motherhood,  Parenting,  PPD,  pregnancy,  self care

The motherly art of rest

Dear mothers of the world, lend me your ears: Motherhood, including-but-not-limited-to childbirth and recovery: we might be doing it wrong.

Actually, I’m almost positive we are. And my suspicions were confirmed a hundredfold a little less than a year ago after the birth of Luke, when I actually took my mom’s – and the rest of the developed/ing world’s – advice, and, wait for it, rested. Like I had just done something really hard.

I pretended that giving birth was a big deal, and then I acted like someone who’d just been through a big deal and took to my bed for a solid 10 days.

I mean, I got up and took showers and tried to load the dishwasher once or six times before talking myself down (and crawling back under the covers while silently chanting DO NOT CARE.)

Sounds revolutionary, no?

But it was. And remembering back to the long, hot summer where I was anxiously nesting and rearranging and logging 2 or 3 mile walks every afternoon trying to coax the little guy out, but was instead actually dooming myself to 3 weeks of nightly prodromal labor sessions to the tune of 3 or 4 hours, I cringe. Because my poor body was tired.

Imagine that. 4 babies in 5 years and I was tired.

And as it turned out, no amount of physical exertion was going to help me recover from being physically and emotionally and mentally overtaxed.

So not only did I not convince baby to come early, but I was actually so exhausted that once labor did start for good it was not a smooth ride. Contractions were disorganized and there were long stretches of inactivity that drove me and my nurses crazy because after you’ve been in the hospital for a day, all parties involved hope to have someone to show for it.

Finally, thanks to a mix of peanut ball positioning/Pitocin/prayers, Luke did come, and he was a happy little man with high Apgar scores and a winning newborn smile. But when I think back on last summer and how tired I was, how hard I pushed myself, and how exhausted my state of mind when I went into labor, I feel a little sorry for that poor mom.

Next time (presuming there may one day be a next time) I want to do things differently. I don’t want to fight my body. I don’t want to fling myself angrily at the last month of pregnancy like a raging mid-level manager with a sloppy staff and a year-end quota to meet. I don’t want to try to punish and cajole and trick and coax.

There is something to be said for resting, especially in a high-powered job like motherhood. There is a paradoxical and almost magical quality to the idea that you can advance your performance by dialing it down a notch. That taking a time out to regroup and to simply power down can actually make you more effective in your work.

I am still learning this lesson. I learn it anew every day when we reach 1pm, the little kids sleeping or resting and a pile of dishes lurking in the sink, toys scattered around the family room, food scraps under the table and melted popsicles littering the deck. The clutter competes for my attention, and I know that if I put my head down and get to work, I can bang it all out in 30 minutes or so.

But lately? I’m choosing more often not to. Even though I’m teetering on no-longer-technically-postpartum here at 11 months out, I’m easing myself back into a period of intentional rest. So I look at the filthy kitchen, I grit my teeth, and I surrender the mess, for the moment at least, heading to the couch with a rosary and my Kindle.

I need rest in order to be a good mom. I need rest in order to be a decent human being, period.

So much of the anger, the frustration, the short-temperedness and the exhaustion that have marked my greatest struggles in motherhood can be traced back to a basic lack of self care. And for me, sometimes I neglect self care to the tune of getting one more load of laundry done, or scrubbing the kitchen floor. Sad but true.

Sure, the baby does not sleep. The 4 year old wakes up at 3 am and stands 4 inches from my unconscious head, rasping for for ice water. There are last-minute deadlines to hit, there are documents the mortgage company needs, there are events I RSVP’d to that I forgot all about until my calendar dings a 30 minute alert.

But I can protect my rest.

And I must. Because nobody else – not my well-meaning husband who is gone all day, not my long-distance best friends, not my sisters – is going to protect it for me. They can’t. It’s my job. And it is critical that I perform it, because I am a wretched human being and a really disappointing mom when I don’t.

When I’m yelling at the kids about something that isn’t serious enough to merit a raised voice, when I’m weeping over something that normally wouldn’t raise my blood pressure, when I’m driving somewhere 5 minutes late, panic rising in my chest like a mounting thunder storm, 90% of the time it is because I am insufficiently rested.

