I catch myself looking forward to nap and bedtime, when life selfishly becomes mine again. And that anticipation for my sleeping child brings with it incredible guilt. I feel like a bad mother who isn’t savoring every moment of her precious toddler’s life.
“These are the times to hold onto,” the grandmas at the park say.
“Enjoy every moment.” I try, I really do.
“They grow up so fast ya know?” I know, I know.
It’s already been three years and like finishing a good novel too quickly, I long to return to that first page, when everything was new and tiny, when life smelled like powder and ointments. But also, like a good book, I can’t wait to finish this chapter and start the next. I’m always looking forward to the new stage, when we lose the baby paraphernalia and travel light, when we can eat at restaurants again, and admittedly, guiltily, when it is time for my three year old spitfire to sleep, to dream, to…leave me alone.
“I’m heartless, I know. Hear that Grandma, fucking heartless.”
But no one tells you before becoming a parent that even when you are alone, there is a price to pay, a tariff of guilt, a tax of concern. A child has the amazing ability to suck the energy, focus, and parental life into them. It’s an incredible survival skill, probably inherited from their nomadic ancestors, in an instinctive effort not be left behind. I can just picture my daughter Adelaide in her deer hide diaper, running through a herd of buffalo screaming, “Wait for me! I get to be pack leader!”
It’s the only explanation I can conjure for why my toddler follows me from room to room, from kitchen to living room, from hallway to bathroom, and why when I ask her to give Mommy two minutes alone in the loo, she proudly bursts through the door, justifying her presence by saying, “I’M STANDING ON THE RUG,” as if it were some one’s job in the family to dutifully hold down the bathroom rug at all times, in case of an indoor hurricane or bathtub tsunami.
I recognize that when I try to lie down for a moment, and my little energetic sprite crawls on top of my head, for her it is actually a great compliment in toddler etiquette. She’s saying, “I love you so much Mommy, that I must give you a purpose at all times. When you rest, you serve no purpose. So I’ll make you a jungle gym, and climb your hair and swing from your arms, because you Mommy are important, and I’ve found a purpose for your superfluous parts.”
I know I am a selfish being who would love to poop alone, to catch one episode of daytime television without a child screaming, “This isn’t Dora!” I know the hands on the kiddo clock are moving much too quickly, and it is my duty, my obligation as a mother to savor every macaroni-necklace-making moment, and that there will come a day when I catch an episode of “Law and Order” without peeking through a diaper hat, and someday I will have a conversation that has a beginning, middle and end. I know that these are the days to hold onto, just like Billy Joel said.
I know that when I’m making coffee and my daughter asks, “Can I help?” I should be thrilled by her curiosity and enthusiasm for life, rather than lamenting the fact that by helping, she means scooping coffee grounds into every orifice of our kitchen tile and how I’ll spend an hour and a half cleaning up a task that usually takes thirty seconds. Most of the time, I let her help make the coffee, feed the cats, water the plants, even though, those three simple tasks take all day. I kid you not, all day. Because toddler time is like stoner time. Nobody’s in a hurry. We got all day, man.
My good mommy brain assures me that these are great lessons for her. Already at three, she can do laundry, dust the house, sweep the floors and send emails. She holds the leash when we walk the dog and she can work the DVD player, Kindle, microwave, and coffee grinder better than both her parents combined. She makes sure that she is part of every moment, a proud pupil, learning the details of domesticity, the social milieus on the playground, the subtle discourse of our family life. She reminds me to smell the neighbor’s roses, to dance when we hear music, to color waaay outside the lines and to find humor in anything smelly, loud or ridiculous. I do enjoy almost every second, I do try to make everyday worth it, to remember her face like a snapshot when she collapses into hysterical giggles, to write down the funny things she says, to really exist in the moment, without thinking about the next. But I can’t all the time.
Having a child has taught me strangely, that I need myself… a lot. Not in some new-agey “I’m going to hike into the Alaskan wilderness to live on berries” sort of way. But I need me…alone. I believe as mothers and women there is a tremendous amount of guilt attached to wanting solitude. We are expected to appreciate the fact that we are needed, and if we don’t appreciate that, we’re not enjoying the “gift” of motherhood.
Here’s an example of how I’m guilty of not embracing the “gift”. My husband has a habit, and I’ll go out on a limb and call it a bad habit, because it drives me crazy…but he has the habit of telling Addie thirty times a day to give Mommy a hug. It’s sweet, I know. You’re all thinking, “What is wrong with that adorable gesture?” Why, would this horrible woman be annoyed by her husband telling their child to show her mother affection? The answer is twofold.
Usually this is a tactic for my husband to get alone-time for himself. By putting the toddler’s focus on Mommy, he can escape into a magazine, or TV show. And when it isn’t just an escape plan, I am usually busy doing something that I’ve finally found time to tackle, because Daddy’s home! And I want the focus to stay on Daddy, so I can get my work done. When I give my husband “the look”, the one that means, “Are you fucking kidding me?” he says something like, “I love it when she hugs me, what is your problem?” Hmmm, my problem is that maybe I’m too in the moment to actually enjoy every moment. For parents whose kids aren’t in daycare or preschool, the naps and snacks, potty time and “look at me tap dance on the kitchen table” moments are something to escape, rather than treasure. Not always, but sometimes.
We are both, my daughter and I, subject to evolutionary specialization, that biological need to keep our place in the tribe, and keep an eye on number one. While Addie runs through the buffalo screaming, “Me too, me too,” I’m focused on her, but also taking advantage of my peripheral vision, in case a mountain lion decides to make me lunch. Okay, maybe not a mountain lion, but exhaustion, or depression.
I am trying, like so many mothers to find the place where my child ends and I begin, that tiny nook that separates us, like the hairline sliver of an umbilical cord. That space cannot be underestimated, or justified by guilt. It means that sometimes I lock myself in the bathroom to read in the tub, while Daddy does respiratory treatment. It means that sometimes I have to ignore my maternal instinct to be there all the time doing everything for everyone. And that is really hard. I was a person before I was a mommy, and I don’t mind taking a backseat to my kiddo. But I do every now and again look in the rear view mirror, see my old self and say, “Good, you’re still there.”
I love my daughter more than I’ve ever loved anyone, but when the clock hits 8pm, its lights out for the toddler and lights on for Mommy. Addie is my world, but within that universe is a room of my own, without Lincoln Logs and Elmo, just a good book, a hot tub and a moment that I can hold onto and let go, without feeling guilty.