by Jess Apel D.O.
It is 4pm on a sunny and warm Tuesday in October 2016. I have tears streaming down my face while I’m standing in my driveway. My 2-year- old son is sitting nearby, pulling out fists full of grass with his hands. My sweet 3-year- old daughter has a gentle hand on my leg , trying to reassure me. It has been an ugly afternoon. I call my husband and say this: “I think the kids need to go to school on Tuesdays.” This phone call is branded on my memory, my lowest point as a mother so far. Even now, I inwardly cringe when I think of this moment, knowing that I had more than a hand in creating it; in fact, this ugly afternoon was a problem entirely of my own making.
It’s important to know a few things about me. I am an OB/GYN. I had my first baby two weeks after graduating from residency, and five days after my written board exam. Eight weeks after my daughter’s birth, a period of time which now seems like an abundant gift, I started my first “real” job in a local practice. Fourteen months after my daughter was born, my son arrived, landing me with a one year old, a newborn, and a job I had been in for less than a year; you could say that I had to manage my time very carefully. My husband – not one to do things by halves himself – was working full time as an engineer and started an online Master’s program. I remember wondering to myself- more than once during this period of insanity – we are crazy, right? And the answer, with the clarity of hindsight, is a resounding, YES; we were.
Fast forward to that fateful, sunny Tuesday afternoon in my driveway two years later, wiping away tears as I spoke to my husband on the phone. I rushed home from the hospital that particular morning to relieve my husband so he could go to work. I had delivered seven babies on my twenty-four hour shift, answered numerous phone calls and pages, filled out charts and paperwork, attended patients and administered all the typical aspects of my job. I did not eat dinner, and it is likely that I had one meal mid-afternoon at some point, on the fly from one patient to the next. Towards the end of my shift, I “rested my eyes” for 45 minutes.
Tuesdays were my Mommy days; an entire day off (after my shift ended that morning) to spend with the kids. The previous May, we moved to a new house with lots of land for the kids to explore and a lovely pool. I spent these Tuesdays in a regular routine; breakfast, playing all morning, swimming for an hour, followed by lunch. In the afternoons, we would all curl up in bed take a long nap. Although the kids needed the sleep, I was only able to survive the day because of that nap. It was absolutely essential.
On this particular Tuesday, though, there would be no nap. Again, with the clarity of hindsight, I should have seen that this day was coming – although I was used to running on fumes, I didn’t fully realize how exhausted I was. So when my son and daughter boycotted naptime that day, I felt broken, and I buckled under the weight of the sleep deprivation. I tried for hours, every single tactic; pleading, bribing, books, stories, music, yelling, all to no avail. I even put myself in time out in the bathroom for 5 minutes, to try and get a grip. But eventually, I realized that it was futile, so I gave up and went back outside. I had been awake for 34 hours.
It was a terrible afternoon. I remember screaming into a pillow in desperation. When my sweet 3 year old offered to watch her brother so I could sleep, I remember thinking I hate me. This is not me. Who the hell am I right now? I was angry, impatient, and probably frightening to my children, being just awful to these tiny humans I loved so much. I knew intuitively that this was my fault. Don’t get me wrong; we all have moments of which we are not proud, moments we instantly regret, moments that shame us that we cannot take back.
It is not rainbows, sunshine, kisses, hugs, unicorns and Instagram #soblessed all the time. But after this episode, I also knew that needed to find a way to help reduce the likelihood of these moments. I calmly buckled those tiny people into their car seats, and naturally they were asleep before I pulled out of the driveway. Starbucks drive-thru is seriously a gift to all mothers everywhere. I drank my coffee in silence, with the windows rolled down, as I planned how to do things better – for the kids sake, but also for mine.
The Mommy Guilt Machine works overtime and is amazingly cruel. I had always thought that because I worked so much, the kids deserved a Mommy Day. And post- call mommy can be awesome. We destroy the house with play, hit the park, wear crazy clothes, eat things we shouldn’t because I am just too tired to fight or care. But as I sat in the car that sunny Tuesday, drinking my coffee with them fast asleep in the backseat, I realized I was wrong. I knew my babies deserved a rested and sane mother. Not dragon mommy crying in the driveway praying for their dad to come home.
I needed to make better decisions. Better choices for them, and for myself. My first call was to daycare. The kids would have to go on Tuesdays, period. Despite how clearly I needed some time to myself, I still felt I had to justify it by rationalizing that I needed to take my oral OB/GYN boards soon and I had to study. I wasn’t doing this because I needed to sleep, or take a shower, make a proper meal, exercise, run errands or that I deserved a quiet cup of hot coffee – I still wasn’t ready to say that self-care was enough of a reason on its own. But I clearly remember amongst all the other justifications I was making, that I whispered out loud, you deserve to take care of yourself Jess.
And so I started, very gradually, to turn off the Mommy Guilt Machine. My husband took the kids to daycare the next Tuesday. I hit the grocery store on the way home from the hospital. I put food away, did some cleaning, made breakfast, and took a hot shower. I slept for 3 hours and when I woke up, I put my running shoes on and got lost on the trails for 5 miles. I prepped an easy dinner that just needed to be put in the oven. I took another quick shower. I hit the Starbucks drive-thru and walked in to get my kids at 3:15PM.
We had a glorious afternoon and evening. I was present. I was engaged. I had more patience. I had energy. No dragon, zombie mommy. The guilt I felt for taking the time I needed receded a bit that day, and continued to retreat a little bit more as each Tuesday passed. We were all happier. Whether you stay at home full time or work a million hours, the challenge to take care of yourself is the same for every mother. SELF CARE is important. It is okay to put yourself on the to-do list, you must “fill your cup”. You cannot take care of anyone if you do not take care of yourself. This is not a selfish act – it is an act of self-compassion, and necessity.
Maybe you need to say it out loud or in front of the mirror. Go find one after you read this. Say it…I deserve a hot shower. I deserve 15 minutes of quiet and hot coffee. I deserve to exercise. I deserve whatever I need to make me a better person and a better parent. It’s okay to say it.
Dr. Jessica Apel is a Board Certified OB/GYN who works at Greenville OB/GYN and Christiana Hospital. She and her husband George enjoy time together on their property in Kennett Square, PA. Their daughter Ella Mae will be five in June and their son Georgie is three-and-a-half. Jess enjoys exercise; cooking in her kitchen with a fireplace; skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; watching documentaries; and sitting on her porch with a hot cup of coffee. She is beyond excited to be a part of The Mother’s Space, helping mamas find ways to give themselves the self-care they deserve.