The “Always On” Commitment of Motherhood

I was running in my neighborhood one day when I heard a siren in the distance. It got louder and continued for a few minutes, shattering the quiet of the morning. My heart raced a little faster as a dozen what-ifs suddenly barreled through my brain. I was only a few blocks from my daughter’s school. Was the emergency there?

For a moment, I stood frozen in the road, wondering if I needed to do something. Run to the school perhaps? The logical part of my brain effectively nixed this idea, so I checked my cell phone instead. It is my lifeline, a way to connect with my kids — the pieces of my heart that now float untethered in the world for longer and longer stretches of time.

Before long, the siren’s wails got quieter and faded away. I checked my phone again; no one had called me. I finally exhaled, but I couldn’t relax.

Admittedly, I tend to live on the anxious side of the personality curve. But it’s not surprising that becoming a parent bolsters our sense of vigilance. Wrapped up in the core of motherhood is a perpetual commitment to be “always on,” ready to protect and nurture our kids starting from the moment they are a tiny blip on a screen, for as long as we exist in this world. It is an awesome responsibility and a sacred commitment, the reason we often feel important and powerful yet terrified and full of doubt in the same breath.

I’ve noticed a particular amount of angst that arises with this role, a feeling we begin to carry with us once we learn we are mothers. I remember my first prenatal yoga class, how the instructor gently placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “You’re holding onto a lot of stuff here.” Growing up, I wondered why my own mother seemed stressed at times. “I’m not tense,” she’d say through gritted teeth, an almost comical denial.

Now I understand. The luxury of worrying only about myself is long gone. Driving my kids around, I sometimes become aware that my hands are clenching the steering wheel tightly; the knowledge that I have precious cargo in my backseat is always at the forefront of my mind. I’m late, always late, trying to get everyone where they need to go while staying one step ahead of sibling conflicts. Most mornings I feel like a referee in some bizarre game, calling out instructions, administering penalties. Where are your shoes? Go brush your teeth; the bus will be here in ten minutes. Stop taunting your sister, or you’ll lose another toy! And for Pete’s sake quit climbing the counter!

Only after becoming a mother did I truly understand what it meant to be tired. Not simply physically exhausted, but mentally drained. A mom’s brain is always spinning. Turning, turning, turning, like a hamster on a wheel that never stops. Sleep is never quite as restful as it was before children. My kids could snooze through a fire alarm or a Guns N’ Roses concert in our hallway, but motherhood has blessed me with an apparently bionic ear. A soft whimper, a tiny creak of a bedroom door, and I sit up in bed, eyes searching the dark to see who needs me.

Like so many high-pressure roles, motherhood has a natural cadence that’s not exactly conducive to relaxation. To be a mom is to travel steadily through an endless series of peaks and valleys, as we face challenges and then almost immediately prepare for the next ones. We survive pregnancy and the seemingly infinite stretch of sleepless nights with a newborn, only to move on to our children’s first day of kindergarten, their first painful breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the heart attack-inducing experience of watching them learn to drive. And sprinkled throughout our days are the random events that prompt us to worry about our children’s immediate safety and well-being: a cough that lingers just a bit too long, a phone call from school or a disaster somewhere near or far. There is always somethingThere will always be something.

My kids are well past the baby and toddler stages now, and I’ve realized that I won’t ever be the type of mom who exudes serenity and calm. I think I’m finally okay with that. Someday, my kids will likely remember that I was tense sometimes. But I hope they’ll also remember how very much they were loved.

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