Kathryn’s eyes filled with tears as she related to me how worn and spent she felt caring for her twin boys, now two. Kathryn’s own mother had been emotionally absent, pursuing one affair after another while leaving Kathryn and her siblings with a succession of babysitters.

Now, Kathryn strove to make sure she didn’t repeat those mistakes. She held herself to impossibly high standards, attempting to meet every need her two boys had.

As she related these feelings, the image of a sieve came to mind.

Carrying Water in a Sieve

It is a common task assigned to a heroine in fairy tales to carry water in a sieve. Trying to give to others when we ourselves are so depleted can feel just like that.

An American folktale collected by Zora Neale Hurston entitled “The Orphan Boy and Girl and the Witches” uses this image of a sieve being used to carry water to illustrate how profoundly depleted we can feel when we ourselves have been inadequately mothered.

We know from the title that the two children in the story have not received adequate parental care – they are orphans. Though Kathryn was not literally an orphan, she had been abandoned by her mother emotionally at a critical time in her childhood.

The boy and the girl in the folktale are cared for by a grandmother, but she is absent when the tale begins, and therefore the boy and girl are at the mercy of three witches.

The witches wanted to eat them at once, but they begged to be spared until their grandmother returned at sundown. The witches didn’t want to wait, so they said that they would not eat them if they would go and get some water from the spring. The children gladly said they would go. The witches gave them a sieve to fill with water, and told them that if they did not return with it at once they would be eaten immediately. The boy and the girl went to the spring for the water and dipped and dipped to try to fill the sieve, but the water always ran out faster than they could fill it. At last they saw the witches coming. Their teeth were far longer than their lips.

Later in the story, the grandmother returns, but falls asleep, and in the end it is only the dogs who save the children.

Permission to Care for Ourselves

Depressed and depleted, Kathryn could not connect with a sense of pleasure as she parented. Rather, she did for her children out of a sense of duty. She found herself dragging herself through the day, stumbling from one task to the next without any joy. She needed permission to take care of herself and make sure that she was getting some of her own needs met.

Over time, Kathryn learned to recognize when her own needs had been pushed aside for too long. Although it was difficult for her, she accepted that she did not always have to be flawless in how she parented. She could trust that her children would be fine even if she didn’t always respond to their needs perfectly. She began to trust herself as well, listening to the signals that came from her body and through her dreams.

Any one of us can become depleted when caring for children, but we may be especially susceptible to feeling drained if we were not properly mothered when we were children. This can lead to us feeling deadened and out of touch with a sense of pleasure and purpose in our lives. In such circumstances, we will likely have trouble listening to our instincts, which we need to care for both ourselves and our children.

In some fairy tales that feature sieves, the heroin learns to plug the holes with ashes or mud, and is then able to carry the needed water. When we recognize our depletion, we can take care of ourselves, patching the holes in our selves so that we have the inner resources to parent joyfully.

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Hurston, Z. N., & Kaplan, C. (2003). Every tongue got to confess: negro folk-tales from the Gulf States. New York, NY: Perennial.