Dear Dr T.,
Though I know I should be very thankful for the great bracha in my life- a fine husband and five healthy children BH- I feel overwhelmed and guilty most of the time instead. I have five little ones [ages seven to ten months] and I am just not managing. The baby cries constantly, the kids fight; I struggle to just catch up.
I feel especially bad about the baby because I don’t think he is getting what he needs. My mother says I shouldn’t worry: these hard years are just a passing phase and the baby won’t remember what happened in his infancy.
Is there something I can do to make this better?
This situation is far more common than you might think, but most people do not have your courage to permit themselves to think this way and try to do something about it.
The situation you describe is indeed troubling: there seems to be too much stress and guilt on your part, and distress and anger on the kid’s part. However, the goal here is not just to survive and live through it, but rather to turn it around. Children thrive and grow in a calm environment where the mother feels comfortable with her role and on top of her game. From your letter, it appears that this is your goal.
Your situation is both difficult and complex because you are dealing with competing needs: all the needs are legitimate, but only some can be fulfilled. The guilt is over your choices. Do you take care of the baby, dinner, your husband, the fighting brood, or yourself? When there are competing needs it feels like a no-win situation: whatever you do involves neglecting something else. The act of choosing when there are competing needs is often paralyzing – so much so that nothing gets done and you feel overwhelmed.
You have taken the first step by acknowledging the truth of your situation. Your next step is the realization that you have got to help yourself. And, as is true in most of life’s challenges, you have to do this; no one can do it for you.
So, let’s look at some of the things you might do that would help alleviate the pressure and lead to a better outcome.
Begin with yourself. You are the akeres habayis– the lynchpin of the family- and the tone, mood, and outlook all hinge on you. So, despite the fact that ‘a woman’s work is never done,’ you must make time to address your physical needs for food, sleep, and exercise. Though taking care of yourself may seem like a luxury, not a necessity, consider the effect on the family when we are hungry, tired, and irritable.
Decide on your priorities. Clearly, no mother can do everything. And, while some things may feel like a ‘must’, on second glance- you may be able to dispense with them for a while. We are all different so we all have different priorities: whereas I may value homework, you may support playing. But, in all cases, people are more important than things: the needs of any one person trumps any one activity or thing. So make a chesban. Do you iron the kids’ shirts or take care of the baby? Do you make home baked cakes and cookies or do you play with your children? Do you go to lots of simchas or do you stay home and put your kids to bed? Now, obviously, there is often a need to do any and all of these things, but- what is your priority? Developing a clear focus gives you path which you may then choose to disregard in times of extreme necessity.
Be proactive and develop a plan. Yes, things come up and monkey wrench the best of schedules. So, be prepared. Have some dinners [even if it is frozen pizzas] in the freezer. Establish a relationship with a neighbor or babysitter so someone is available should an emergency arise. Arrange to have basics like tissues and cereal in stock so that you don’t have to do midnight runs to the market.
Get help. This is not a luxury in your situation; it is a necessity. Reb. Zehava Braunstein AH was famous for saying that a woman should daven for good help at the time of hadlakas neros: that is how important it is. This help might be in the form of a paid employee – housekeeper or babysitter. If that is not feasible, perhaps a spouse of other family member can take some jobs off your plate. In larger cities, most Bais Yakovs have wonderful chesed programs where girls help families with children on a regular basis. Though it is in your job description to make sure that things get done, it is not your responsibility to do them yourself.
The issue of the baby’s needs and memories is another issue that I will discuss in another column.