My husband rode next to me in the passenger seat of our minivan, sipping his Saturday morning coffee, when he noticed the young woman running on the sidewalk.
“Whoa,” his tone was equal parts shock and awe. “She’s running with two kids in the stroller AND a dog? Sheesh.”
I slowed to the stop sign and watched the ponytailed mom pushing her two tots in the red double jogger. A flaxen retriever pranced at her heels, matching her stride. For so many of my Gen X peers, this duty-juggling jogger mom epitomizes my generation’s do-all parenting philosophy: We can run! We can get fresh air for the kids! We can take the dog to do its business! All before 9 a.m. on a Saturday! BOOM!
Yes, we Gen Xers may, in fact, be doing it all. But at a cost to our self-care.
To be clear, self-care is not the all-day trip to the spa or the weekend away in an exotic locale that so many confuse as an indulgent, but well-deserved, type of self-care. Nor is it going for a run with the dog and the children in the stroller.
Rather, self-care is what Mrs. Large teachers us about (and struggles to accomplish) in the children’s book Five Minutes’ Peace, by Jill Murphy. The gist of the story: Mrs. Large, a pink-curler-wearing, bath robed elephant, wants her five minutes’ peace from her three young children. So she prepares a treat and tea for herself in the kitchen, then heads up to her warm bath, only to be interrupted by each of her children who don’t understand why she wants to be left alone. Just before the book ends, Mrs. Large and her kids are squished in the tub, at which point, a clearly frustrated Mrs. Large leaves the bath, returns to the kitchen, and quietly enjoys (most of) her five minutes’ peace.
Not familiar with this book? I recently asked several of my Gen X parent peers, many of whom are more in-the-know of children’s books than I ever was when my three daughters were small, and none of them had, either. Part of the reason for our unfamiliarity with the book is timing – it was written in 1986, well after our own days as tots. But I also I wonder if Gen X didn’t embrace Five Minutes’ Peace because it doesn’t jibe with our multi-tasking, sacrificing, we-want-and-will-get-the-best-for-our-children style of parenting. After all, the book doesn’t end with Mrs. Large capitulating, having a change of heart and happily splashing in the bath with her kids. It ends with her getting what she wanted: a few minutes of peace.
What’s more, given that the Gen X frame of reference for children’s books are what our parents read to us – like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree – and what we read to our children – think Robert Munsch’s bestseller, Love You Forever – it’s not surprising Five Minutes’ Peace went overlooked. I wish I’d known about the book when our girls were small, but it wasn’t until last month, when my Baby Boomer boss was packing her home in preparation for a move, that she found the book and shared it with me.
“This book is all about ‘put on your own oxygen mask before securing your child’s,’” she said, leaving it on my desk. “What good are we as parents if we don’t take care of ourselves?”
If only Gen X parents understood self-care not as extravagant pampering that requires large chunks of time away from children, but as tending to our physical, mental and spiritual needs in small ways – like a quiet bath with tea, a solo walk or run, coffee with a friend, or prayers before bed – then our children might learn it, too. Instead, so many of us have convinced ourselves that our children are so special and so deserving of our attention, that we will tend to their needs before tending to our own.
My own experience tells me I’m pretty worthless as a parent when I don’t take care of myself. So I take a few minutes to write. I snap some photos. I sit on my porch. I share a meal with a dear friend. And when I do, I’m better for it. And so are my kids. It’s hard to do. Which also means it’s easy to postpone.
Of course, it’s never too late for any of us – Gen X, Millennial, Baby Boomers or even the Silent Generation – to take time for self-care.
Last Saturday as I returned from buying the weekend morning coffee, I spied the woman running again in the exact same spot. Only this time, she’d ditched the kids. She still had the retriever by her side, but her load was lighter for sure. I smiled.
Maybe next weekend, I’ll see her running in peace.
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