As a parent, and especially a mother,* I resist the notion that time taken for myself is “selfish”. The way I see it, our family is a symbiotic unit, and as the primary caretaker, the demands on me are endless. On a typical day I am held close, pushed away, kissed, zerberted, punched, jumped on from behind, and literally sucked on. I pour juice and make toast, and then clean it up once it has fallen on the floor. I pack lunches, and then unpack the chewed-on scraps at the end of the day. I change diapers, wipe butts, wash tiny pairs of briefs, and instruct on proper aiming technique. All of this may or may not be extra challenging for me because I am an introvert—it might just be plain hard for everyone. And so, as a general rule, I resolve to fill my own cup at any opportunity. I don’t believe that time away from my kids is time stolen from my kids. The more time I have for myself, I reason, the kinder I will be to my children, more able to tolerate the zerberts and the poop.
But sometimes I feel like I’m in the minority. I hear about the parents who haven’t gone out for a drink in six years, or the moms who would never dream of dropping their child off at daycare on a day they didn’t have to work. And though in principal I refuse to feel guilty for taking me-time, when I drop Stump off at daycare just to experience the sensation of having two free arms for a few hours, I often imagine their disapproving glares.
This week was my last week of summer break, a week where Smoke had kindergarten every day, and, because it is September, Stump is enrolled in full-time daycare. In other words, the stars aligned and granted me twenty-five child-free hours.
To justify this time to the imaginary judgers, I made big plans. I would write a book and organize the house. I would run every day and stockpile healthful meals for my family. The week came and went and I made the smallest bit of headway on these goals. I wrote the rough draft of one chapter. I got rid of clothes that no longer fit Stump. I roasted a chicken. But I also filled my own cup in ways that might be just as important. I share them with you now in case any of you, dear readers, need an antidote to the imaginary judging eyes.
1. I spent time getting places. Since my week was still full of drop-offs and pick-ups and since the weather was crisp and dry, I took lots of little walks and rode my bike around town. I noticed the weather. I breathed.
2. I saw this badass raccoon. Because I left the car behind as much as possible, I slowed down enough to glimpse this tail-less old raccoon, who was roaming my neighbor’s yard in broad daylight. As you can see, he was unimpressed with me. After I took this picture, he started chewing the fleas off of his butt.
3. I rekindled my love for Dan Savage. Instead of re-organizing the house top-to-bottom, I just tried to stay on top of the daily maintenance with a little more precision. The dishes and the laundry were enough to keep me busy. Because there was no five-yearold around to ask me what that guy was talking about when he said BDSM, I listened to about a dozen episodes of the Savage Lovecast while doing chores. I’ve loved Dan Savage since the nineties, when I was eighteen and stumbled across his sex-positive advice column. I was so comforted to find this voice that was a) openly gay, b) smart and enggaed, and c) hilarious. It’s nearly twenty years later and I still love Dan Savage. In particular, I love Savage Lovecast Episode 411, where Dan responds to the recent celebrity nude photo hacks and offers some tough love to a woman with a transgendered friend. Sometimes Dan Savage is so right on, he brings me to tears.
4. I ate a salted caramel cupcake in the sun. The last two days of my week were beautiful from morning to evening, and on Thursday, I road my bike downtown to drink coffee and write. I almost talked myself out of buying a cupcake at the shop next door before riding home. You know, I didn’t really need that. I bought it anyways and sat on the bench. I didn’t have to share. Inside the cake itself, there was a surprise extra glob of caramel.
*Normally, I try to write about “parenting” rather than “mothering”, because I don’t want to gender-ize the parenting experience. However, in this case, I’ve noticed that our culture has trained mothers more than fathers to feel guilty for prioritizing their own needs.
Yesterday, the season changed to fall. We’ve had a long, dry summer, but suddenly the rain clouds have rolled in, the wind has picked up, and the sunlight—when it breaks through—is that pale yellow light that whispers “almost gone.” Last night, as I began the process of bedtimes, cold air blew through the open window. I closed it, and dug out the comforter that we had retired from the bed for July and August.
Our house is in disarray. On Monday, Smoke, Stump, and I returned from the east coast, and I still haven’t unpacked. We were gone for nearly two weeks, and Kellie used the time to remodel the bathroom; the floor underneath it had been rotting for years. But she hasn’t finished. We have a toilet, but no sink, no washer dryer, and the bathtub is upside down in our living room.
