Earlier this week, I sprained my neck, and had to take a couple of days away from my normal responsibilities — and my thirty-day writing challenge — to give my upper body a chance to heal.
I won’t bore you with the particulars, but as far as the urgent care team could assess, I pulled and stretched some ligaments with the repetitive stress movements of picking up my baby, putting him down, carrying him around, and lunging to grab him when he attempted to launch himself off his changing table. It’s not an uncommon injury for a parent of a young child, but neither is it very serious. On Wednesday, the pain was debilitating and I could barely move my head. Today, after meds and applied heat and lots of rest, I’m sore but functional.
I’m still feeling pretty stupid for accidentally hurting myself that way in the first place. (The catalyst came when I pulled my head up while washing my hair in the shower and heard a nasty crunch. Ouch.) And I was feeling pretty miserable over having to bring my plans for the second half of the week to a screeching halt. I could barely crane my neck forward, so writing was out of the question. The muscle relaxers I was prescribed made me incredibly sleepy, and I had no energy to stay on top of housework and childcare. I felt like a floppy failure.
My husband took a sick day from work in order to drive me to urgent care and to take over baby duty since I couldn’t lift our son off the ground without help. “Don’t worry about it. This is what sick days are for,” he told me several times, but I still felt sad and angry at myself for being the reason that he had to use one of his precious days off to do my job for me (on normal days, he works full-time and I stay home and take care of the baby full-time). By Thursday, I was feeling a bit better, but my mother came over to help with a few tasks I still couldn’t do. Two other people had had to rearrange their schedules to help me with mine, and my pride was battling resentment rather than choosing gratitude.
Not to put too fine a point on it — I need to get over that nonsense.
Rest is not the enemy of productivity.
When I wrote a brief tweet on Wednesday that I was taking a day off writing because typing would be too painful, someone commented to suggest that I use voice-to-text. I don’t really know the person who said this, and it’s hard to tell whether he was joking or not. But the comment riled me a bit. I was in a lot of pain and had pecked out a few short sentences on my phone with difficulty. I was not feeling creative or productive, nor in a good frame of mind to explain more fully that I was not seeking “helpful suggestions” about powering through the problem and refusing to rest.
I’m already a pretty decent hand at powering through, refusing to rest — and I’m trying to curb that.
The buzzwords “cooperation” and “teamwork” are used so ubiquitously in the traditional workplace that they’ve become annoying. But the principles are important. When my husband took a sick day so he could take care of me and the baby, someone else took over his work for the day. (I will reserve comment on how well or how poorly this tends to be implemented; suffice it to say, at least the structure is there, at most jobs, for substitute work.) It is harder, though, to put substitution and helping-out into practice with a job that is more independent and nebulous. “Moms don’t get breaks,” is a mantra I’ve heard one too many times. Even after only a few months of parenthood, I’d already internalized that idea.
But moms do need breaks. Dads need breaks. Caregivers of any kind need breaks.
And sometimes, if you’re a Type A like me, you need someone to reassure you that it’s okay to rest.
Before my son was born, many well-meaning people advised me to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” On the surface, this makes some sense. But this phrase was often followed by something like, “let the dishes go, let the laundry go; they’ll be there tomorrow; just take a nap.” Okay. That’s nice. But when I let the dishes go and let the laundry go, it doesn’t take long for us to have no clean bottles available and no new crib sheets after a blowout diaper. In my mind, it is hard to even contemplate rest without worrying about what comes after the rest. Even just lying down for a short nap feels like postponing the inevitable, not letting go in order to recharge. Work piles up while I nap; therefore, I cannot nap.
Unless someone else is willing to step in and do the work for me… if I am willing to let them.
I’ve often pondered the Igbo proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” over the last year of pandemic isolation. For the most part, I haven’t had the privilege of any kind of “village” help in parenting. It was just me and my husband, struggling through and figuring out the process of keeping a tiny human alive, with no shift relief or extra helping hands. Now that our families are getting vaccinated — and maybe, just maybe, the end of this pandemic is peeping over the horizon — I am finding myself uncertain how to handle a newer normal.
Whether I realized it at the time or not, COVID-19 pushed me into a weird frenzy of getting as much work done as possible. Crossing things off my to-do list gave me a sense of control, a tangible check mark that told me I could handle at least this much while the outside world seemed to tilt and spin and break down at an alarming rate. I had moments of doubt and seasons of crashing and burning (especially during the newborn days) but for the most part, I clung to the idea that I was a person who could get it done.
But a neck injury can happen in an instant. The best-laid plans of mice and moms can get derailed with just one bump in the track. It just took a few strained ligaments to put me out of commission and crumble my smug, self-reliant foundation.
Maybe, just maybe, I need to learn to relinquish some control. Maybe I need to take the gift of helping hands from those I love and just be willing to rest when the opportunity is offered.
Maybe you do, too.
There is always going to be someone out there — whether passively or directly — who is making you feel like you should be doing more. At times this will be the kick in the pants that you need. At others, it will be salt in a wound. Then, too, there will be times when you want desperately to rest but have no one to take your burden and let you rest.
I can’t offer a one-size-fits-all answer to the problem of fatigue and injury. I can only say that my eyes are starting to open to the reality that I can’t possibly do it all, all the time. When I ask myself, “what happens to the chores that pile up if I let my body recuperate?” the answer shouldn’t be, “I guess I just won’t recuperate, then.” Instead, I’m trying to get better at saying, “I need to figure out who I can ask for help… and then be humble enough to accept the help.”
It won’t happen overnight.
Letting go of control is a process. Learning humility is a process. Getting to the point where I can actually take a nap and not make my pain worse by jumping up every thirty seconds is… you guessed it… a process. But all these things are necessary. No woman is an island.
And practicing gratitude for the kindness around me, from people who love me, is a process too.