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You Deserve a Break

March 1, 2012

The day breaks warm and bright.  The kids stir early in their tent, excited to be sleeping outside and have the whole day to play.  I snuggle in my sleeping bag an extra couple of minutes, savouring the anticipation of how good the coffee and pancakes are going to taste.  My partner rolls over and asks, “You still okay with me going for a bike ride this morning?  Can you handle the kids by yourself?”  I am, and I can.  My reserves of patience and creativity are high, and I can handle whatever they throw at me for a couple of hours.  As he’s loading his bike on the van, he gives me a few sidelong, searching glances, as if to check in and make sure I’m really okay.  “It’s alright,” I say. “Go have fun.”

What have I done to make him feel so guilty for taking a couple of hours for himself?  Maybe he feels bad that I packed everything up yesterday while he was at work?  Maybe I have lied through my teeth in the past about being able to handle the circus while he takes a much-needed break, then let my stress seep through the cracks of my armour later.  This time I really do feel rested and able to make breakfast and play with the kids while he gets some playtime in with his friends.

Later that day, I strap my surfboard to the roof of the van.  Already wearing my wetsuit, I climb into the driver’s seat and try to stick to the speed limit as I head for my favourite break.  It’s been so long since I’ve been all by myself, truly alone, that I feel untethered and odd.  Pulling into the parking lot, I don’t even bother to watch a few sets roll in to decide if this is a good place to surf.  I have an hour, tops, away from my responsiblity to the kids, and I don’t want to waste time checking different spots.  The freezing water creeps into my wetsuit booties as I fight the shorebreak out into the water.  Once the water is waist-deep, I climb onto my board and begin paddling with deep, strong strokes to get out past the break.  A few waves crash over me, and I shake my head to clear the water from my eyes and ears. 

Finally on the outside, I sit up and look around at the amazing scenery and green-grey water.  Then the guilt creeps in.  Are the kids whining, fighting, misbehaving?  I picture my partner with a hot saucepan of macaroni and cheese in one hand, trying to fight off hungry kids jumping on him with the other hand.  I know the routine of making food while they hover underfoot, then serving it and watching them consume it all like ravenous animals before even getting a chance to have some myself while it’s warm.  By the time I do sit down to eat they’ve moved on to playing with their toys, and the dirty dishes confront me in the kitchen.  I decide to load the dishwasher while I eat my own lunch, and finish theirs too so as not to waste food.  I know this is unhealthy; bad habits bred from being overwhelmed by the tasks at hand. 

In the surf, I try to focus on the present, recharge my battery and reconnect with the person I was before I found myself ringmaster to three unruly beasts.  Away from it all I can see that I need to institute a little structure.  They need to wait for me to sit down before we all begin eating.  They can help me more with chores so I don’t feel like their keeper.  Without a break, some time to myself, I lose sight of the big picture.  Any plan for how I want my children to be raised gets lost in the immediacy of their needs.  The problem is asking for a break when I need it.  I feel guilty asking my partner to step in, knowing that he is already exhausted from work and probably also needs a little down-time.  I put my needs on the shelf and try to enjoy my job instead of resenting the work. 

Organizing games, doing crafts and baking with them helps me feel in charge.  At least I’ve decided how we’re going to spend the day, instead of just responding from the hip to their needs.  I am one step ahead of them, and can say that I did something at the end of the day besides bark at them to stop fighting or clean up their messes.  If I treat parenting as a teaching job, instead of feeling like a personal chef and maid, I feel more rewarded. 

Away from them, I need to let go of my idea of how the person I leave in charge should act.  If my partner, or mom, or a babysitter, runs the show differently than what works for me, I need to let that go.  If I understand that whoever is in charge may not give 110% like I do, I can feel less guilty about the work I’m leaving that person to do while I’m gone.  I may even learn a thing or two about healthy boundaries or letting the kids be a bit wild.  If I actually took a break more often I could get used to these ideas.

When I get back from surfing, the kids are in their tent surrounded by a jumble of books, crayons and Playmobil.  My partner has done the dishes and is reading a book in a lawn chair.  The scene of relative calm is different than the one I was playing out in my head.  I look at my amazing family and feel so grateful for them, for the work they represent and the reward from doing that work, but also from what I learn when I take a break.

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