This is the story of how I learned to scale back
By Christine Frackelton
Parenthood has funny ways of humbling us. After popping a dish of homemade brownie batter in the oven this evening, I offered my sweet 5 year old and 3 year old the mixing bowl, spatula, and whisk to lick clean, throwing in my matronly prudence: “Be careful not to get the batter on your clothes!” Then I looked at my sleeve. It was covered with chocolate.
I was an embarrassment — a mistrusting mess who needed to take the log out of my own eye before removing the speck from my children’s. Of course, I might have felt differently if one of my children was responsible for the fresh brown stains on my shirt, but I knew that the only person to blame was, um, me.
Foolishly, this was not the first time I corrected my children before they made any mistakes, only to realize I was making the mistakes myself. Among the thousand other incidents are things like asking my children to be immediately obedient on days when I have made them wait on me for near eternity (in child time, of course), or yelling, “Stop yelling!”
For the most part, these are small, trivial-ish stories. I see my guilt, apologize, and soak in the precious mercy of my family. The sunrise waits for me each morning, when I will do better and my children will most likely have forgotten my previous day’s hypocrisy.
The truth is, though, our great big life is all of the little stories, and even though we make mistakes and can overcome them and be better, my hypocrite habit — if that’s what it was — would define my story if I allowed it to.
In one area of my life, the hypocrite was a little larger than the brownie baker or impulsive yeller. When I recognized that I was a hypocrite not only to my family, but to other moms — my clients — I knew that life changes were necessary and imminent. Here’s how it all went down:
I didn’t start out as a hypocrite in my career. Although I suspected in my first pregnancy 6 years ago that I might like to be a doula, and knew after the birth that I would take on the profession, I actually delayed attending training and births, specifically so I could focus on the needs of my young children (and my critical need for sleep in those exhausting years). What kind of a role model would I be to new mothers, after all, if I bounced right into this work while my babies were wanting to nurse all day and night and needed the reassurance of their mother’s presence?
Although this is besides the point of my blog post, I feel I should mention that I recognize I was privileged to be able to stay at home with my children in the early years. I know that not all women have that luxury. However, the doula profession is also incomparable to other careers. Being summoned to births in the middle of the night, with little to no warning, and being away from your family for untold amounts of time — sometimes for more than 24 hours — makes for a stressful work situation for young families, especially when breast pumps and milk storage are involved. Had my family required me to have a job, it certainly would have behooved us for me to find another career in those early years.
So, even though my youngest was 2 before I obtained training and attended births, I was proud of myself for all of the mothering experience I’d gained, and felt confident that my children were in a good season for me to invest myself in work.
I delved in rapidly. It has been less than one year since I incorporated my business, and since then, I have published 41 blog posts, amassed an overflowing collection of books, dvd, cds, educational props, birth pools and other comfort tools, managed an inventory of placenta encapsulation supplies, handled the everyday clerical jobs of running a business, designed promotional materials and websites, sat through interviews with prospective clients, and attended innumerable networking events, 6 continuing education workshops, a major baby expo, and of course, the births, postpartum and placenta encapsulation shifts! If you wonder whether I’m worn out or not, I’ll be completely honest: no, I am not. The more of this work that I do, the more I realize how much I love it, and when you love something, there is always energy for it.
On the other hand, the more experience and education I gained, the more I realized that for the sake of my family as well as my clients, my passion needed tempering.
From my family’s point of view, I was increasingly absent, both physically, while I was with clients, and while I was at home, working on calls, emails, and other tasks. This goes with the territory of any career, of course, but when you spontaneously miss a child’s first day of Kindergarten, and forgo opportunities to travel to family reunions because of being on call, the sacrifices become a little deeper. We knew that these types of losses would be a part of our life with my chosen career, but to find more balance, we knew that more boundaries and restrictions needed to be placed on my practice.
From my clients’ perspectives, there also were disadvantages to my burgeoning business. That seems extremely counterintuitive. Who wouldn’t want a doula or placenta encapsulator who is passionate about her work? There were a couple problems, however. One was that I was a hypocrite. I was a supporter of mothers, while my children’s mother was disappearing from their lives. I encouraged women to listen to their bodies, but was I listening to my own body? Judging by the lack of sleep that I frequently signed up for, I’m not sure that I was. I encouraged women to listen to their babies’ cues, but my children were calling my name, and I was locked in my office with earphones on my head. This felt unethical to me, like I was tricking my clients. If they knew what my life really looked like, could they continue to trust me?
The other problem was that I wasn’t emptying my cup enough. Emptying the cup? If the phrase is new to you, take comfort in knowing that it was also new to me this past fall. In the reading I had for homework in a Birthing From Within continuing education workshop, I came across the story of a young, aspiring monk, who waited outside in terrible weather for days to be invited into the Chinese monastery for an interview. Per tradition, once he was invited in, there was no speaking. He was served tea. The experienced monk poured the tea into the youth’s cup, and did not stop once the cup was filled. The tea spilled out over the sides of the cup, to which the young man could no longer contain his silence! Why had the monk overfilled his hot tea?! Then, the monk explained how the young man needed to empty his cup.
By emptying the cup, we create space in our lives. We give breathing room to our thoughts and feelings, so we can better recognize and respond to them. We clear out our calendars for self care, so we can better care for those around us. If my life is not brimming to the full with activity, it becomes much easier to really hear each story that is told to me, by my family as well as by my clients. I can be more present with everyone around me, because I have been more present to myself.
Akin to sabbath, this emptying of the cup requires one very challenging thing of us: to do nothing. Thinking about this did not sit well with my ambitious self, but in my soul, I knew it was necessary, and that my service as a mother, wife, friend, and doula would be so much richer if I deliberately sat down and did nothing more often. With some initial discomfort, I no longer listened to the doula podcasts while I drove around for my daily errands and jobs. I reshelved the many books that sat partially read on my nightstand. I started taking my dog out for more walks, which isn’t exactly doing nothing, but it forced me to not do all of the other things that I would have been doing in that time. I even left my phone at home so I could not do calls while on my walks! One of the most daring changes I made was slashing my availability, from 2-3 postpartum families per month to 1-2 families, and from 2-3 births per month to 1 birth per month. (I don’t mean to suggest that a doula who takes on more clients than me isn’t creating enough margin in her life, but for my own situation, this is the number that gives me adequate space for emptying my cup).
As a result, I don’t always respond to calls the way I used to. In the past, every single prospective client heard the words “when would you like to meet?!” Now, I listen to the mother’s story on the phone, take a moment of personal reflection to see how this family fits into my life, and sometimes make recommendations of other places she can find the support she is looking for.
At the end of my life, I will receive no trophies for attending the most births. I will probably play a part in fewer people’s lives, and that is fine with me. One of the most important questions I pose to parents who are trying to figure out their birthing or parenting style is, “What would give you the most peace?” I know that when I answer that question for myself, I will not be a hypocrite. Fewer people will have known me as their doula, but their experience will have been richer, and my own experience will have been as well.