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Surviving Parenting With Self-care (or Selfishness?)

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I've become a master of no, of boundaries, of polite regrets. Hello? You want me to bake how many vegan, gluten-free cupcakes--for what? I'm sorry, I think you've dialed the wrong number.


I have three daughters, one of them autistic--and not the kind of savant-autistic where Sadie plays piano like Liberace or solves long math problems in her head. Sadie is more of the spitting on the buffet table/hair-pulling/running half-naked into the road kind of gal.

So I've simplified. I've had to.

I've learned to dig simple, truth be told, and as an introvert, I'm comfy with saying no. I was born for no. No sets me free. No: You. Complete. Me.

I also say yes--to bubble baths, naps, long solo-walks without the company of even my leash-pulling, litter-eating dog. My husband and I get dressed up and go on dates at least once a week. We order the good gin for our martinis. An hour earlier we might have been wiping number two off a wall. Wouldn't you order Bombay? Let the folks with neurologically typical children drink Gordon's.

But sometimes I wonder, am I practicing self-care or selfishness?

When a close friend was in the middle of the crapstorm of caring for a dying parent, her counselor advised her to end her unofficial career as a people-pleaser. She was instructed to make liberal use of N-O and focus her energies on her dad's care as well as life's bare essentials. Outside of that, she was told, do only what you really, really want. I was not given this guidance directly, but my friend and I share the same therapist, so I adopted these directives for the crapstorm that is every day at my house.

Is that so wrong?

The downsizing started with the obvious expendables: PTA meetings, parties where someone is selling something, cooking a casserole for the church potluck we'll probably skip (because of Sadie and the spitting).

Over time, the nay-saying has spilled over to stuff some folks deem vital: vet checks, dental cleanings, replacing the batteries in the smoke alarms. What's that you say, we're out of toilet paper? There must be half a roll around here somewhere...

This more relaxed (and possibly irresponsible) attitude did not come naturally to me--I had to work at it. Back in the day, I was an A student, dotting i's and crossing t's and finishing papers the day before the day before the due date. I carried these ways into adulthood, which, turns out, contains an unholy amount of i's and t's.

And then I had twins. And then I had Sadie.

Nowadays I figure folks still know what you mean if they see an i without a dot, right? And if they don't, that's their problem.

It's also their problem when I say ain't nobody got time for that. I may be fudging a little--what I'm often saying is ain't nobody got psychological space for that.

Have I gotten carried away? Will terrible consequences catch up with me because I don't pack lunches when the cafeteria serves perfectly healthy vegetables like fries? Will I be ousted from suburbia? Or hailed as a subversive-type hero?

Will child services show up because Sadie threw her red Converse out the car window on the way to a large (and not especially clean) medical center for a doctor's appointment, which we went through with--sans shoes? (I scrubbed her feel later.)

Can you get written up for things like that? Or do I get a pass?

Our older girls have learned to go with our triage approach. Case in point: The twins are finishing up high school in a few weeks, but we're not sending out graduation announcements, not because we have a moral objection to asking everyone we know to send our kids cash but because a) I'm running low on stamps, and b) who cares?

The girls don't. We made inquiries. We have an open relationship, checking in with our offspring about which areas of parental neglect might possibly rub them the wrong way. We ask because we realize the value placed on to-dos or don'ts is highly individual--one man's critical is another man's pointless, and vice versa. We do the crucial and laugh in the face of what is agreed upon as superfluous.

Despite the fact that I forgot to renew the Costco membership, usually things hum along nicely. That's when I suspect I wouldn't really want to "do it all," even if I could. In the rush of carpooling and multitasking and huffing about town because we are martyrs, we forget we've made choices.

I'm tired of apologizing for mine. So full disclosure: I choose to heat up leftovers (or pour cereal) on Thursday nights instead of inventing another meal. I choose to skip over the fine print and sign nonetheless. And perhaps most horrible of all: at times I choose to leave my phone in the other room--or turn it off. (When did it become an unspoken rule that you have to instantly reply to every beep and chirp? Should I sew my cell to my sleeve? I am not a medical professional, and I didn't sign up to be on call 24/7. And even doctors have Wednesday afternoons off.)

I love Wednesday afternoons.

So last week when friends ask if I can help their ninth-grader polish a research paper, I am momentarily flattered (and also a wee bit passive aggressive) and say of course, darlings. But then the days are long and hard, and at the end of them, when Sadie is bedward bound, I'm gassed. So I respond to a 6 p.m. text from the dad asking is tonight good? with: man, the evening has already gotten away from me. Meaning, I've already started drinking.

The good stuff.

p.s. I am not completely soulless. I helped our friends' son the following night and did a nice job of it--days before the assignment was expected. I think he'll get an A.