I took one of my precious three-hour childcare-for-writing chunks to do something that’s definitely not work today: I got a 90-minute therapeutic massage.

I’ve been dealing with sharp pains in my shoulders for months now–especially at night, thus adding another item to the already-daunting list of reasons I can’t get enough sleep–and I also desperately need some time out of the house all by myself. So I took a friend’s recommendation and tried a local massage therapist who is, as promised by said friend, wonderful.

Before the session, she asked really thoughtful questions about what my life is like right now and how my body feels when I feel the bad feelings that are part of that. “A buzz going up my back, and like I’m going to cry and throw up,” I said. “Good!,” she said brightly, which made us both laugh.

During the session, she kept assuring me in various ways that it was okay to relax, that my body and the world won’t just fall apart if my muscles relax, that the table will hold me up. I maybe kinda have been experiencing some anxiety and tension lately? Anyway, then at some point she said, “I’ve noticed that you’re really vigilant.”

This had not occurred to me.

She had observed that whenever a small noise or other stimulus happened outside the cozy room where we were–in the studio, on the street–I snapped out of massage-land to alert attention until it stopped or I decided it was nonthreatening. Honestly, that’s so ingrained in me right now, I imagined it was universal. Human.

“You have two small children,” she said. “You’re just taking good care of them. But the noises you’re hearing out there are my colleague getting ready for a client, and you don’t need to listen for your children or make any plans or do anything right now.”

So, apparently, I am vigilant. Yes, of course: I listen 100% of the time for Simon and for Noah and for anything that could threaten us in any way. Even when I’m asleep. Even when I’m a fifteen-minute drive away from them and they’re with another trusted adult.

That’s far, far more true now that Eric’s away so much. Half of that was his, you see, and now so much more of it is mine. I sometimes feel like I’m holding the world together over here, and yeah, like maybe the table won’t hold me up and everything will fall to pieces if I let down my guard or stop putting forth effort for a moment. I sometimes feel really alone.

I am vigilant, which is useful and excellent, and which also hurts.

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  1. Posted 11 July 2013 at 5:57 PM | Permalink

    One of Hanna’s issues is hyper-vigilance like that — her body ALWAYS on alert to anticipate, identify, and combat/escape threats. Like you, she’s naturalized it to a great extent and one of the things she and her therapist are working on is better, more mindful, ways to sort out what is necessary vigilance and when/where the spaces and times are when she can try and turn that off and get some rest (emotional and physical).

    On a related note, I’ve always found massage almost painfully intense and uncomfortable! But I’m really glad it’s working for you — and yay for such an insightful practitioner!

  2. Lara
    Posted 12 July 2013 at 7:07 AM | Permalink

    Oh, wow. Totally. I have been there, and I go there again when my husband is out of town. Less, now, but it returns. I wish you could write about this for a bigger audience (like, Huff Post?). I think this is super-common for mothers. No one ever named it for me, but I recognize exactly what you’re talking about. I had trouble with co-sleeping for this reason, though I could see how it might calm the vigilance for some. I responded, in a visceral, phyiscal way, to every single damn twitch and sigh. Now, I have to think about calming my vigilance response when I let my kids do stuff like use sharp knives to cut up vegetables with me when I make dinner. Like you said, vigilance is also useful and excellent. I can’t be totally blase about my 6-year old with the sharp knife. But sometimes my whole body hurts after I’ve supervised that kind of project. Your massage therapist sounds awesome. I love that she understands you are responding in a natural way to the demands of parenting, and she can give you moral as well as physical support. I hope you get to go back to her again soon. She also might be able to teach you some self-massage, gentle stretching and relaxation techniques. Self-treatment is great. Tennis balls are a good, cheap tool for self-massage. You still have to find the time, but at least it’s free. I also recently figured out that I hold my breath when I’m doing difficult stuff with my younger one. Now I think consciously about full, abdominal breathing whenever we’re doing a cutting-the-vegetables-type project, and it helps tremendously.

  3. Jen
    Posted 22 July 2013 at 12:56 AM | Permalink

    So. So. True. It’s one of the biggest surprises to motherhood for me. The astounding, never ending, vigilance. Perfect word to describe it.
    Also, I absolutely love your site! I went through my entire pregnancy just a few months behind yours (with Simon). Thank you for sharing your stories and fiercely smart and funny insight.

  4. Posted 24 July 2013 at 9:21 AM | Permalink

    This was a really powerful piece and one I can relate to very much. I have it more than my husband, but I have also been pregnant, breastfeeding, pregnant + breastfeeding, or breastfeeding for my entire time with kids so I don’t know if there is a hormonal component for me. I used to be such a sound sleeper… no more.

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