Do you want to go to Australia with me?” My husband asked casually while I stood at the stove cooking the taco meat for dinner the other night. Such a ridiculous question didn’t warrant an actual verbal response, so I just looked at him out of the corner of my eye and gave a sarcastic smirk. He smiled, and said, “I am being serious. If you and I both start working on it now, we could find someone to take care of the kids for a few days and you could come with me to Australia in June.” He really was serious. And you know what, I wanted to go.
It isn’t going to surprise anyone to find out that spending a week away from our kids is something that we have NEVER done – heck we haven’t even made it 48 hours away from our kids in the last seven years. SEVEN YEARS.
Normally when I get asked by friends or relatives about traveling for an extended period of time, I always say my dream is to ‘be away from my kids long enough to miss them.” And it is true. The kind of stress I am under every single day as a special needs parent is not the kind that dissolves with a 20 minute shower. Not even close. And I spent years using that excuse to justify not spending any time taking care of myself.
But that changed about a year ago.
The light bulb went on when I stepped on the scale last spring – and well – let’s just say that instead of displaying a number, it actually said, “One at a time, please.” That was the first sign that I had stopped making time for myself.
The other signs were equally as disturbing; I was eating horribly (what my kids left behind, or fast food drive thru), wasn’t getting any exercise (chasing Matt should make me thin, but no such luck), hadn’t been to the doctor in years, never mind the dentist, and was down to having my hair cut 2 times a year at best, no matter how awful it looked. I would NEVER accept those things for my kids, so why was it OK for me?
I realized then that respite time had more to do with how I was treating myself – that taking the 20 minute shower was symbolic of self value and, more importantly, a stepping stone on the way to Australia. (OK, so I didn’t actually know the whole Australia thing then, but I knew it was a stepping stone towards something.)
I made a commitment to treat myself better. To treat myself, my health, my body, my mind, all of my needs, as if they were as important as my son’s needs.
The irony is that because we have special kids, we somehow have convinced ourselves that taking care of our own personal needs is a luxury. It’s not a luxury. A Mercedes Benz is a luxury. A Rolex is a luxury. 1000 thread count sheets is a luxury. Taking a shower, spending time with our spouse, or even going out with our friends is not my definition of a ‘luxury’.
The well kept secret here is that we can choose to take care of ourselves AND our kids.
I started my new self-care campaign by committing to getting myself a shower, if not every day, hopefully every other day. Do you think that was easy? NOT EVEN CLOSE.
My choices were to either, a) awake before my kids like my husband does by getting up and into the shower before 6am or b) find a way to distract my youngest son Matthew while the older boys were at school, and jump in then.
Now, I am not a morning person and I don’t drink coffee because I can’t stand hot beverages, so that ruled out option ‘a’ pretty quickly (I may just be the only SAHM on the planet that doesn’t sip a latte every morning, but thus far, Starbucks hasn’t seen a dime of my money).
This left me choosing option ‘b’, which requires a great deal more creativity and even a tinge of daring on my part. Matthew, as much as I love that small child, is a mess waiting to happen. Which means, no matter how well laid my plans are, no matter what awesome ‘new’ show I have recorded, no matter how many bribes he has in front of him, he will be NO WHERE near the spot I left him when I get done with my shower.
But, I am willing to take that risk.
And when I get out of the shower, wrap a towel around my head, and run through the house in my underwear surveying the damage he did in mere minutes, I remind myself that it was worth it. Because I am worth it.
But showering was only part of the plan.
After I had showering under my belt, I began to feel better about myself – dare I say even less stressed, and that feeling was addictive.
Soon I turned my new self-care addiction into going out for dinner with my girlfriends, attending more support group meetings, the occasional trip to the gym, going to the doctor, getting my hair cut, replacing 10-year old clothes with new ones, and going on dates with my husband. I even painted my own nails at night when the boys were asleep.
It was a change of attitude really: A change of perception about me, and about my life. It wasn’t (and isn’t) about just being away from my children, or doing frivolous things, but rather about allowing myself to see me as more than just a SAHM or a Special Needs Parent. Those are only part of who I am.
Taking time to out to take care of my needs allowed me to remember that I am a whole person, not just one label or another.
I spend a great deal of time talking about my family on my blog and in my real life, because I love them and they are truly the focus of my life every day.
But they aren’t the sum of who I am. I am much more. I love to laugh, can bake amazing desserts (cheesecake and lemon pound cake are my favorites), still listen to rap music, enjoy photography and have been infatuated with the ocean since I was 9 years old and decided to become a Marine Biologist, despite getting decompression sickness while SCUBA diving and going through hyperbaric treatment in Hawaii when I was 14. I bet you didn’t know those things about me, right? Truthfully, I’d begun to forget about them myself.
The bottom line here is this: It is OK that I want to go to Australia.
Two years ago, there is no way I would’ve been able to admit that and honor that I needed time for myself and that it would be OK to leave the kids for a week (Although I have yet to master the logistics involved in leaving them for an extended period of time). I know now, that taking time for myself and for my marriage will make me a better person, wife and mother.
And I have proof of it in my daily life – in the way I am able to be with my kids, and honor their challenges. In the way I am able to see my husband and support his dreams. And in the 20lbs I’ve lost without so much as being on a ‘diet’ this last year. Turns out taking care of your own needs is a good idea – and it is never too late to start.
Now, I know all of you are not going to read this and run off to Australia – but my hope is that you do run off to the shower, because as you now know, all showers lead to Australia.
-- Hartley Steiner, Australia bound mom, special needs advocate, blogger and author of This is Gabriel Making Sense of School.