Chelsea has four children, a husband, and teaches preschool. She takes care of lot of people.
Her first son was born in 2006. She had just turned 20. When their son was over a year old, she and her first husband separated and divorced. Her ex-husband decided to live locally so he could stay involved with their son, and he is now even more involved than the court had originally allotted.
Initially, Chelsea had thought her ex husband would perhaps pull back after a short time, since the baby was so young and had struggled with the uncomfortable parts of infancy. She thought he would just have her take care of their son, and he would do his own thing and have a different family. At one point he even told her that was his plan. In some ways he was ashamed of certain choices he had made, and said “Maybe I should just leave, go far away, and not look back.”
Chelsea had felt strongly that that wasn’t a good idea. She believed that their son needed to know he was not abandoned. In some ways it would have been simpler for her, and for her second marriage to not have another father involved, because there are so many considerations. But she felt strongly that she should encourage him to stay involved. And he decided to do just that.
She remarried when her first son was almost two, and she and her husband now have three more children. Chelsea considers herself really fortunate to live near extended family on both sides, from multiple generations. “When there are days when we just need a change of pace, a change of scenery, something to remind us that it’s okay, and that we love to be together—it’s okay to be living life at a slower pace, we go to either grandparent’s house. It rejuvenates us to continue on. I think about people that don’t have that option, that there really is nowhere to go. That is a challenge that I have never experienced.”
Early in her time as a parent, Chelsea decided to make caregiving for her son a priority. She really wanted to be near her son, so she got a job working in daycare. However, in the place she worked, she still had to watch other people’s children, and other people watched her son. One day at nap time, as she put children to sleep, she heard her son cry in the room next door. In that moment she asked herself, “What am I doing? This is not the place to be.” She knew that if her child needed comfort, she wanted to be the one to provide it. She put in her notice that day. She would provide full-time care for her own children.
A couple of years ago, she decided to teach preschool at her home, and includes all of her younger children in her teaching. She thinks the structured time benefits her children. She would not spend that kind of effort for her children alone. Her four year old son was reading before he turned five. She loves how the preschool puts them on a schedule. She doesn’t feel that her days off of preschool are any more productive than days spent teaching. In fact, she likes the structure enough that she has decided to teach in the summer as well, taking time off only for vacations, emergencies, or other things that come up.
She has other dreams of graduate degrees and a career, but she plans to hold off on those until her youngest is in first grade.
Chelsea loves to see her children discover new things, and to be the one they’re with when they do. She loves it whether a baby has new sensations, or a child experiences something for the first time, and is delighted. With older children, she loves watching them gain confidence as they learn new skills, or different ways they can play. She loves to watch them realize that they can depend on her when things aren’t going their way. “To feel like I am needed. Sometimes being wanted is a great part of caregiving.”
She acknowledges that the amount of time and energy required on such a consistent basis can be trying. It takes a lot of effort to take care of herself enough to deliver the kind of care that she wants to. “That’s a constant battle for me, though. I sometimes think I have to give away my self to care well, but when I go too far that direction I find that that is not the case. I don’t have the store of energy that I need. I can’t be a model of joy and eagerness for life if I don’t feel it. I can’t fake it.” When she finds that she really has to work to remind herself to play, or that she should sit down to read a book with her children, or that they should go outside—that is when she knows it has been too long. “I think caregivers really have a need for solitude, and if they don’t take time to have it, then it will affect the caregiving.”
Chelsea is a structured, to-do list sort of person. “I have to write it down on a to do list—X amount of minutes per day or per week that I have to spend alone.” In a class she learned that you have to do things that you are passionate about, or that you love, but things that don’t benefit society. Your time doesn’t have to be about productivity. “It’s not about efficiency or usefulness. Let your body … let your mind … let your soul just breathe for a time. That might be lying down on the floor. It might be restoring a piece of furniture.” If she doesn’t have the energy required to do a project, then she says lying down is good enough. She says she needs a minimum of 20 minutes a day, in the middle of the day somewhere, where she stops completely. “I am still. I am quiet. If I don’t do that, it’s basically sending a message to myself and to those I care for that it’s not a priority, that I’m not a priority, and they’re not a priority.”
Part of her philosophy is that we have to be tender and gentle with ourselves and other caregivers. We should recognize that if they’re not prioritizing to take care of themselves, it is usually because they are exhausted or discouraged in some way. Often they are not taking time for themselves because they are giving more. She says “I think we should assume that is always the case. If someone is looking really run down—if someone is at their wit’s end, it is because they’ve given so much.”
It has been curious experience for her to interact with a third parent for one of her children. Chelsea said, “I am really grateful for literature and books and mentors that teach divorcing parents the importance of recognizing the value of the other parent to that child. It doesn’t matter what your relationship to your ex-spouse is. It doesn’t matter what you think of their choices. It doesn’t matter if you wish you’d never married them. It doesn’t matter. Your relationship has ended, but the relationship between your child and that parent will never end. That’s the relationship you are supporting. Not because you care about that other person, but because you know how much that relationship will influence the life of your child.”
Chelsea believes she has been successful in never saying something negative about her ex husband in front of their son. Her son does not think she dislikes or disapproves of his dad at all. The really beautiful thing for her is that she doesn’t have negative feelings about his father anymore. She believes in the importance of treating him with respect when their son is around, and even if they are in private she tries to speak as if their son were around. She feels like because she speaks to him with respect, he makes a real effort to cooperate with what she feels is important. “If I treated him poorly, I don’t think that would be the case.”
She is still learning to figure out something I hadn’t even thought about: the fourth parent, your ex’s new spouse. She said “It was a big relief for me when he remarried, because he was in various noncommital relationships with women. I didn’t know what circumstances our son would find him in whenever he went to visit.” At one point her son made a strong bond with the child of one of his dad’s girlfriends. When the adult relationship ended, the children had been like siblings, and then next day the relationships were gone. Chelsea observed, “In my mind that is like him experiencing a second divorce in one way. He may not grieve the loss of the significant other, but he will grieve. He asked me over and over again where that other child was. The disruption in routine, schedule, expectations, location, all of those things are very disruptive.”
She is happy for her ex husband now that he is in a stable relationship. She thinks her son and his stepmom work well together. “I think she is a good role model.” Her ex husband has been remarried for three years, and this is the first year Chelsea has called her directly on the phone. “For some reason that was a landmark for me, to realize that I can talk to her, just, you know, not always through my ex husband. She’s been more than willing to have a good relationship with me, and I appreciate that.”
When I asked if she had any demons that torment her or angels that help her in her work, Chelsea said, “I feel strongly that I have relatives, ancestors, people not in this world that remind me how important caregiving is—how important parenting is. I think they are more gentle with me than I am. I appreciate that. I feel a subtle warmth sometimes, or a hand on the shoulder. ‘It’s okay. Slow down. This is wonderful.’ In some ways I am a little disappointed with myself that I have to remind myself that caregiving and mothering are the more important occupations of the world because I do believe that. But I wish I didn’t have to remind myself of that. I guess if anyone ever wonders if that is a priority for me, that would be sad for me. I want to work so that it is very apparent that this is enough, and because of that and the way I behave, other people can be more comfortable and satisfied with their calling as a caregiver.”
Thank you for inspiring me with our interview, Chelsea. I honor you.