And if the rest isn’t available in a solid, uninterrupted 8 hour chunk overnight, then I have to make it elsewhere.

I owe it to myself, to my family, and to the God who created me in His image, to work and to rest in proportion.

If God Himself needed an entire day off in the course of Creation, how can I expect to get by without quality down time?

Rest is built into our vocations, intrinsic to the work we are called to, and necessary to the daily rhythm of a successful and fruitful life.

How could I have gone so many years without realizing this?

Because we live in a culture that worships busyness. Because I’m “just” a stay at home mom with something to prove to herself and to the rest of the world, having internalized the message of “not enough” from a career-focused culture. Because I don’t use my rest well, and end up frittering away hours of time on the internet or folding laundry or Accomplishing Something Important, realizing in a belated panic that it’s closing in on midnight and the baby will be up in 6 hours and it’s going to be another coffee-fueled Tuesday.

That’s not good enough.

It’s not good enough for a mama who is easing back into life with her newest little one and trying to figure out life with 3 or 4 or 6 kids at home, and it’s not good enough for a mother with a brood of 4 little not-newborn kittens who have lots of energy and need lots of attention.

A wise woman once pointed out that coffee and wine will only get you so far. (And despite the hastily concocted and now permanently-stuck title of this blog, I do not wish to live in a manner that is only sustained by balancing caffeine and alcohol in an endless 12 hour cycle.)  Coffee and wine are great, but not as life-sustaining medicine. As celebratory indulgences. Italian style, not suburban-american-housewife-style.

Things are starting to ramble here, but the point I’m coming back around to is that there have been so many moments in my short journey down motherhood lane that have been excruciating in direct proportion to how little I’ve been resting. Yelling at my kids? I’m exhausted. Can’t lose weight? It’s because I’m using sugar and easy carbs to mimic energy to keep up with my life. Stressed as hell and no time for prayer? It’s because I watched 2 episodes of something on Netflix and went to bed at 11:40 because I deserved some “me time.” Which I will now pay for the in the form of longest afternoon of your entire life plus a side of flopping preschool banshee.

Rest is important. Take it from a recovered shingles sufferer with a perfectionist streak and a persistent need to Please and Impress All the People.

I’m still learning to rest. And to be okay with rest, and all it’s apparent lack of productivity. I have to remind myself that after all, some of the most important work God has done in me isn’t evident to the outside observer.

But I do hope the peace will become more evident as I learn to be a mom who rests, and who believes herself to be worthy of rest.

Aaaaaaaand I think I’ll just bookmark this to read back to myself about a week from now when we close on the house and commence a month-long period of squalor and chaos. (Future Jenny, it will not kill you to sleep in a yet-unpacked house. But it may come close if you burn all the midnight oil in order to get things to 110% by day 3.)

An unrelated photo of an IKEA run with 4 kids. Because sarcasm is an art form. (Alternately titled: “DIY double cart.”)


  • AnneMarie

    Jenny, I’m so glad you wrote this! I love what you say about how the only ones who can protect our rest are ourselves. I haven’t thought of that much, but it’s so true! I recently gave birth to my first child (about 2 months ago, if that’s considered recent haha) and something that I’ve started doing is afternoon tea/snacktime for me. I put my baby in bed if he’s asleep (which, miraculously, he is right now) or on the floor to play and I sit apart with my drink of choice and snack to relax. Yes, I currently have a dishwasher that needs to be unloaded and a packed sink. And yes, I have blog posts or articles I can be working on writing. But this time, right here, is my time to read books (or blogs), knit, and drink in the peace (and coffee or tea). I’ve found that it really rejuvenates me as a mom and helps me through the hours of fussy baby cries and neverending housework. It’s been a tough lesson for me to learn, since I’m very much a “doer,” but it has been one of the most important things that I’ve learned in these 2 months with a baby!

  • [email protected]

    Ohhhh Jenny…did you write this one just for me?! 😉 I have been saying and hoping that I am due “any second” for my fourth for the past three weeks, when really I’m due August 12. Thank you so much for the affirmation of what my poor husband and Heavenly Father and spiritual director and mother to boot have been telling me over and over….REST. I have been taking this advice (including a major blogging break) for a few months, but sometimes guiltily. Even when throwing the extra party or the grocery run with all the kids or just a ‘quiet day at home’ not going anywhere has me in tears and yelling by 11am. Thanks for the mother-to-mother peace of mind your post gave me. God bless you!;)

  • Laura

    This: “If God Himself needed an entire day off in the course of Creation, how can I expect to get by without quality down time?”
    Someday I hope we get to meet in person. Because – just, yes, to every word of this. You nailed the heart of this vocation: work and rest. Both can be prayer.

