After my second child was born, I realized a harsh truth: I could not be everything to everyone.
It took me almost 30 years to understand this. I was working as a full-time physician with unpredictable hours. I was trying desperately to make it all work; juggling hospital burdens with the ever-demanding job of being a mother.
I grew up with a mom who was everyone’s mother. As one of the few stay-at-home moms in my childhood neighborhood, this meant my friends’ moms depended on her to give rides, show up at events, play lifeguard, and keep us safe. She was my role model of what a mother should be (and she still is today).
But somehow during child two, I realized I would never be her. I was a physician first, and after I became a mother, I really struggled with my attempt to emulate her. I was in a constant state of defeat; when my house was in order, and my kids were happy, my work life suffered. When I was putting in hours at the hospital and achieving at work, I felt this huge sense of guilt and inadequacy at home.
The more I was unable to do, the more I expected my husband to do. The work started piling up like that mountain of dirty laundry you never quite manage to finish before someone throws more on the top. My husband, who also works, started to feel completely overwhelmed doing tasks for which he had zero time. And you can imagine what that did for our relationship.
Don’t get me wrong. My husband is an amazing, hands-on father. He takes our kids to 90 percent of their sporting practices; he packs lunches, signs homework, and fixes ponytails. But he is never going to make cupcakes or shop for the kid’s Easter outfits. And quite frankly, why do I want him to be something he is not?
It all came to a head one day, a story too long to write about in this short blog. After feeling like a total and complete failure, I realized I needed help. So I did what every working mother does, I made two lists.
One list was all the things my mother did for me as a child that really shaped me. The things she did that made me who I am. I was determined to do those things for my children; they were non-negotiable.
Guess what was not on there? Laundry. Cupcakes. Groceries. And while I love my mother’s homemade spaghetti sauce, it wasn’t her cooking that made who I am. It was her constant and routine presence in my life, and more than anything, her words to me.
My mother’s words shaped who I am. I still hear them in my mind when it’s 3 a.m., and I’m struggling in the OR to save someone. I hear them when I fail at something, or I look in the mirror and don’t like what I see. I hear them when my own children are hurting or angry, and her words leave my mouth as I comfort them, build them up, or discipline them. Her words were everything to me. They are the fibers that built my resilience, my backbone, and my ability to be a mother myself.
The older I get, the more I realized how blessed I had a mother whose words built me, and did not destroy me.
So then I made a second list. A list of all the things I was doing or my husband was doing that weren’t on the first list — things like closet reorganization, grocery shopping, and making party baskets. We hired a few college girls and neighborhood teens to help us do tasks that we came to realize were stealing our precious time with our kids when we were home. Tasks that were necessary, but someone besides the two of us could do.
Why should our inability to keep up with the laundry make us feel like we are failing as parents? If you think about that, it is somewhat ridiculous. We asked for help and hired people not as babysitters, but as house helpers. I didn’t want to hire a sitter so I could clean my house or go through the kid’s drawers for a change in season. I hired someone to do those things so that when I was home, I could be the one reading to them, speaking words of truth to them.
I received a lot of criticism, and still do, for hiring “house helpers.” I understand my way of outsourcing and balance isn’t necessary for everyone, nor does it fit everyone. But if you are struggling as a parent to feel adequate, please don’t let your ability to organize your pantry affect your measurement as a mother or father. I would argue those are vastly different metrics.
One day at work, a female partner came up to me and whispered, “Hey can I talk to you? Someone said you hire some girls to come to your house and do laundry and grocery shop. Is this true? How does this work?” I nearly laughed out loud. You would have thought she was asking me if I had hired drug runners. I smiled as I talked about my outsourcing of house duties, vastly different than childcare. I gave her permission to do the same and encouraged her to let go of the guilt, and that she couldn’t expect to do it all without help.
My kids are never going to go to school with homemade cupcakes. But they are going to know how special they are and how loved they are. They are going to have me there for them, truly present, whenever I am home. It’s how I work out the fact I am a physician and a mom.
If you are a caregiver or parent in today’s ever-busy world, give yourself grace. Do not compare yourself to the next person’s ability to manage what you perceive is more or less than yourself. It takes a village. Truly.
Your words matter the most. Make them count. Forget the laundry.
Sasha K. Shillcutt is an anesthesiologist who blogs at Brave Enough.
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