Until I had kids, I didn't know how easy it was to forget how to unwind.
Recently my husband and I were at a French restaurant, tiny votive candles flickering in front of us, reflecting off the rows of wine bottles lining the walls. We had been looking forward to this evening for weeks. The grandparents had come to town to see the children and it gave us a chance to get away for a date without the kids.
And once we got there, sitting at our lovely table in an atmosphere free from heart-rending screams over a stolen dump truck, we stared at each other. Our conversation faltered the way it does on a blind date between two kind but relatively uninterested people.
We started a lackluster conversation only to abandon it. We asked questions that were inherently boring. I kept glancing around the restaurant, not fully able to settle into the reality that there wasn't something that needed to be done. It felt like our ability to relate as a couple and relax had atrophied. As though relaxing and relating were a muscle that could grow weak from disuse.
In early postpartum months whenever I had a chance to get a break from my baby I often didn't even know what to do with myself.
"Go to the coffee shop. Go on a walk," my husband would say.
My husband is a psychiatrist and sometimes works with severely ill patients and their caregivers. The caregivers are almost always worn to the bone, way past exhaustion, to the point where they may need support as much as the patient needs treatment. He advises the caregivers to take a break, even if it's only for a half hour. And his rule for the break is that they don't do something useful--they don't use their time to do chores or errands.
He told me the same thing and I found it difficult to fulfill these terms. The habit of being useful was so deeply ingrained, that when I forced myself to stop doing practical work, I was suddenly confronted with the realization that I didn't remember how to fully relax or enjoy myself anymore.
Since I was so busy tending to my children, it was like I had forgotten the real pleasures of leisure--like reading a good book, or taking a walk, or having a conversation with a good friend. These aren't indulgences; small pleasures can be sustaining.
During those early months when both my boys were very young I felt like my life didn't even have room for me in it. So I decided I'd have to make room. And I found making room for myself felt a little like flexing a muscle--it took extra energy and sometimes I felt sore from even trying afterwards. But it also felt rewarding.
When I gave birth, I used muscles I didn't even know existed. I had to learn my body anew. And I've also had to develop other muscles after having kids: emotional muscles of becoming more patient and empathetic.
But the lessons haven't only been in parenting--they've also been in marriage and in leisure. I've been learning how to relate in my marriage as not just a partner, but a parent. And also how to both seek and sink into relaxing experiences, even when it requires extra effort and time.
My husband I finally did get into a groove that evening at the French restaurant. It took some time but we ended up flexing that muscle, talking like we had on some of our best early dates, falling into those patterns of conversation we had found so engaging in the beginning. And we left around twilight, the streetlamps a dull glow at dusk, the scent of honeysuckle drifting from a climbing vine on the terrace. And we were invigorated, ready to return to the kids with more energy than when we had left them.