I’ve always been a good multi-tasker, a high energy person able to keep lots of balls in the air at once. Before I married I worked full-time, studied evenings and weekends for my graduate degree, stopped at the gym on my way to work in the mornings and managed to squeeze a satisfying social life in between all of this. So I imagined fitting kids into this equation wouldn’t be too hard, right? Right?? Oh settle down you in the back! If we all knew what parenthood was going to be like going into it our species would come to an abrupt halt.
Yeah, so, those images of me rocking a cradle with my foot as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation, or edited the final version of my novel? Dust. Go ahead and insert laugh track here.
The first few years of parenting are like being caught up in a cyclone. You have no idea what has hit you. You are powerless. You simply surrender because honestly, what else is there to do? You diaper, feed, soothe, bathe, dress, undress, sleep (well, not really sleep) in an endless loop. At some point, however, you wake up and realize your children have gained a modicum of independence and you can do things on your own for brief periods of time (go up and down the stairs, read a book, pee alone!) and it is deliciously liberating. It is about this time that fate whispers in your ear that perhaps, perhaps your life can be blessed with balance.
After all, there are scores of books and articles in women’s magazines dedicated to the topic. Articles with pictures of slender women with nice complexions sitting comfortably in lotus pose. It must actually exist, this balance. I’m sure I could achieve it if I just managed my time better, said “no” to the things that drained me, spent less time reading emails, took more bubble baths, dressed in earth tones and lit candles and baked organic cupcakes with my daughter, right? Right??
When I first came out of my mommy coma and started to do things for myself again, it was exquisitely gratifying, like a long rain after drought. I renewed old friendships. I read books. Lots and lots of books. I traveled to Australia with a girlfriend. I wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. All of this fed a deep need in me that I had abandoned during the selfless, faceless first years of childrearing. And yet it just touched the tip of the iceberg. Because there was still work and kids and all the day-to-day responsibilities of a life. But there was also something else. There was a noticeable backlash from my children. When I would sit down and open up my laptop (which was often) they would respond. First with sighs, later more strongly.
My daughter told me, “I think you love your computer most of all.”
My 5-year-old son: “I hate your computer.”
And two nights ago my daughter had a dream that I was leaving to go to Australia but could only take one child with me.
Here’s the thing. Balance is a fine concept. But it is just that. A concept. There are times in our lives when it is more achievable than others (retirement comes to mind, our twenties perhaps). I don’t think raising small children is meant to be an easy, relaxing time in our lives. Throw full-time work into the mix and it’s even less tenable. (Though, honestly, I don’t know that it’s any easier for those parents who stay at home – just a different set of challenges.) I’ve come to accept that I will probably not feel well-rested and sated in all the myriad ways I would like to be for quite some time, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean I will stop seeking balance. It’s a necessary goal. But I think of it less as a final destination and more as a mark by which I navigate, something that keeps me from going too far off course in any one direction.
Lately, this has meant closing up my computer and getting down on the floor to build a train station out of Lincoln logs. Or sewing the arm back on Bear. Again. Or baking cupcakes with the kids (not organic, sorry) and letting them lick the bowl.
My kids will probably never have as much of me as they would like. I will never have as much of me as I would like. We’ll each have to live with that and do the best we can. I’m willing to give up more of myself to them now because I know that one day, I won’t have the honor of them wanting to spend all their time with me. I want to enjoy being at the center of their universe while it lasts. Soon enough, life will call to them and I’ll be left with time on my hands. At that point, I suppose I can unearth the tub from beneath the plastic boats and crayola bath crayons and cherry bomb no-tears shampoo that currently live there, and take that coveted bubble bath.