One of the most difficult things about being a mother is that there isn't much downtime. Once you have children, there's no longer just a you. There's always a you-and-them. When you go to the bathroom, your daughter plays with the toilet paper roll. When you're on the phone, your son wants to tell you a new joke. When you visit the mall, your child sets off the elevator alarm. (Yes, this recently happened to me.) I don't think I'll ever get used to the absolute chaos that goes with the job, even though I wouldn't dream of having it any other way.
Truth is, almost every aspect of your world changes -- becomes more stressful, more complicated, more time-crunched -- once you go maternal. But the intensity of motherhood can also give you a new perspective on your routines, your friendships, your housework, and even your marriage. So take advantage of this opportunity to reinvigorate your life -- to redirect your priorities, take control of your happiness, and have more fun. It can be done. Here's how:
1. Eliminate space invaders
Once you have kids, it's hard to maintain personal boundaries. "As a mom, it's so important to have a space that you can call your own," says Susan Lewis, author of Reinventing Ourselves After Motherhood and a mother of four in suburban Philadelphia. Set aside a private spot in your house, no matter how small, for writing letters or e-mails, reading, making phone calls, whatever. Perhaps a corner in your bedroom? Part of the attic or the basement? Make time each week to retreat to your space. Let the kids (and your husband) know the Mommy Zone is off-limits. Period.
2. Post a note
When my daughter, Julia, became mobile at 10 months, I was stressed and exhausted with all the running, chasing, cleaning, and commanding. So my friend Kathy gave me a business card that reads, "I do enough, I have enough, I am enough." I put it on my fridge, and I chuckle whenever I read it. It's a silly little thing, but it actually makes me pause and think, Wait a minute -- who cares if I don't cook rosemary chicken? I'm going to order takeout.
Turns out, I'm using what some experts call a coping card, says Judith Beck, Ph.D., the mother of three and a clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She suggests that moms use these inspirational tips or quotes as tools to get through the day and keep a sense of humor. Hang them on the mirror in your bedroom, on your office bulletin board, or near the phone. Read them daily. The point: Loosen up.
3. Do good
A mom can feel like she's trapped in a bubble filled with kid-centered errands and concerns. So the year after my daughter was born, I decided to join an organization called Little Brothers: Friends of the Elderly. Every few weeks I visit an elderly woman for an hour or so. I bring her groceries or flowers, dust her furniture, or do whatever she needs. Our get-togethers have helped me put the minor annoyances of my life in perspective. Plus, I'm passing down a tradition I can be proud of to Julia.
4. Be a kid again
"The responsibilities of parenthood often strip peoples' lives of fun and lightness," says Jeanne Bassis, founder of PlayReflections, workshops for parents who find they are taking things too seriously. "But you can learn a lot from your children about living in the moment, letting go of everyday stresses, and forgetting about what other people think."
Take time each day to get down on the floor and really play with your kids, suggests Bassis. Declare it topsy-turvy day and do everything backward. Have dinner for lunch. Eat breakfast under the table. Wear your jacket inside out. You'll be surprised how such play lightens your mood and changes your approach to tedious grown-up stuff. Or book a Girls' Day that includes a manicure, a hike, whatever you fancy. Bring a friend.
5. Let love rule
Nearly two-thirds of wives experience a decline in marital satisfaction six years after having children, says a study by John Gottman, Ph.D., codirector of the Gottman Institute, in Seattle. With the stress of running a household, romance starts to come last on most couples' long to-do lists.
Gottman's prescription? Start making your relationship -- and romance -- a priority, to be scheduled in before tiresome tasks. My husband and I set aside one day a week for what we call our "late-night dinner." We put Julia to bed by 8:00. Then we break out the wine, candles, and an Ella Fitzgerald CD.
Don't answer the phone at night after the kids are asleep, during your few hours of sacred couple time. Write romantic e-mails to each other during the day. Go grocery shopping or run other errands together, even if it may not be efficient, or watch your daughter's soccer game as a couple. Tiny, ordinary moments like these are good opportunities to learn to find fun and build intimacy.