I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.
For instance: about a month ago, Smoke got a packet from his kindergarten teacher in the mail. It contained homework. We looked at the various pages at the kitchen table. Within an hour, several of the pages were spotted with pizza grease. I worry about what this says about us.
So last night, the night before the first day of kindergarten, the night of the cold wind and fading light, I brought the kids home freshly bathed. I told Smoke that he could choose a show to watch while I put Stump to sleep. He chose Caillou.
Caillou. The bald toddler who interested Smoke for about a month when he was three and hasn’t interested him since. Caillou was quickly replaced by Dinosaur Train, and then Ninjago and Spider-Man and Chima, and there was no looking back. Until now. On the night before kindergarten, my son chooses Caillou without any trace of irony. He asked me to read him the episodes, and he remembered each one like he had watched them only last week, and finally he settled on “Caillou Tells the Truth.”
After Caillou and books he fell asleep within minutes, without protest, holding his stuffed fox. This is not how our days have been.
Our days have been full of contention. At least once every day, Smoke decides that any given limit I’ve set is proof that I am out to get him. A look crosses his face and he begins to taunt me. He’s silly at first, calling me a poop-butt or a stink-bunny, but if I react he comes after me. He’ll belt me in the gut, or kick me from behind. This is all very alarming, and the two things that keep me from running to the nearest child therapist are a) I seem to be the only recipient of these rages and b) in some weird way, he seems to have control over them. He has yet to actually hurt me, and it always seems like there’s a calmer, kinder Smoke only one layer underneath looking on in wonder.
Still, I’ve been struggling to explain his behavior to myself in any kind of satisfying way. I think perhaps that summer has bored him, or that he’s trying on his independence, or that he’s jealous of the constant attention his little brother gets, or that he’s anxious about the big changes coming his way.
This morning Smoke rose early, and I got up to find him snuggled into Kellie’s arms for the minutes before she had to leave for work.
Our morning began well, until I asked him to get dressed five times over the course of twenty minutes. He was jumping from the bathtub to the couch and could not be interrupted. His brother, for once, was eating quietly in his high chair. “I don’t know what to do with you,” I told him. “We need to go, and you’re not getting dressed.”
“You’re so mean!” he said. The look flashed across his face.
“How am I being mean?” I asked.
He stood on top of the bathtub and furrowed his brow. “I woke up excited this morning, and then you came along and hurt my feelings.”
I sat down on the couch and pulled him into me. I know that feeling so well—that feeling of bright expectation, interrupted by conflict. I knew also that I wasn’t mean, but was in that moment the container for his ambivalence, the voice that nagged about all the things that needed to be done. “I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I want you to be excited. Let’s both work at being nice, okay?”
Twenty minutes later he sat on the rug in his classroom while parents and siblings gathered at the edges. The teacher read a story called The Kissing Hand about a raccoon who was nervous to begin school. I held Smoke’s little brother Stump in my arms, praying he would not leap or cry out, or demand to run amok across the room. In the book, the raccoon’s mother kisses the inside of her child’s paw, and tells him he can use that kiss any time he needs some love from home. Her child returns the favor.
Once the book had ended, it was time to say goodbye and so the parents found their children one last time. Smoke looked around and had trouble spotting his brother and me. I could see him crumble just a bit. I called to him. Everyone around us was kissing hands. “Goodbye!” he offered brightly after spotting us.
“No wait,” I said. I offered the inside of Smoke’s hand to Stump, who eagerly kissed his brother, not once, but over and over. We did that all around, kissing hands until the moment passed and parents filed out. We closed the door behind us so it looked like we were gone, but many of us stole an extra moment watching through the classroom window. When I saw that the other parents were crying, a quiet sob shuddered through me. How long had it been lying in wait? All morning? All month? Since the day he was born?
That sob completed my rite of passage. Leaving Smoke behind us, I walked Stump home in the stroller, sniffling, now the mother of a school-aged child.
My summer break officially starts in 21 days. I’m trying not to think about all of the work that needs to get done between now and then, the papers that need grading, the early morning meetings. Instead, I’m just trying to trust that these days will pass, that the work will get done somehow, and by the end of June I will breathe again.
