances for our families without compromising belonging, creativity, play, spirituality, intimacy, laughter, and education for ourselves. We need to dwell on essential things and reject wholeheartedly those things that merely distract.
But how? Well, let’s go back to those officers and EMTs who responded to my own need. How do they, along with firefighters, pilots, and military personnel, operate in good order under extreme stress? In a word: preparation. A series of automatic protocols keeps high-adrenaline jobs from becoming dangerous to the men and women who do them. These procedures also keep those whom they serve safe.
Firefighters at a three-alarm fire don’t race into a building without a thought. They have a plan. They assess via a standard series of diagnostics what the situation warrants. They act with care.
Pilots who fly multiple times per day do not jump into the cockpit, start down the runway, and take off in a rush. They check and recheck a specific series of systems before they begin the flight.
Consider the most common tasks and situations you face and break them down into checklists. This reduces the stress load and automatically boosts the likelihood of a positive outcome. Instead of relying on emotion or varying energy levels, we can rely on checklists. Checklists play a huge part in reducing “decision fatigue.”
In addition, pilots are not allowed to fly without adequate rest. Flight professionals realize that lack of sleep can endanger not only the pilot, but the passengers on the plane.
This model is a good one for our own home environment, where the protections for ourselves are also protections for our children.
Decision Fatigue vs. White Space
A good way to understand the ailment of decision fatigue is to imagine your energy levels at the end of a big shopping trip in a gigantic warehouse store with no list. By the time you have searched the tens of thousands of options, weighed every decision about everything from the dozens of types of yogurt to multiple sizes of socks, you are invariably tired and may—or may not—have what you need in your cart.
Reducing the number of decisions you must make frees up vast amounts of time and energy. Turning off your smartphone, opting out of social media, and greatly decluttering your home or work environment can free up even more.
White space is exactly what it sounds like: blank time, reserved energy, and a savings account of creative bandwidth to engage in what you love. What were your passions before you had children? Art, music, community service, writing, ballet, choir, reading, trail hiking—all these serve the purpose of facilitating our well-being and fulfillment.
We are not merely physical creatures; we have souls. Souls need to be fed with the same care and attention as bodies. This prioritization is not selfish, but essential to our wholeness.
Prayer infuses our activity and being with vivifying Love. It is easy to lose focus and forget priorities. Prayer is the preventative and curative antidote. We must stay close to our one true Source in order to accomplish all that is healthful. Prayer and worship reorder our hearts and ensure that we are never far from the love of God.
We will not prevent all the headaches, heartaches, and challenges of life. Good “Mama Care” just makes everything more manageable. And it gives us the chance to breathe deeply again the air of grace.