Before the birth of my children, I never thought I could harbor such tenderness toward family. I had no idea the power of the emotions that would sweep through me once I became a parent. To say that I love my children, that they are my absolute center in this world, is to say nothing at all of the depth of devotion I feel when looking at their tiny faces.

Of course, that is one part of the story. With all that tenderness and adoration comes the late night exhaustion of caring for sick children, the rivalries that send two tots spinning into tantrums, the phases we’d rather forget — Henry’s prolific biting and Midori’s astute use of profanity. As a working mother and an athlete, there have been a multitude of moments when I was too rushed, too stressed, too caught in the demands of my day to return their affections. The frenzied mornings when Henry would spend an hour trying to tug on his coat and find the right shoes that didn’t scrunch his toes and ask me what kind of ears a person would need to have in order to hear God talking, while his sister perched in the doorway to show me her latest yoga posture and I, all the while, was frantically trying to get them in the car before the start of the school day. That is the other reality of motherhood. The frantic, the assiduous, the commotion of trying to “fit it all in” without first losing sanity. 

The good news is that children are forgiving. They don’t demand perfection. In fact, they expect it less than we, as women and mothers, presuppose. Our children want our undivided attention in bits and pieces, and then to assert their own autonomy the rest of the day. It is in the apex of that doorway – the one where children trust in the steadfast love of a mother enough to be their own persons – that we can find the balance of living. It’s in that space that we have the opportunity to model to our children the importance of pursuing your passions and being a healthy, whole woman. 

I hear so many girlfriends lament that they feel guilty leaving their children so that they might go to the gym, get in 90 minutes of Bikram, take a long bike ride in the beautiful fall weather. Some of these same women already feel a sense of remorse for working outside the home, and see their time as a “battle of attrition,” wherein they must walk a tightrope with their remaining hours away from the office. They forget that being a mother does not mean practicing parenthood every moment of every day. We do our children no favors when our lives revolve around only their needs. 

My own mother worked in the home, which is to say that she was a “stay at home mother.” She spent all her time tending to her children, through bitterness and exhaustion and resentment. In the process, she became unhealthy, obese, sedentary. By the end of her life, which came much too soon, she was bedridden and unable to be fully present for her children and grandchildren. She missed recitals and graduations, births and deaths, celebrations and accolades because she had forfeited herself to the role of being a parent to such measure that she lost herself. As she lay in a hospital bed, sucking in her last breaths, I told my husband that I would gladly have traded 20 hours a week with my mother in exchange for 20 years of her living well. She never knew she was making that trade. She knew only that she was a wholly devoted parent, and that she never felt the guilt of leaving us with a sitter. 

I exercise every single day. My husband also fits a daily workout in to his schedule. In the process, we model to our kids the value of physical activity, and the need to take time to tend to the personal. When I return to my home after a weekend away, racing my bike, I come back to my children renewed and ready to tackle the exhausting work of parenting. I’ve never felt the sting of guilt for having a life apart and they, in turn, have grown confident and independent, and understand fully the need to devote attention to the care of the self. 

For some women, the challenge is simply finding the time to step away. My answer is simple: structure. Not in a rigid sense, filled with charts and chore lists but, rather, in a fluid way that serves as testament to the fulcrums steadying our love for one another. I make supper with the help of my children. Midori sets our table, and Henry clears the plates when we have finished eating. My husband does the dishes as I draw the tub and soap the children. The kids ready themselves each morning, and tidy their rooms while my husband prepares their breakfast and I head out on my morning run. When I return, I clean the kitchen and set out the bentos and backpacks, violins and coats. It’s an unspoken contract between us all – that we will help one another in a way that inspires peace and calm in each of our days. This conformity to habit has given my children a sense of predictability in a spontaneous world. At the same time, it has provided my husband and me the freedom to do the things we most love. 

Before we became parents, each of us had a life. Though we worked hard, we found ways to relax, to express ourselves, to relieve tension. When we back away from our attempts to be paragons, we give our children an incredible gift. As we enlist our kids as allies, we teach them that they are valued members of a community, and they derive a real sense of esteem from contributing to the running of the home. In modeling for them how we, their parents, can take time for ourselves to be healthy and distribute the day’s work, we help our children understand that everyone has value, that exercise is important and natural, and that it’s okay to turn your focus inward so that you can show others your best upon your return.