    • Another Laura

      I’ve been thing lately about how God commands us to rest on the Sabbath and yet, for a mom, you still have to work on Sunday–take care of the kids, prepare meals, etc. and wrangling little ones at Mass is anything but restful. … So we have to find ways to get our rest in elsewhere! Because that basic human need for rest doesn’t go away.

  • Colleen Duggan

    This reminds me of my realization a couple of years ago that if I don’t eat breakfast, by 11:30 am I will be a hangry lunatic. This is such an obvious conclusion, it embarrasses me to admit it, but it really was a lightning bolt moment. (Perhaps pride rearing it’s ugly head? Food? Nah, I don’t need it. I’ll just keep WORKING. That’s what’s important! is totally C-R-A-Z-Y thinking!!!!)

    Food is fuel and when I makes the decision to operate on empty for a long time, I will get cranky and rude and hungry.

    It’s the whole idea of putting on your own life vest on first before you can help the person next to you.
    In some areas of my life (but most especially with food and exercise), I’m really lousy at remembering my life preserver.

    I’m glad you remembered yours today. Good luck. 🙂

  • Bianca @ Alleluia Is Our Song

    Definitely needed this as I get ready to have my third baby in 4 years this month. I feel like with the added “nesting” feelings, I’m just so desperate to do everything until my body crashes on me and I’m forced to stop – which is not the best way to go! Thanks for posting this awesome reminder!

  • Ann-Marie

    So very, very, very true. I have been forcing myself to rest in the afternoons. I cross stitch and listen to an audio book. It’s wonderful time of just relaxing. And the dishes, dinner prep, clean up, floor mopping, or whatever else is staring me in the face while I rest can just chill out. Because it will get done at some point. And usually it gets done faster and with a better attitude when I have taken the time to rest. Amazing, isn’t it?

  • Teresa

    I read this as I woke from my first nap since having my 6 week old baby, my 5th baby, and feeling guilty as heck for throwing a movie on for the older ones. I FEEL YOU, JENNY!!! I become way more edgy and irritated “for no apparent reason”…duh, I’m freaking tired!! Your post was beyond perfect. Thank you!!!

  • Jo

    Thanks Jenny for writing this. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months now and really enjoy it, but I must say this piece has struck home. You speak for me entirely. As a full time working mother of four I struggle constantly with fatigue and exhaustion. Learning to listen to my body and say no is a new thing for me. As you rightly put it, not even my well meaning husband can rest for me. I am learning to make MY REST, MY wellbeing, a priority and leave things undone if I must for with a short evening nap, a lie in on the weekend, an early night in the middle of the week makes every difference. Makes me a happier, more pleasant and fun to be with wife and mother. Thanks for sharing.

  • Maureen

    Rest really is the best thing. Power naps actually work! I have to confess, however, that it took me years to shrug off the ‘work ethic’ thing that told me ‘if you are not doing something you are lazy’. It took years, and 2 bouts of serious depression, for me to realise at last that there is an art in resting, in relaxing, in doing….no thing. And my 5 poor children found that they liked this new, more laid back, mum. Sometimes I admit it was only an act (I was still stressing inside) but gradually it became easier as the rest kicked in, along with the homeopathic medicine – which worked better than any doctor’s prescription btw.

    Even now I don’t always get it right. And as I grow older I am finding that my rest needs are higher, yet my sleep quality is lower. So I am moving towards a more child like pattern; short naps in the day when I can. I am grateful that my husband insists on driving us everywhere (lol). I can sleep in the car!