But I’m worried about my to-do lists, which are scattered on my computer, my iPhone, on scraps of paper. They’re full of crazy goals, of random ideas, of books I need to read, of essays I need to write, and 1001 ways to become a better person. I’ve learned from summers past that two months is more of a blip than a lifetime, and yet still I overplan.
So I’ve decided I need a new kind of to-do list, one that helps me actively work on underachieving, or to put it more kindly (and more accurately) one that helps me attend to my day-to-day needs rather than always scrambling towards some distant future.
1. Sleep as much as possible. My goal here is to stop counting hours, to stop treating sleep as a bargaining arrangement, e.g. If I sleep five hours tonight and six hours tomorrow, I can make it up by sleeping eight hours on Friday. No. I won’t do this anymore. I will go to bed when I’m tired and wake when the morning wakes me. And I will have long conversations with Stump about this plan, because he will need to get on board.
2. Sit on the couch with Smoke and watch a movie from beginning to end. I’m not sure I’ve ever done this. I’ve tried, but always I find myself getting up and folding laundry, or grabbing my laptop and answering emails. But I’m capable of this, I know it. Maybe if I make a giant bowl of popcorn, I’ll be able to sit still for ninety minutes.
3. Binge-watch TV on Netflix. I am so overdue for this. I think I’ve watched a total of three hours of TV over the last nine months.
4. Have car-free, plan-free, errand-free days. Plan-free days scare me, but they always turn out to be the best days, the days where we actually find time to draw and make cookies, or ride bikes to the park and then stay there for two hours.
5. Cultivate friendships. Sometimes I forget to appreciate all of the people I love outside of my immediate family. Partly it’s because they are scattered across the state and the country. Partly it’s because, as a rule these days, everyone is always busy. I try to make time to maintain the friendships I have, but this means giving them just enough. It means an hour in passing here and there, but never long enough to follow a hundred tangents and then land on a comfortable silence. This summer I want to be the kind of friend who actually answers the phone, who says “yes” to the spontaneous invitation, who goes on an adventure, who has an afternoon to spare.
From the time my son could talk, the first word out of his mouth every morning was Mommy. When he was two, he called it from his bed. He was little then, and needed me to fetch him; he couldn’t conceive of leaving his bed alone. Always, he insisted on taking my hand as we crossed the threshold from his room to the rest of the house. As he grew older, he gained the confidence to rise on his own, but still he’d find me in the kitchen and call my name—Mommy!—his arms stretched wide for a hug. I recognized that such greetings wouldn’t continue forever, and I wondered when they’d end.
My son is five now and those greetings have ended. These days, he walks into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. He cocks his head and smiles at me, a little sheepishly. I open my arms, and he walks into them. He doesn’t invoke my name. I rub his head. I bend over and smell his hair: shampoo and sweat.
My son has entered the stage where whole days can pass, and I don’t see much of him. There are mornings where I leave for work just after he has woken. I may pick him up from preschool at 5:30, his baby brother in tow, and listen to him chatter for an hour as we make and eat dinner. That hour of half-attention is sometimes all I have before the baby melts down and I attend to his bedtime while my partner takes care of the rest. And then, on the weekends, people now offer to take him from me. He gets invited for afternoons at the park, trips to the movies, sleepovers. I send him off on these adventures, and entertain fears about him falling down a staircase or slipping on a rock. Clearly my worry is disproportionate; it is my mind’s sneaky way of grieving his independence.
On the day my son was born, when the nurse placed his naked body on my chest, I was amazed by how firm and warm and actual he felt. I had imagined something squishy and barely human, not this long, fully-formed person. As he began to grow, I recalled that moment every time I took him out of the bath. I’d hold him against me and look at us in the mirror, the back of his long body, his skin still warm from the water, and connect it in my mind to the body I held that first day.
When I do that now, the connection feels distant. My son’s legs dangle; they reach for the floor. It all makes sense, I suppose. My son once lived inside of me, and then, once he was born, he depended on my milk and the warmth of my body for survival. As he grew older he ate more and nursed less, until finally he drank water from the tap or juice from the fridge. So it’s right that his limbs should reach beyond me now. But I hadn’t counted on these feelings, not so early anyway. I thought I had until puberty at least to maintain my status as the Center of his World. But already, after just five years of raising him, I feel acutely that he will leave me again and again in ways that I haven’t yet accounted for.