Flowing streams, not full cups.

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

All moms of young kids hear this piece of advice…an irony that’s almost cruel considering that, in that stage of life, a mom is lucky to accumulate a more than a dribble of peace or time or energy.

And yet, pour out she must. So, when my kids were little, I worked hard to “keep my cup full.” I made time for hot showers and healthy meals, got a massage every now and then, fought hard for eight hours of sleep (and sometimes succeeded). Most of the time, my energy stores stayed just north of “fully depleted” and during that hectic season, it felt like a win.

These days, my life looks pretty different, and so does my personal concept of “self-care.” My kids are at school all day nine months of the year and occupied with their own interests many of the weekend hours. As a divorced mom, I sometimes go an entire week without even seeing my younger kids.

But what’s most wildly different today from my life ten or fifteen years ago is that I’ve got time. Time to read, reflect, write. Time to walk, take care of my skin, practice yoga. Time to, y’know, fill my cup.

So, when will my cup be so full it starts effortlessly overflowing into generosity?

The longer I settle into this new stage of life, the more I think it just doesn’t work that way.

Years ago I carefully protected the hours in my day, for very fair reasons. “I don’t have time for that” became my constant refrain as I tried to fit a more-than-full-time job as a writer and content creator into life as a mom of five. I became skilled at guarding my minutes and hours by saying “no” and held myself at arms length from time-consuming social dynamics or situations where I may be called upon to give more than I felt I could take from my family and work.

It made sense then, but I sometimes wonder now if the walls I’ve put up around my time are still based in truth, or an outdated story I’m telling myself about the preciousness of my time and the emptiness of my “cup.” Who does jealously hoarding my time and energy serve? And is it really needed anymore?

Last Sunday Mike, the speaker at my church, referred to the “shape of our souls” as “hoses, not bowls” and I’ve been thinking about how incomplete the metaphor of soul-as-cup-to-be-filled has always felt to me, even as I’ve used it myself. After all, do human beings ever really feel “full”? We’re black holes in a way; bottomless pits of want and desire. There will always be room for more Me. And if I require Me to have a safe and abundant supply of energy stores before I give anything to anyone or anything else…well, all those people and things are gonna be waiting a long time.

While I was chewing on this idea, I got an email newsletter from my friend, author Melody Warnick, about the concept of being a good neighbor and “the ministry of being available.” More food for thought about how fiercely humans tend to guard our “stores” and how, ultimately, we steal from ourselves by trying to protect ourselves. So, what is the other way?

Viewing our inner selves as hoses – or, if you prefer a more poetic metaphor, a channel or stream – requires a lot of faith. Instead of hoarding energy, letting it flow through – a drop in, a drop out – means we trust there will be more where that came from. But I’m starting to wonder if there’s any other way to live meaningfully. Giving to my kids took a lot from me in the early years, but motherhood gave back abundantly in a sense of meaning and purpose. Taking that energy and redirecting it back toward myself is fun, but doesn’t feel rewarding enough to sustain half a lifetime.

When my kids were little, all those hot showers and healthy meals weren’t “filling” anything. They were just keeping the trickle flowing, and that was enough for that season. What might be possible now, in this my midlife, post-little-kid-mothering reality, if I could start seeing my time and energy as less finite, less something that must be be fiercely protected and contained for myself?

I’m still a big fan of massages, long hot baths, aromatherapy, walks in nature, meditation, yoga, and comforting daily rituals. But I’m trying to look at those things through a slightly different lens these days. All those practices aren’t about filling a cup, but keeping the “hose” in good working order so the flow doesn’t leak out the side. Keeping the sticks and rocks out of the stream so it doesn’t jam up.

I don’t need to wait to be “full” to give, I just need to let what’s coming in flow on through. And for me, that starts with telling myself a new story about how much time, energy, and abundance are at the source.

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