Some weeks back, I was wandering with my two-year-old son through Leuven’s version of Central Park, when we passed some resident park bohémes. One convivial chap called his sweet-tempered dog over so my son could pet him. Meanwhile, I shot the breeze with the pup’s free-spirited owner and his friends.
We were yakking about my son’s natural shyness toward non-canine strangers, when the fellow suddenly said to me, with a look of detached calm, “You have some stress in your eyes. Is everything ok?”
I was startled, and I think I must have blinked hard, as though to expel foreign debris. Then I laughed what I imagined to be an unperturbed, insouciant laugh.
It was one of those first solidly warm, sunny days of the year, and pink blossoms were sprinkling down from the trees. I’d been strolling aimlessly with my younger child and reminding myself to savor this foreign city that’s become our temporary home.
I felt good. Certainly not what I’d call stressed.
I mean, here were multiple, contiguous moments free of kicking, scratching, hair-pulling sibling skirmishes. Here were no spills to wipe up, no laundry to fold. In fact, I’d been quite enjoying my one-on-one time with the boy, who wasn’t currently dashing headlong into oncoming traffic, nor writhing on the ground screaming about some mystery affliction he lacked words to communicate. Sure, he had just peed his pants, but these gentlemen didn’t mind, and in fact, that only increased the nice doggy’s interest in hanging around.
What on Earth was this guy talking about?
Still, later that day, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.
Then I stepped forward and to look closer. Heyyyy… wait a minute. How’d that… By Jove, there is stress in my eyes! Isn’t there?!
“Honey! Come here… Is there stress in my eyes?”
“What are you talking about? Why? What happened?”
“Nothing! Nothing, hahaha! Nevermind.” Another mirror glance. Huh. Uh-huh, yup. There it is! Oh my gosh, even when I smile.
How did that get in there? Is it permanent!? Can everyone see it, or just hippies?
Hmm… Maybe I should do more yoga… Yeah! There’s no reason not to begin every single day on my yoga mat, taking a brief, flowing time-out to consciously inhale all the gratitude and grace, and exhale all the anxiety and aversion to what is.
All I’d have to do is get up earlier. Let’s see, I know I first need half an hour to just drink coffee and gloomily stare with my unfocused stress-eyes, then maybe some food, then some time to digest the food before the yoga. So factoring that in, I’d need to rise at least an hour and a half before the kids. So, 5:30 a.m.?
Unless they surprise-early-rise.
Right. Well, that just means I need more sleep. But since the kids still wake us up at least twice each night, and most of the time one of them ends up sneaking in our bed, I’ll need to go to bed earlier. Say 9/9:30 p.m.? Unless they surprise-stay-up-late.
So that means I’ll need to get super-disciplined about avoiding stimulating evening activity. Which means I’ll have to get in all my emailing and Facebooking and writing and news catch-up and book-reading earlier. Which means I need to be super-efficient at cooking and cleaning and errand-running, too. Which means maybe I should get up even earlier, especially if I want to take a shower (ever). So, like, 4 a.m.?
Right! If I can just shuffle everything around, and rigidly structure each minute of the day into an unyielding routine, then I’d have extra time to regularly de-stress!
Or I could just hang around a park bench most afternoons with a bunch of grown folk who can actually wipe their own butts, and a well-mannered dog or two. I bet then I’d lose this ocular tension. In fact, maybe I’d get enough repose to detect inherent stress patterns in the eyes of strangers.
Ok, ok… Look, I’m not here to presume or deride. I can’t claim this guy’s life is a piece of cake. Everyone’s fighting battles untold. All I’m saying is that full-time mommahood with wee ones has a funny way of sneaking surprises into the mirror. A few (dozen) extra lines here and there (and not always the smile kind), some new stripes and extra inches to the belly, a wiry gray hair (or eight).
And yes, some added vigilance behind the eyes. A tighter focus, with ongoing calculations in the brain. We parents-to-the-small have to plan six steps ahead. We need contingency plans for our contingency plans.
I used to be like you (I speculate), gentle park-poet. I love to travel light, improvise my day, and pivot on a dime. And as a result, it’s been that much harder for me to get where I am today: a woman with a bag laden with snacks, sunscreen, wipies, extra clothes, sun hats, a water bottle, rain gear, and bribe candy (erm... “special treats”) who’s enjoying this casual chat, while simultaneously monitoring your dog’s location and temperament, my son’s mood and safety, and the time remaining before I have to get my daughter from school.
So, if we ever stroll past again, and you comment on the stress in my eyes, I plan to respond with pride:
“Thank you for noticing! I did that myself.”