"Can I quit?" I half-joked with my husband as he carried our toddler out of the bathroom. He laughed until I looked him straight in the eyes and repeated, "No, really. Can I quit?"
I was referring to my full-time job. As a stay-at-home, 24/7 mother of two.
And I meant it. I was desperate, smelly, exhausted, completely drained — just done. I wanted to throw in the towel. I didn’t want to lock myself into that bathroom for a power cry and a few deep breaths or sneak downstairs and shove a handful of chocolate chips in my mouth — my current healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms — and jump back in for more rounds.
And there are so many more rounds.
There’s wrestling into pajamas, cleaning up the toys, nursing to sleep, singing to sleep, answering all the philosophical musings of a five-year-old’s universe, and desperately willing them to go to sleep. Then there's waking up at two a.m. because I have fallen asleep in my clothes, untangling myself from tiny limbs to stumble into the bathroom just to pee and crawling back to bed, too tired to do anything else.
Then I get to wake up and do it again.
Some days, I wish it was a job I could quit. I wish it was a job with flexible hours, manageable hours, limited hours. I wish it was a job with vacation and sick days and a living wage. I wish it was a job with performance bonuses and employee-of-the-month recognitions.
I wish it was a “real” job.
But it’s not. It’s not a job. It’s my entire life, a large part of my identity, my entire heart, body, and soul. Because even if I worked outside of the home full-time, every step would echo with my love for them, every action would be fueled by my need to keep them safe.
I am a mother. No matter what else I become and no matter what else I do, this is forever written on my heart, my body, in my DNA. Even when I take a break, a mom’s night, even when I sleep, this is constant. The loving, the worrying, the working. It is filling. It is draining. It is too much and not enough in all the same and different ways at all the same and different times.
There’s a stage of motherhood referred to as “the trenches.” As I’ve clawed my way up through the baby stage and fumbled through the toddler years, I wonder if "the trenches" are a pendulum, a wave, a phase that we return to over and over again. There is no age limit, no set schedule, no neat and tidy timeline distributed by the pediatrician to help you mark your milestones. There are no trenches that are the same. My trenches are worn and shaped by motherhood — the depths of my children's needs multiplied by the sprawling expanse of my limitations.
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Some days when I want to quit, I hope to start over. Not with new children of course, but with a new version of me. One who is prepared. One who stops thinking she knows everything. One who stops trying so hard to be perfect. One who doesn’t see everything as a punishment sent to break her but as a journey. One who doesn’t fight the challenges but embraces the lessons.
One who doesn’t want to quit because it is hard.
I try to teach myself as I teach my children. The cup of water spilled on the floor can easily be cleaned up. The beloved stuffed animal with a ripped seam can easily be sewn back together. Mistakes are how we learn.
Before I had children, even when I was a child myself, I thought I would be the perfect mother — always loving and giving, warm and generous, joyful and fun. On days when I am her, I don’t want to quit. I want to sing and snuggle and read, and every time they demand “one more time,” I strain my muscles to spin them around and embrace the dizziness. I want to be her always and forever.
But then I get tired. Or I need to take a shower. Or I need to have an adult conversation because I just cannot answer any more questions.
I don’t want them to have any more needs because I just cannot meet any more needs.
But I don’t have to meet all of their needs. I don’t have to be the only one who can make them laugh or help them feel better when they cry. I don’t have to quit to have space. I don’t have to quit to care for myself.
I don’t have to quit because I'm rethinking what it means to be a "perfect" mother.
They say that women cannot remember the pain of childbirth because if they could, they wouldn’t give birth again. I wonder if this selective memory will one day be applied to the days in the trenches, if one day I will forget these days of constant struggle, learning, and lessons.
In motherhood, I am learning to be human. I am learning to be messy and to accept my shortcomings. I am learning to accept that sometimes the only way to learn is to make mistakes, and some mistakes need to be made more than once before the lessons truly settle into your bones. Maybe one day, I'll get out of the trenches.