The Spoonie Parent

The whole “online advocate and volunteer for mental health organizations” thing didn’t actually happen all that long ago. I only got serious about treatment around 2010, and it wasn’t until after my first child was born in 2013 that I joined an online community for mental health support and wellness.

One of the best take-aways from the stories told by other people with mental illness was Spoonie Theory. I’m not going to try and break it down for you (if you want to learn more, go to the source) but I will give you my summarized version: basically, Spoonies are people that, for whatever reason, have a limited amount of resources (physical, mental, and emotional) available to them that are spent throughout the day as you go about your business. Cooking dinner, making small talk, cleaning the bathroom; even basic functions can be a significant drain on the individual.

An individual like me.

And especially now. Especially at this moment in my life, while I’m surrounded by all these plates I’ve got up on rods, spinning like tops.

Gotta work, gotta hustle. Get your money, put food on the table. Make sure the girls are not just fed and watered, but engaged, cuddled, listened to, played with. Manage the household. Keep the budget. Remind the husband. Make To-Do lists. Grocery lists. Honey-Do lists. Check off all the boxes. Remind the husband. Pick the clothesfoodtrashtoys up off the floor. Shower off the sweat. Go to bed late. Do it all again tomorrow.

I don’t mind spinning plates. I actually get a lot of gratification from it, when I’ve got it under control. When the conditions are just right, all of them whirring smoothly, I feel like I’m flying.

But the world stage? It’s foundations are a little cracked, and the floors are uneven. The whole ground shakes sometimes, and god help me, but I only have two hands. That something will be broken is an inevitability.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have help. My aforementioned husband is the bedrock of my whole life. He is solid, no question. And even though I’m often a little territorial about my forest of spinning plates, I do have friends and family that will step in when and where they can, to lend support as they are able. I am also blessed to have a home, a good paying job that I love, and all the privilege implicit therein.

I’m not complaining.

I strive to be more solution-oriented than that. Problem-solving is a tried-and-true mechanism for shoring up the cracks. Trouble is, it’s also part of the reason why I have so many damn plates to begin with. I am always ready with a solution. And in lieu of something actionable or constructive, I’ll just ruminate on the problem. I probe at it from all directions to identify a new angle. I’ll draw my plans out over time, plotting out the next weeks, months, years. I’ll make contingencies. I’ll consider the possible effect of world events, natural disasters, and alien invasions.

My mental vision board is a prime example of the String Theory trope.

Actionable responses to stress on my environment are the only productive outcome from my overactive, hyper vigilant brain, but they aren’t always easy to come by. Recently, I’ve found myself with more unknowns than knowns and I’m sort of stranded in “Well, I can’t plan for what I don’t know”-Land. That’s miserable enough as-is, but it’s also very costly. Right now it’s costing money I don’t have, spoons I can’t afford, and a significant measure of my fucking sanity. There are so many other places I’d prefer to direct those resources.

My family comes first, of course. They get all the spoons I can give them, and aside from those days when the girls seem to suck the lifeblood out of my eyeballs, we do okay. Then my job, which often gives me spoons because I’m such a lucky bitch I get to do something I completely love. There’s a flip side to that of course, because owning a small business comes with its own hazards and expenses. But it’s okay, because I can keep those plates going, no problem. I’ll just pray there isn’t another tremor. I’ll just cross my fingers that a stiff breeze doesn’t come by and knock all my shit to the floor.

That’s fine. I can keep the faith.

But where I really get in to trouble is when the combined demands of EVERYTHING far fucking exceed the number of spoons I have to give, and then a butterfly flaps it wings outside and the whole damn thing blows up.

Today I feel like that’s where I’m headed.

Because life is an avalanche. A house of cards. A crapshoot. And it builds. It builds up because they aren’t enough hours in the day to do all those things I need to do and then take sufficient time to recharge. I’m spending more spoons than I’ve had time to wash and put back in the drawer. My plates are all chipped and the sink is fucking full.

I am as bled out as these tired, overwrought dish metaphors have become.


I stole some time throughout the day to write this piecemeal. I started over lunch and continued while my littlest one slept. I let the older kid watch another movie on the TV. It’s been on almost constantly since 9 o’clock this morning. I’m ashamed but resigned — yes, I know that too much screen time is bad. And before someone gets all sanctimonious: yes, I play with my kids everyday. I’m their goddamn pleasure cruise director. I plan healthy, delicious meals, structured indoor activities and adventurous outdoor excursions — about 90% of the time. The other ten I reserve for self-care because here’s the thing: I can’t have a breakdown.

Essentially, self-care is an alternative means to an end because I can’t put my family and my career first if I’m a wreck. The unfortunate truth, though, is that I don’t get a break over the weekends, no matter if my nose is rubbed raw from this week’s grindstone. I’m on duty. I know if I don’t keep them busy and entertained, they will eat me alive, but sometimes the best I can do is the bare minimum. Hello, iPads and leftover Chinese food for lunch!

Yes, I feel guilty. I am aware that I am sometimes missing (my self-imposed, society-informed) mark.

It is an instinctual, biologically-programmed imperative to put my babies’ needs before my own. However, I’m also introspective enough and intelligent enough to know that if I am not equally as devoted to maintaining my health, my girls mind end up without a mother at all. And that is unacceptable to me, insomuch as I am able to prevent it.

We all have an obligation to those that love and depend on us to take care of ourselves. Our children ought to see us not just survive, but thrive, because they learn by our example and they deserve us at our best.

So, today we didn’t make it to the beach. Our only excursion was around the neighborhood, walking the dog. The girls got to watch three feature-length films while we cuddled on the sofa and played tickle-fight. I made macaroni and cheese for dinner and gave them each a Snack-Pack for dessert. I drew a fragrant, pink bubble bath and after I washed their hair, I let them play in the water while I checked social media on my phone.

Now I’m sitting at my kitchen table, listening to the soft notes of the girls’ lullaby CD drift down the stairs. They request it every night after I’ve already sung them each their own bedtime song. After I press play on the CD player Moira got for Christmas, I sit in the dim light with them while they fall asleep. I relish the quiet.

Our nighttime routine helps to center us together, no matter what’s gone on during the day, and it is sacred to me. I recall as a small child being rushed into bed and out of my parents’ hair, feeling so desperately lonely while I struggled to fall asleep alone. When I was really little, I’d scream for my mother. I have a memory of her flying into my bedroom while I cried, clearly annoyed as she told me she was going to leave me in the dark until I cried myself to sleep.

Funny thing about traumatic memories — I can’t say if this happened once or a hundred times. I can only tell you that I have relived the pain of that moment over and over again in my mind since the night she stood in my doorway with one hand on the , backlit by the hall light, one hand on the doorknob, her posture telegraphing terrible impatience before she closed the door and walked away. It’s been on my mind ever since I screamed for her in the dark knowing she wouldn’t be coming back.

That’s the sort of thing I’m trying to avoid here.

My mom wasn’t a bad person and she wasn’t an abusive mother. She was a woman at the end of her fucking rope, day in, day out, just white-knuckling it to survive her chronic pain, undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses, abusive alcoholic husband, and five needy children. She left me to cry that night because she truly had nothing left to give to me.

Been there.

I’m a fantastic mother. I know because I work hard at it, every minute of every goddamn day. My girls might sometimes get stuck inside all weekend with their eremitical wingbat mother, but in the long run they will be humans who are secure in the knowledge that they are beautiful, powerful, strong, intelligent, miraculous beings born out of pure love and light.

I know, because I’m going to teach them radical self-love by example, and make sure they never forget it.

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