As a recent birthday gift to myself I enrolled in a retreat. I spent a few glorious days (and nights) away with no kids, no husband, and no working mom routine—just me. I hadn’t been separated from my entire brood in (are you ready?) seven years. The same age as our eldest son.
“What are you going to do with all of that time?” a friend asked.
“Sleep. For eight hours straight,” I said, with no hesitation. It was the first thing I envisioned when I signed up. I corrected myself. “Actually, no. Sorry. I mean ten hours.”
The setting was perfect: a Zen Buddhist practice center north of San Francisco, hidden in a bucolic valley right next to the ocean. The center was also part of a sprawling organic farm. I would share a guest house with eleven other artists, all of us female, each of us spending time on our creative endeavors without the disruption of daily life. My personal itinerary: sleep, write, nap, yoga on the balcony, walk on the beach, nap on the beach, take some photos, sleep, repeat.
I knew that the center was a quiet and mindful place, where my contact with others would be limited mainly to meal times. As soon as I walked onto the grounds all I heard were peaceful noises—birds high up in the Redwoods, the footsteps of monks walking through leaves, and the ocean.
A silent setting was much of the reason I chose the retreat; I wanted time away from everyday noise. At this place there would be no family bed, no rushing the kids off to school before work, and no little guys with their natural, non-stop physical energy constantly bidding for mama’s attention.
During my first morning I awoke to several soft, gonging bells. Apparently, it was standard practice for the farmers to wake early to these chimes—like crack of dawn early—to begin prep for their day. Or was it night? The only thing I saw through the window was pitch black. I checked the clock: 4:30am.
Ugh. Zen bells, I thought, irritated. I tried again to drift off to slumber but I couldn’t. I lay there wide-awake, my ten-hour sleep plan foiled, my mind unable to give itself in to the quiet. Strangely, it reminded me of those middle-of-the-night moments as a brand new mom, nursing a newborn, thinking that I was the only person in the entire world awake.
Instead of going back to sleep I hopped in the shower and started my day. The sun soon rose. I grabbed my camera and followed a meandering path out to the beach to take some photographs of the peaceful landscape. I wondered what the kids would eat for breakfast. I wondered what I would do with the rest of my day.
* * *
At first I had trouble giving in to the tranquil tone. In the guest house everyone was silent; we spoke only when necessary and always in whispers. A woman who had been at the retreat in prior years described to me how she had once opened a crinkly candy wrapper and got death stares because it was too loud. I made a mental note not to unwrap any of the chocolate bars I had brought except for in the privacy of my own room.
Meal times were deliberately silent for the first ten minutes. No talking allowed. Guests lined up in the dining room to receive their meals and I noticed that as they reached the table, most gave a slight bow or nod in reverence to the food and hard work before them, a kind of thank you. I did the same. In those ten silent minutes I tried to center myself. I tried to breathe. I tried to be grateful for what I had.
The challenge wasn’t the quiet—it was in trying to quiet my thoughts. Questions ran through my head, normal, mundane ones: were the boys okay? Did my husband remember to put the wet clothes in the dryer? Would I have to make dinner when I got home on Sunday night?
Soon though, I settled in and the quietness felt right. It felt overdue, a true gift. I had time to rest and to work on the passions that I have often associated with the “old” me (i.e. the me before I became a mom). It felt rejuvenating.
At some point I even found myself emotional with other kinds of questions: why is the mothering tendency to take care of everyone else first? What could I do to be more mindful at home? And what took me so long to take that kind of time for myself? It felt like a luxury to be in that amazing, beautiful setting, yet here’s what I realized: self-care for mothers is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
I came home from the retreat feeling inspired. My boys greeted me with their infectious hugs, laughter, and curiosity, like I hadn’t even left.
“How was it, mama?” our seven-year-old asked. We snuggled up on the couch and I showed them some of the shots I took that weekend: Buddha statues sitting amidst colorful flowers, a dog running in the ocean, bright yellow moss on a tree.
“I missed you, but mama needed that. Thank you for letting me have my birthday time.”
“You should go again,” he said, happily, wisely.
He’s right. And I will. Finding family balance is important, but so is the self-nourishment required to do that. For me these things are a work-in-progress. I’d love to have regular weekends away but that’s not realistic. I try now to give myself the gift of ten silent minutes each day—my own version of a mini Zen retreat—for time to center myself before jumping in. I breathe. I give a reverent thanks to the joyous chaos I know will inevitably weave itself into my day, and I am grateful for it.
What do you do on a daily (or even seven year!) basis to give yourself moments of rest, inspiration, and renewal? Please share in the comments.
Image by the author.