The floor of my tiny old house creaks and groans underfoot which makes getting to the oasis I’ve been thirsty for all day, a bit of a Parkour obstacle course. My children are finally in bed after an arduous day of breaking up preschool squabbles, hushing an inconsolable baby, and generally attempting to keep the house from falling apart. The finish line to my day is within spitting distance but the floor may as well be covered with landmines. My children—a sleeping three-headed monster that might be roused at the faintest sound–dragging me back to the land of active parenting I am so eager to put behind me. I tiptoe into the bathroom, gingerly close the door, and turn off the light, murmuring a prayer under my breath. Please let them stay asleep.
I am empty. I have no more magic, ingenuity or compassion. My last nerve is hanging on by a tattered little thread and I am thankful for the reprieve from being the solo commander of my household.
At last, it is night. I’ve successfully made it to the end of the day and to the bathroom–the last bastion of privacy, solace, and retreat that can be found in my little home–where the tiny upright shower promises to wash my stress down the drain.
I plant my flag here in this tiny closet-sized room, claiming this space and time as my desperately-needed sanctuary. I pause on the dark side of the bathroom door and take what feels like the first giant breath I have had all day. My shoulders relax as I subconsciously dismiss them from duty. This is the fourth night this week I’ve sought refuge in this bathroom at the end of a long day. Just me in the dark, a hot shower, and a humble little $12.99 candle that illuminates more about me as mother than I thought possible.
I wield a lighter and ignite the dormant candle as it occupies the coveted bit of real estate atop the toilet tank. It is nestled between home improvement magazines and a clock. In an instant, a soft glow dances on the walls, transforming this tiny room into a spa-like retreat for an exhausted and depleted mother. I cast off the unseen hats: referee, teacher, chef, housekeeper, cheerleader, doctor, counselor. As I toss each one to the ground along with my garments, I become a little bit lighter. At the end, I am edited down to just me. Not mom, not wife, just me. I look at the simple little candle that is helping to set the mood of my restoration.
This candle is a metaphor for my recent experiences in motherhood; specifically trying to carry on like business-as-usual when there are just too few resources available to actually do a good job.
Like the candle, I am built to burn, lighting the way with love for my family. Day after day I light my little flame to care for my family, to bolster their reserves even though it means depleting my own. The dark ring of soot accumulated around the rim of the container deposited from hours of burning without a consistent fuel supply—I have that too—only my black ring looks like yelling at my kids because I am running on an empty tank. I’ve got ashy chunks suspended under my waxy surface that testify to my lack of time to take care of myself. I panic as I notice my energy stores are slipping swiftly down the sides of my jar and I fear that soon there will be nothing left to of me to give.
How does a mother fill the cavernous emptiness after pouring out every last bit she has to the ones she loves?
I realize, as I flicker an unsteady light, void of oxygen necessary for me to keep going, that no one will be able to see very well by the faint hobbling glow I am coughing out. A candle needs a fuel source to produce light. No wax, no light. Mothering my little brood sucks up a lot of my fuel. I cannot be a help to anyone if I have no reserve from which to draw. If I am going to do a good job caring for the people I love, I have to keep an eye on how to fill up again.
As I step into the hot shower, I consider all of the hats I have left on the floor of my tiny oasis bathroom, and the water begins washing away all of the unseen heavy, scary, and ugly things that I have hidden away in my heart as I outwardly sing silly songs to my children. With each droplet of water skittering off my body I heave a cathartic sigh.
This is so desperately hard.
My soul is embraced by the warm water and my limbs are invited to let go of all the tension they’ve carried. I am here to exchange angst for relief, exhaustion for rest. The needle on my proverbial gas gauge inches toward full as I stand in the water. I recognize my own grit, that I am built to do this work. I can pick up the duties of motherhood each morning and set them down each night. The fog lifts and I begin to see my world with clearer eyes. I remember my children are not monsters, but three bright stars in my sky that mesmerize and delight me.
I dry myself off and put on fresh clean pajamas–a simple luxury that is not lost on me–and I am truly thankful for every little thing. As I nestle my head into my downy pillow, I find I am grateful for these difficult days and deliciously restorative nights–for the clarity illuminated in darkness and for solitude that opens and fills my heart, that breathes on an ember renewing my strength to carry on.
Jennifer Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a baby girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.