If I had a dollar for every time I heard the oxygen mask analogy for parenting or any other major responsibility, I would be rich. In an emergency on an airplane, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you attempt to help anyone else with theirs. And in everyday life, you need to take care of yourself before you can be your best self with your kids. Yeah, yeah. I know. But just like “sleep when the baby sleeps,” it’s much easier said than done.
Self-care is not my area of strength. I am 40 years old and I haven’t yet figured out how to slow down. I work a more-than-full-time job. I am a part-time MBA student. I have two young daughters: a 3 ½ year old and a 20 month old. My younger daughter has a very serious neurological issue and special needs. Life is big and full for my husband and me. We get very little time together, and I have even less time for myself. I’m an introvert and an only child, so I really crave being alone, and it almost never happens. As a result, I’m always one strand away from the end of my rope and it shows.
I have always been a wanna-be exerciser. I am probably the most active person I know, but active in the sense of running around like crazy with sixty million things to do doesn’t mean fit. It means stressed and over-committed. Before kids, exercise was just another thing I had to make time for. I’d turn over a new leaf a couple times a year, getting inspired by someone else’s weight loss success story or a cute pair of running shoes. I’d sign up for the deals at gyms, buy expensive workout clothes, talk a really good game and then agonize. Back and forth in my head, like the world’s greatest tennis match. Okay, let’s get going. But I only have an hour. Should I go to the gym? It’s so far and it’s cold. I should go now. Nah, I’ll go later. I don’t wanna go now. I could do so many other things in that amount of time. But I really should go now because I won’t want to later. And so on, ad infinitum. It never mattered that I had a gym in my building at work, or that I had a running buddy or a pile of workout videos in the living room. More than once I forced myself through a weekly running class, lagging behind everyone else because that was the only time I ran all week. I signed up with personal trainers, paying them everything I had, only to find that they couldn’t magically make me love exercise. Ultimately, I spent more time stressing about finding the time and motivation to work out than I ever did actually working out and that made me really crazy.
Then Johnny and I started talking about having kids. I was 36 and that, according to my gynecologist, was advanced maternal age. The idea that my body might not do this thing it was intended to do because I’d waited until my head was ready was shocking to me. Advanced maternal age? I’d felt (and acted) like a kid for a lot longer than most people. Now it was time to catch up, and hearing that was the one thing that motivated me enough to get off my ass. I cut the whining. It was time to get myself in decent shape to conceive.
So I joined a gym near work (for the 100th time). This time I actually went. I met with the head trainer and told him my plan. He looked at my fertility charts and evaluated my weight, my measurements and my strength. Based on his tests, we designed a plan to kick me into shape. All I had to do was show up on my lunch hour. I had a trainer waiting for me there four times a week and he worked me hard. We wrote down everything I did – a circuit of weights, core exercises, abs work, and cardio – and we were able to see how week after week I gained strength and could do more. I started this in April of 2009 and thought I’d have the summer to build up some strength and maybe lose some weight in the process, but four weeks in, we had to modify my routines. I was pregnant.
(5 days preg #1, May 2009)
(15 weeks preg #1)
(35 weeks preg #1)
(37 weeks preg #1)
But I was also hooked. For the first time, I loved moving my body and it made me feel on top of the world. So I worked out until I couldn’t anymore. At 16 weeks I stopped doing exercises on my back. At 32 weeks I stopped running and bending and at 37 weeks I stopped everything else. I had gained a lot of weight – more than I should have – but I was as strong as an ox and feeling great. My daughter Bee was born in February 2010 at 39 weeks and 5 days and she was big and beautiful and healthy.
And then my brief affair with the gym came to an abrupt end. I was a mother now, and I was too busy. I had more important things to do, like figure out how to parent. When I didn’t have a baby in my arms, I was working. When I wasn’t working, I was cleaning the house, organizing, cooking, whatever. Checking Facebook seemed crucial. Exercise and sleep did not. I had no time for such things, but I was a zombie. Sheer will power got me up at night to nurse two, three, four times, but during the day I was bleary eyed and edgy. Everyone told me to rest whenever I could, but the moment Bee closed her eyes, I remembered sixteen million things that I absolutely had to do. I was deliriously tired but I could not bring myself to just lie down for a half hour. It felt selfish and indulgent, like I wasn’t working hard enough at something every second of the day.
