At 5:30 a.m., my alarm sounds its irritating drone of beeping to coax me out of bed. Mind you, I do not actually need to be up this early. Gone are the days of my youth where I foolishly gave up precious minutes or hours of sleep in order to meticulously apply a palette of colors to my face, and to style my hair in the latest fashion. No, no. Now in my 40s, I spend a great deal of money on skincare that affords me the luxury of foregoing that process altogether. And I have opted for a short, simple hairstyle that requires minimal styling. I can be showered and ready to be out the door with coffee in hand in 30 minutes. No hearty breakfast before I leave, and no lunch to pack because I now sustain myself on shakes intended to replace meals of food I once so enjoyed because it is apparently a mortal sin as a woman to not be a size 4, and all food is evil, toxic, or going to give me cancer in some form. Yet, the alarm goes off at 5:30. And despite the scientific evidence that insists it is unhealthy to do so, I hit snooze easily four times after that. Why you might ask then do I set the alarm this early? Four words - “I am a mom.”
My first zombie-like steps carry me to my teenaged son’s room where his own alarm has been blaring at the volume of a jet taking off. He is, of course, fast asleep as I yell over the decibels and shake him with the intensity of the “big one” we are promised at any moment in California. (Note to self: compile an earthquake preparedness kit...and a fire box for wildfire season.) Nearly an hour later, he gets up and because he has Autism and does not understand that when you are running behind you make adjustments to your normal routine to recoup the lost time, he is in the shower when the bus comes. I hold the bus while my son comes down irate that I am “rushing him” and storms out of the house and is finally off to school.
Fortunately, my daughter is in the aforementioned stage of life where she wakes herself early (after having done homework until midnight) to apply the latest Naked Palette with precision - her eyeliner on point. This, of course, takes precedence over preparing her own breakfast or snacks most days. So, while I wait for my precious cup of coffee to brew, and blend my thrilling vanilla protein shakes, I often gather up her snacks, toast her a bagel and shove it all at her as we rush out to get her to school and me to my job, to which despite having already been up two hours, I will be late. Again.
As my daughter hops out of the car, the door shuts and for the first time of the day, there is silence. Except that there isn’t really. Some days - the good ones - I turn up my music and immerse myself in it. I sing. I tap the wheel to the beat and just enjoy the precious few moments that are mine alone. I relish in memories of the nights going out dancing with friends and feel reminiscent of the carefree person I once was. Other days, I call up a friend and chat to catch up on my drive because it is quite literally the only time I have to engage in an uninterrupted conversation. But not all days are good.
Some days, as the car falls quiet, it starts - that crushing wave of guilt, frustration, despair that I believe many mothers can relate. I replay every word uttered in a harsh tone where patience should have prevailed, missed assignments, forgotten PE clothes or textbooks, unsigned permission slips, every shortcoming that has resulted in some disappointment for either myself or my kids. I agonize about being late to work, or missing too much for the variety of events, appointments and conferences that are a common parenting occurrence. The questions fire off in my head. Is it my day for cheer carpool? Did the pharmacy refill my son’s medication? Do we have refills left? No, the doctor needs to see him in order to refill it again. When will I have time to leave early for an appointment? What deadlines do I have coming up? Did I forget to pay a bill that is due? When do I get paid again? Is it someone’s birthday? What do we have to do this weekend? Why has my phone not backed up to the cloud in 36 weeks, and what is using up all my cloud storage? Am I doing enough? What can I do differently? Why is it not getting easier? Do I do too much? How can I manage it all? How long can I sustain this? Am I going to get fired? Why is everyone so angry at me?
Then the voices of all the opinions flood in. Have you tried a gluten-free diet? Does he have an IEP? You should get an advocate. You do too much for him. You should just let him miss the bus. You shouldn’t have vaccinated. Have you tried taking away his/her phone. Her shirt is too cropped. I would just refuse to buy it for him/her. Don’t fix her breakfast, she can just wake up earlier or do it the night before. You should meal plan and prepare it all Sunday. Have you tried counseling? Use a visual schedule. Set a dual alarm. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You need more cardio. You need less cardio. You should try fasting. Juicing. You should have your ex do it. You should just take it to the Apple Store. You should...have you tried…?
And then it happens. I break. I cry the whole drive into work. Not just tears slowly streaming down my cheeks, but the ugly cry - wracking sobs, gasping for breath crying. Because it is just so hard. All of it. Every day. I am tired. And I know I am not alone, and that this should give me comfort, but it does not. It breaks my damn heart that many of us are hurting like this. We are doing everything. And we are trying all of the things. Yet, despite all of this effort and all of our good intentions, sometimes it just does not feel like enough, and we collapse under the pressure of it all. I know there are many who have it so much harder than I do with so much less to get by. But in that moment when I am crying in my car on the way to work, my pain is all that I know. And I have to feel it. All of it. I feel the full weight of all that falls on my shoulders, followed by all of the guilt that I don’t love it every day. I feel ashamed that I am not one of those moms that thinks it is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I beat myself up that the idea of being on PTA repulses me and that I would resent having another single thing to do for someone else. I hate myself for the days that I see parents who do not have a child with special needs and long for that kind of normalcy and simplicity for myself. I feel selfish that I enjoy not being a stay-at-home mom, and that I actually look forward to my kids growing up and being out of the house someday. I am distraught at the looming reality that my son may never be able to leave home and will rely on me for support for the rest of my life, and I question whether I have the strength to provide it much longer. I feel all of this crash down on me in the 30 minutes it takes me to drive to work.
I pull into my parking spot, flip down the visor, and I collect myself. I attempt to cover any evidence of the breakdown that has just occurred and walk into the office. I am greeted with “good morning” and “how are you?” And I cheerfully respond, “great, how are you?” And no one is the wiser. I drink my protein shake at my desk, and on the rare occasion that I get a lunch hour, I go to the gym to at least try to obtain that ideal in my head - to look the way I am “supposed” to look. Or I work through lunch altogether to meet a deadline, make up for being late, or for leaving early for whatever reason because I am a working mom who can “have it all.” Most days are good and I manage it. But today I cried on my way into work, and at the end of the day, I will get home to be greeted by my family with, “what’s for dinner?”