By Kate Haas
A few weeks before my oldest son entered kindergarten, we attended a playground get-together for incoming students and their parents.
“This is my last kid to start school,” one mother announced mournfully. “The house will seem so empty. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.”
I regarded her with envy and astonishment. “All that time to yourself? Oh, you’ll find something to do.” I gave her the comradely grin of one mother-in-the-trenches to another.
She looked at me as if I’d insinuated that she might take up exotic dancing.
“Yeah, I’ll find something,” she said, stiffly. “I’ll keep busy.” She moved hastily away.
Clearly I had made a major faux pas.
There’s hardly a moment in the day when I’m not tending to one or both of my young boys. I chose to stay home with them and don’t regret that decision, but I’ve always treasured solitude, and I never really made my peace with the loss of it that motherhood so abruptly imposes.
My husband and I do our best to give each other breaks, and I savor every moment of these interludes. Finally, a breather. A chance to shed the ever-present sense of parental responsibility and simply exist by myself. Still, with two active kids and a slew of home improvement projects on the agenda, time alone these days is mostly like bad teenage sex: unplanned, unpredictable, and it doesn’t last long enough.
All this will change next year when my youngest starts preschool. His three mornings of singing and art projects will translate to ten and a half hours a week of freedom for me. I’m giddy just thinking about it.
For years, I’ve been in the thick of hands-on, day-in, day-out mothering. A break in the intensity, even one represented by a few mornings of preschool, has long figured in my mind as some sort of Holy Grail. Like everyone else, I have ambitions, projects that have long simmered on the back burner. Those hotly anticipated free hours represent the opportunity to start fulfilling them. But until that conversation at the playground, I hadn’t realized that some parents actually mourn the end of the daily round I’m chafing under.
A few days later, I encountered another mother, an older woman whose youngest had just entered first grade. Tentatively, I asked whether she had misgivings about all of her children being in school. She looked at me as if I were crazy.
“Are you kidding? I work from home and now I can do it in peace.” She sized up my two-year-old in his stroller. “Preschool next year?”
“Yeah. Three mornings. I’ll have ten and a half hours of free time. Not that I’m counting.”
“Nothing wrong with counting,” said my new acquaintance. She leaned closer, as if to impart a hard-won secret. “Listen. You might want to look into part-time work when your baby starts school. That’s fine later on, if you want to. Or if you need to, of course.” Her voice took on the cadence of a preacher or a politician. “But not right away. That first month, you enjoy yourself. Watch a movie, go to a bookstore; whatever you want. As long as it’s something just for you. Because after all these years of changing diapers and cleaning up after those kids, you’ve earned it.”
I continued my walk, her words echoing in my ears. Earned it. Have I? Thanks to a combination of luck, location, and frugality, our family can live on one modest income. I do plan to return to work, but not until the boys are older. Theoretically, I could use my free time to eat dark chocolate and watch all five seasons of The Wire, which I missed the first time around. Have I earned that?
More to the point, do I regard the work of motherhood this way? As labor for which I’m racking up invisible points? For which I deserve some compensation beyond that of seeing my children grow up to be decent human beings?
It feels petty to admit, but there’s a part of me that does believe a reward is in order. Sure, I do this job for love. But it’s work, all the same. I’m not getting a salary for it. Social Security won’t credit me for these years at home. Neither am I likely to land a part-time job during those preschool mornings. Time to myself is the only payment I can expect to receive at this stage. And frankly, from where I stand, time alone ranks right up there with gold.
As a parent, I’ve put my children’s needs before my own, wholeheartedly, day after day, discovering in the process a capacity for acting unselfishly that still surprises me. I don’t like to think about how often, lately, it’s just an act. After six years, stay-at-home parenting is wearing me down. I love my children dearly, but I don’t mind admitting it: not only will my eyes be dry on the first day of preschool, they’ll be alive with anticipation.
Finally, time alone. Not with one ear on alert during the unpredictable span of a child’s nap, but for hours on end. Time to dig into long, complex novels, to compose that letter to my senator; to organize the basement (well, maybe not). Time to assess who I am, now that the intensity of the early years has lifted.
Sure, I’ve earned that.
Kate Haas edits creative nonfiction at Literary Mama and publishes Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood and other adventures. Learn more about her writing at www.katehaas.com.
Illustration by Christine Juneau