When Bee was nine months old, I went on Weight Watchers to lose the last fifteen pounds. My husband and I knew we wanted another baby soon, and I remembered that phrase “advanced maternal age.” I was even older now. This time around, I didn’t even think about the gym, but counting my points, I did lose weight. And wouldn’t you know it: four weeks in, I had to stop the program. I was pregnant again.
(3 months post partum #1, June 2010)
(5 months post partum, Aug 2010)
(4 weeks preg #2, Jan 2011)
During my second pregnancy I did not get to the gym once. I didn’t run. I barely walked. It was summer in New York City, I was hot, I was cranky, I was constantly nauseated. I was chasing a toddler everywhere. Out of nowhere, I lost someone I loved very much. I worked a lot, I traveled a lot. And the weight piled on. Eight-and-a-half months and sixty pounds in, I was close to 200 pounds and I felt terrible. My back and neck hurt all the time. I couldn’t sleep. I had dizzy spells. And I was enormous.
(20 weeks preg #2, May 2011)
(30 weeks preg #2, July 2011)
(36 weeks preg #2, Sept 2011)
(5 min post partum #2, Sept 2011)
(5 weeks post partum w #2, October 2011)
(Summer & Fall 2012)
I never did reach my goal weight, but I kept running. Truthfully, that “goal weight” was just an arbitrary number that sounded skinny when I picked it. I didn’t think about my lifestyle, my age, my body type. I’m about fifteen pounds heavier than that magical number right now, but I’m smaller than I was before I started to have kids, and I’ve been about the same weight for more than a year now.
(Fall 2012 to today)
Most importantly, I am learning to love my body for the many wonderful things she has done and continues to do for me. How can I hate the size of my calves when I, in my “advanced maternal age,” birthed two babies back to back, nursed them both, deprived myself of sleep for the better part of four years, and managed to do everything else that I do day in and day out? I realized I should spend more time saying thank you instead.
And I do. I thank her by continuing to run. I don’t run far and I don’t run fast but I do run three or four times a week. I do it all wrong: I run on the streets of New York City, I cross against the light, I wear headphones, I usually forget sunscreen and reflective gear. I don’t care about my speed and I don’t do intervals or cross-train. I just run. I lace up and I walk out the door and I go in whatever direction the muses take me. This is how I keep it together when life gets to be more than I think I can handle. It’s the only time I have alone, and I have come to need it. It’s forty-five minutes or so just for me first thing in the morning. I blast my music. I listen to podcasts. I feel the breeze on my cheeks. I work up a sweat. For that brief moment, I am not a mother, I am not a wife, not a friend, not a boss or an employee. I am the wind, the air, the pavement beneath my feet. I am the music in my ears, the thoughts flitting in and out of my mind. My breath is in time with my footfalls. In, out, right, left. I am calm, I am serene. My problems don’t seem so problematic when I run. And when I come back, I am a better parent, a better wife, a better friend, a better boss and employee. I breathe easier. My anxiety is at bay for one more day. And I tell myself that even if I sit on the couch for the rest of the day doing nothing, I have been outside, I have moved my body, I have cleared my head. I have given myself a gift.
Sure, there are mornings I don’t feel motivated. But if it’s been a couple days or I know I won’t have the chance to go tomorrow, I run anyway. Someone told me that when you’re feeling indecisive about running, all you have to do is put on your running gear. Once you do that, he said, nine times out of ten you will go because you’re ready. And he was right. But really, the thing that hangs me up the most isn’t feeling lazy. It’s not my busy work schedule. It isn’t the weather either – I will run in cold, hot, rain, wind, whatever. What makes me hesitate is that I am awakened every morning by my beautiful daughters, eager to spend every possible second with me. Knowing that I have to put in a full day between my job, school, errands and commute time, and that sometimes I will not get home until after they’re in bed, wanting to run instead of making oatmeal, folding laundry, reading one more book, or coloring Hello Kitty activity books makes me feel selfish for trying to find even more time away. My husband is a stay-at-home parent. Every moment I am not there to help makes his work day longer, which feels unfair to us both. But then I remember that on stressful mornings, my husband will gather the girls in his arms with a book or a toy and shoo me out the door. “Go!” he’ll say. “You need to run.” That is my cue that my anxiety is tangible, a silent but powerful fifth member of the family. So I go. And when I’m back, smiling and ready for another day, I know that this time is a gift for them too.