6. Enjoy your mommy curves
With leftover pounds from pregnancy and less time to exercise, the result is probably a new, let's say curvier, you. Which can add up to a new, let's say sexually self-conscious, you. But this doesn't have to be the case. The true secret to a healthy body image (and, therefore, a healthy sex life) is how well you adjust psychologically to your new shape, says Carol Munter, coauthor of When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies.
It sounds corny, but becoming a mom -- going through pregnancy, childbirth, and recovery -- made me feel physically stronger, more fearless, and, in turn, more adventurous and less inhibited in the bedroom. Appreciate your body rather than forever trying to change it. Go through your closet and give away all the prebaby clothes that don't fit or aren't flattering. Forget about losing those last five or ten pounds. Instead, hit the stores and buy a few new outfits that make you feel attractive and sexy.
7. Get household help
According to a recent Brown University study, in order for two-career couples to achieve marital and domestic happiness, neither partner should do more than 46 percent of the household chores. (The rest of the chores should be done by hired help.) Yet, of the couples surveyed, wives reported they did more than 70 percent of chores. Surprise, surprise.
Don't assume your husband will see the laundry piling up and automatically throw in a load (and don't resent him when he doesn't). Instead, ask. But use what Gottman calls the softened startup, an approach that happily married couples use regularly, according to his research. Try: "I know you have to cut the lawn today. And I have dinner to cook and homework to handle. Do you think you could run a white wash for me by tonight?" Be diplomatic and specific.
You can also get help. Pat McGovern, Ph.D., associate professor at the school of public health of the University of Minnesota, had a powwow with her husband to reassess who did what. "He now drops off my son at school and does all the grocery shopping. And we've found a cheap bulk laundry place so that we can have a picnic on Saturday mornings rather than fold clothes."
Recently, I hired a cleaning woman who comes once a month. That one $50 session every four weeks is just enough to keep me from feeling overwhelmed.
8. Don't be a neat freak
If you're still drowning in household duties, ask yourself why. Must the kitchen floor stay spotless? Do the counters and stove top have to gleam? "When my kids were little, I didn't have compulsive standards for how clean the house had to be," says Judith Beck. "I learned to become comfortable with clutter. It sure made life easier."
If you want more of your husband's involvement, think about what you want before you discuss what needs to be done around the house, says Gottman. After all, does it really matter if he doesn't sweep the floor after doing the dishes? The important thing is, he did the dishes, not you.
9. Downsize your social life
Women with a large social circle are actually less content with their lives than those with a smaller group of friends, according to a study from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Evidently, women often find that as they grow older and have increasingly complicated lives, some friendships can become more of a burden than a support.
Now that you're a parent and busier than ever, if you're not getting what you need from a friend, you might consider cooling or even ending the relationship. Kids are the perfect excuse. Decline invitations politely. (It's your turn in the babysitting co-op.) Cut calls short. (The baby's climbing on the stove!) You can just stop being there.
If you don't want to cut someone off completely, try limiting your relationship. Plan a yearly spring visit together with the kids (read: distraction) at the zoo. Invite a few friends to lunch -- you'll get in several social visits at once.
10. Run away
For a day, even longer. And leave Dad in charge. Susan Lewis, for instance, attended a weeklong workshop. "It was a great way for my husband to get a better idea of how much I actually do, while he had some time alone with the kids," she says. If several days away from home is out of the question for you, take a few hours on a regular basis (say, once a week) to do something you enjoy, such as riding the local bike trail or getting a pedicure with your mom.
"Women often don't feel entitled to take a break from everyday obligations, especially once they become mothers," says Beck. "But it's important to put yourself first sometimes, even for an hour or two." After all, doesn't your child deserve a mother who wants to get the most out of life?
Maureen Boland's last piece for Parenting was "How Pediatricians Treat Their Own Kids," in the November 2000 issue.