    In our family there is a story told of my grandmother being visited by the district nurse (around 1920). With 2 small children and another on the way this wise woman told my frazzled grandmother
    ‘The house will always be here, but the children are only passing through. Enjoy them while you can.’
    And so she pulled back on the housework, and spent more time at the park:-)

    There is nothing wrong in telling the children – shhh. Mummy’s resting! That way they learn that others have needs to.
    And if all else fails – read “5 Minutes Peace” with them. I love Mrs Elephant:-) (

    • Jenny Uebbing

      “The house will always be there, but the children are only passing through.” <--- I need to tattoo this on my forearms and paint it on the wall over my kitchen sink. Thank you for sharing!!

  • Karianne

    Thank you so much for this post and lovely words. This was so spot on and really helped me today. As a mom of 4 and a busy business woman, I always put myself last. Remembering to rest so that we are ready to face the new day is so important. Yet so easy to forget. Thank you.

  • jeanette

    The comments from others here prove you are not alone in this area of life! For a mom, there never is enough time in the day, so we need healthy ways to energize ourselves and to create a balance between work and leisure. We need to put the needs of others before ourselves, but not to the point of excluding self-care. The best way to control your day and how you spend it is to schedule things. Not in a rigid way like one has to do in the business world, for instance. But in a way that makes sense for your particular life, and in a way that grows and changes with family life. With children heading off to the world of school, you will automatically be thrust into a particular schedule that will structure your day. That can be a catalyst: take advantage of the opportunity of this new event to re-shape how your day is spent. When one has young children at home, days can tend more towards open-endedness, but that changes with school schedules entering the scene, placing external time demands upon your day. Make that work to your favor.

  • Frank

    Husbands have a job to do here – helping their wives to rest.
    Husbands can/should lend a helping hand (and yes, husbands also need their rest).
    Husbands need to overlook the things that don’t get done around the house and to encourage their wives to forget about chores that aren’t matters of health and safety. Dirty dishes in the sink are NOT a health or safety issue. It is amazing he number of things if they never get done doesn’t make any difference in the overall scheme of things.
    Great-grandpa Frank

  • jeanette

    Yes, husbands need to share responsibility and realize that staying at home and keeping house and taking care of children is more than a full-time job, lest they come home from an 8-hour a day job and think otherwise about their wife’s work. But not all husbands are around all the time, such as those who have to travel for their jobs, are on-call, or otherwise away from home for extended periods. In those cases, their help is less reliable, and the wife has to pick up the slack. There are those women, though, who are such perfectionists that they don’t like the quality of their husband’s help and would prefer to do it themselves (and that, of course, is a mistake, too).

    Dishes. That’s my husband’s job, and if the sink is not empty (after all, I use the sink for cooking) and the counters uncluttered from dirty dishes (after all, I need a prep area for cooking), how can I go about cooking the next meal? Dirty dishes do matter, and the smaller the kitchen, the more they matter. Or, if your supplies are limited and something you need is dirty, you find yourself stopping to clean this or that before you can prepare or serve your next meal, and the larger the family, the more this is true. You also need to be aware of surface contamination from raw egg, poultry, etc. and not have those dirty dishes sitting around.

    There are those who let science experiments grow in their kitchen sinks and bacteria and germs can flourish on surfaces. So, dishes “mostly” matter. Maybe not right now this minute, but that depends upon the situation.

    Our solution is to take dishes directly from the table to the dishwasher so that no pile develops in the first place (and when the kids are old enough to load their own dishes, the work is shared by everyone without arguments about whose turn it is). Classically known as picking up after yourself, which applies to all areas of housekeeping so that one person (mom/wife) is not your personal maid (i.e. if you spill something, clean it up, if you drop something, pick it up). Rinse things used in food prep so that they can be taken straight from the sink to the dishwasher for a quicker cleanup. Suddenly, no pile of dishes in the sink. Problem solved (unless you don’t have a dishwasher…).

    I think one point Jenny was making, though, was not so much that there were too many chores, but that time can be squandered away in other things that really can cut into the energy and time you have to expend on your actual responsibilities, the most notable responsibility being taking care of your body’s needs. So, yes, husbands should help, but wives need to make good use of their time, too. There are a fixed number of hours in the day, and a fixed number of days in our life and the time we have with our kids. We have to make the most of it. Waste time only on loving people.

  • Shannon

    Wow, thank you so much for this! I’m grappling with the same thing right now. I’m trying to be more intentional about rest so that I can be “present (to God, to my family), not perfect.”

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