The exhausting vigilance of parenthood.
** These are missives from my past. Many of these posts were written about 2 years ago, when the realities and circumstances of my life were quite different. I am now a single parent to a toddler. The past is an uncomfortable and rich terrain. By occasionally delving in, without lingering too long, the past provides the needed perspective to step rightly into the future. **
Have you ever watched a Border Collie at work? They’re the dogs that herd sheep, expertly moving them across a field. But, I’m not talking about the work they do when they herd. I mean the work they do when they watch the flock. Their entire body and all of their life force is invested in just...watching. What appears to be a peaceful, sleepy scene of sheep grazing is anything but to the dog standing guard. They stand ready to respond to any threat or danger.
The entire first year of my daughter’s life, I watched. With all of my attention and energy, I watched. Even when I slept, I was still “on watch,” ready to wake and respond. The vigilance was constant. What appeared from the outside to be a peaceful, domestic scene in reality felt like a I was always standing guard. I had to make sure the baby stayed alive.
My nervous system was always on the brink of rapid response to perceived danger. And the dangers at hand to my infant daughter seemed infinite. The material of any surface she lay on. Soft, cushiony things. The position of their head. The position of buckles. Everything that is small that could go in her mouth. Rope-like things. Blankets. Wires. Outlets. Hot things. And me. I needed to stay awake when holding her. Even when it was 3am and I hadn’t slept for 18 hours. And I needed to pay attention. To everything. Who around me had a cold. Who looked like they would just walk up and touch my newborn. Where the small tablet of Advil had fallen on the floor near the rug where I lay my daughter down while I got ready in the mornings. In a very true fashion, I was a dog on guard.
Border Collies are incredibly anxious dogs. I’ve always heard it described that they are a dog that needs a job and stimulation or else they get bored which leads to the anxious behavior. However, I sometimes which came first: the anxiety or the ability to work well? Anxiety can produce a focused business and ability to stand watch despite exhaustion. In many ways, I think parents are bred anxious.
We are wired to ensure the survival of our babies. It is how nature constructed us. However, what nature didn’t anticipate was the tomes of information that would become available about all the best ways to ensure survival. I am someone who appreciates information. In some ways, having the information provided me with something to do with all of my nervous parent energy. However, sometimes the information interacted with my instinct to ensure my daughter’s survival in a way that only produced very large amounts of anxiety. No amount of doing could provide enough of an outlet for all the anxiety. I was overwhelmed with the amount of information, panicked under the weight of the responsibility, and my nervous system tired from the never-ending vigilance.
All the watching. All the responsiveness. All the readiness in the case of danger. My nervous system exhausted from carrying it all. Small things taxed me in ways they didn’t before. Loud and grating sounds felt like they echoed directly down my spine. Bright light aggravated my eyes and made me tense. Any substantial input to my nervous system could easily lead to overwhelm. I was completely frazzled and frayed from all the vigilance.
As I’ve grown into parenting, I’m pleased to say I’m not always so intensely overwhelmed. The level of frazzled feelings has decreased over time. But, overwhelm seems to be part of the parenting reality of my life. I can develop skills to lessen its intensity at times. I can adjust to it, only to a certain extent. The reality is that I spend more time with an overloaded nervous system than I did before having a child. The vigilance, watching, and worrying just never goes away. It changes. But, it’s always there. My system doesn’t rest like it used to.
So, I take my rest seriously. I seek silence with intention. I savor moments where I feel spacious. My self care is simple and fundamental. Moments where no one is clinging to my body. Moments where the only needs I need to see to are my own. Moments where I don’t have to manage, make decisions, or constantly do or respond. Moments where I can be, have space, have quiet.
The good thing is I can have both. I can be overwhelmed and have space. Yes, I have moments of being totally overloaded, but it’s temporary. I also have moments of peace. Those are also temporary. Finding a balance isn’t about establishing a consistent even keel. I don’t need to figure out how to never get overwhelmed again. Instead, I work to recognize when I’m experiencing overwhelm and then intentionally seek out moments of ease. This is only choice we all have. We must ride the swelling, turbulent waves and then, when we can, swim out to the still, calm waters.