Finding Effective Means of Rest as a Nurse and Mother

Ever since I had my first of two children almost nine years ago, I switched from full-time (three 12-hour shifts per week) to part-time (two 12-hour shifts per week). With my husband working four 10-hour days per week, this arrangement has allowed our family the incredible privilege of not needing childcare outside of the family. That said, the arrangement also means that I as a nurse and mother have very little opportunity to rest. When I’m at work, all cylinders are operating on high alert in every way – mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. When I’m home, I am keeping tabs on everyone’s physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs. I’m managing the housework, trying to keep track of groceries, struggling with creative and healthy meal prep, and caring for a complicated dog and two less complicated tortoises. My husband and I are deeply involved in our church community and trying to faithfully maintain friendships. I have various speaking engagements to prepare for. Life is incredibly full.

In the midst of life’s ongoing demands, I’ve had to become smarter about approaches to downtime and venues of rest that are actually genuinely restorative.

Beware of default mode. As much as I find cleanliness and organization in my home to be refreshing and calming in their own right, my danger when I have open chunks of time is to then fall into default mode of constant cleaning: picking up clutter, doing another load of laundry, putting away more dishes. While I might find some relief from getting some of this done, I’ve then used up my precious “downtime” just doing endless housework. If my shift yesterday was ridiculously physical, I need to give myself permission to say no to my default cleanup mode, let the housework go, find a quiet (and relatively clean) corner of the home to sit down with a book or nap for an hour.

Recognize that we operate on all levels ‘on steroids’ as nurses and mothers. In Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction, he recommends finding venues of rest that balance or counter what you typically do at work. If someone’s work is primarily physical, he recommends resting in ways that are mental. If someone’s work is primarily mental, Earley recommends doing physical activities as a means for rest and refreshing. I remember reading this and wondering, “What about for us nurses (and moms) where our work is everything, on steroids? Mental, emotional, physical, social, spiritual for all 12 hours per shift? I use up all my energy on all levels at work.” This is precisely why I have come to deeply value my biannual personal retreats, where I put my husband in charge of the kids, leave town and do next to nothing for a few days. I sit in my private cottage and read, nap, or just watch the hawks fly through the sky for hours until it’s time to watch the sun set, and then it’s time to stargaze. Everything in me has to turn off, and I just rest in beholding God’s faithfulness: He daily gives wind to the birds’ wings, paints colors in the sky, and turns on the light switch for the moon and stars – His promised light in the dark. It’s a time for me to remember the truth that I don’t carry the world on my shoulders.

This is also why I love writing and gardening as restorative hobbies. I spend so much time hearing others’ stories, thoughts and emotions. Writing gives me a chance to explore my own, gain clarity around them, and express them (or not) to others. Gardening allows me to play an active and productive role in something that is, by and large, wondrously outside of my ultimate control. In gardening, I can learn, marvel, make mistakes in ways that do not constitute crises, and potentially contribute to the nurturing of beautiful and life-giving things. It is low risk and high reward, and it teaches me a certain humble submission to the finitude of things on earth.

Consider personality type. As social as I can be, I am without question an introvert at my core. I’m also rather sensitive to excessive stimuli, which I find amusing given where I work (hello constant alarms, fast-paced energy, and multiple urgent voices everywhere) and the very chatty, squealy personalities of my children. Most aspects of my life require fairly constant and involved social interaction, which I value and want to honor. But I also recognize the significant energy this requires of me and my personality makeup.

Truly effective rest for my personality type means I not only need time alone, but I need time away from excessive stimuli from my phone as well. I have to explicitly tell my children that they are not allowed to seek me out when I am going to the back room for quiet time unless it’s a true emergency. I also have to tell myself to not seek out unnecessary online chatter. Excessive online conversations and an endless news feed still constitute noise, even if there is no actual auditory stimuli in the room. Turning a light down or completely off in the room also helps me feel less “on alert.” All of this is necessary for me to regain a sense of where I actually am in all the noise.

Setting boundaries makes me better for others. I am someone who tends to feel obligated to everyone, all the time. It has taken me a long time to realize that while sacrificing time, energy and personal preferences in order to care for others can absolutely be an act of love, so too can boundary-setting be a vital practice in cultivating a genuine life of love and service.

When I am stretched every which way by a complicated patient and overwhelmed family at work, I can and will push past my personal needs for awhile in order to take care of my patient. But when I recognize that my low blood sugar and exhaustion are making me impatient towards those around me, the best thing I can do for my patient is find a colleague to cover for me while I step away for 30 minutes to eat and rest.

When I have a hard string of shifts at work, and a full schedule coming up with speaking engagements, I usually find my attention towards my family is less abundant and less gracious. It is typically in these seasons that I have to say no more often to church or other social gatherings. What energy I have, I need to reserve for my family as much as possible, until professional demands ease up.

The approaches above are what work for me, and may not be suited for every person. But the bigger point is, it’s important for us to be intentional, thoughtful and nuanced about the ways we rest.  Otherwise, we squander the limited time and opportunity we have to truly recharge.

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