April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

When We Leave Them Behind

For the first time in four years, my husband and I took a trip without our children this summer. We woke up early in the morning to take an Uber to the airport, to fly to LA for a wedding, and although usually I’d scoff at an early flight, because it was just the two of us it seemed like a breeze. It was effortless. I woke up five minutes before the cab arrived and we were off.

I was pumped for this trip, imagining the quiet flight, that I’d actually be able to read, sleep or watch a movie. That my mornings would be lazy and undisrupted, and that my nights would be stress-free, without a bunch of jet-lagged, overtired kids to put to bed. On a regular basis, my husband and I have a scant few minutes of quality time together each day, always scheming to get the kids to bed a little earlier, to occupy them somehow so we can eat with only our voices resonating in the kitchen, racing them off to school or activities and then collapsing on the couch. This vacation was like a year’s worth of those scavenged minutes, with no interruptions, and I was so grateful. But this time away also helped me arrive at several eye-opening conclusions (that are not necessarily universal, but maybe relatable).

Having children establishes boundaries.

They put me on a schedule that I wouldn’t otherwise be disciplined to keep if it were just for me. On school days, I wake everyone up at 6:45. Meals are scheduled throughout the day at firm times. Then there are showers, and bedtimes between 7 to 9, depending on their ages. After that, I do housework, which mostly revolves around the kids’ needs; lunches, putting away toys, cleaning up dinner. I am free to do what I please during the hours at school, but several of my activities are focused around their food choices, their shopping needs, their doctor appointments. There are a few stolen minutes throughout the evening where I sneak off and relax, but those are rare. And finally, late at night, I am spent, and I crawl off to bed, to sleep before the cycle begins again.

But without the kids, it doesn’t matter when I wake up or when we eat. I sleep late, I eat at random, sporadic times, and while this is initially liberating, being out of a routine makes me less productive and less healthy, overall. It doesn’t matter what words come out of my mouth, because nobody is looking at me as an example. My every move isn’t being watched and modeled by anyone, so who cares if I get angry and make a scene? Or have my own tantrum? Or if I eat Devil Dogs instead of lunch? Being a mother forces me to be the best, most refined version of myself that I can be, to adopt healthy habits, to be kind, to be productive, to be patient.

I need my kids as much as they need me.

Sometimes I feel like I just don’t catch a break. The morning routine is full of urgent demands, by everyone, simultaneously. “I need milk.”

“I need a spoon.”

“I can’t find my homework.”

“Where is my library book?”

And I just want to yell, “Do it yourself!” and sometimes I do, and they will noisily drag a bar stool to the side of the kitchen, climb up on the counter and get a bowl, a feat that could have been much smoother had I just done it. It’s draining to feel so heavily relied upon all the time, every minute of every day, like they cannot survive without me. But being alone made me realize that I need them just as much.

When it was only me, my day lacked purpose when it was not being filled with activities for other people, but rather only for my selfish needs. Although spreading cream cheese on a bagel can seem like a banal task, it is actually wrought with purpose and gives meaning to my day. I did something for someone else. I brushed someone’s hair and sent her off with my vote of confidence. I dressed others before I dressed myself. I don’t sit down and relax until I know everyone else is settled. Being on vacation without the kids, without a home that needs constant maintenance, I felt kind of lost and aimless, as all of my needs were being met by others, and I was being spoiled.

My kids define my identity.

When I was younger, I dreamed of being a mother. This was my aspiration. I suppose when I traipse through the airport with four kids in tow, one of them probably tantruming, the others tired or overly excited, the strollers, car seats, carry-on luggage and the alarming amount of snacks causing fellow travelers to curiously stare, or to send pity glances our way, people know right away who I am. A mother. And it feels rewarding, like I am a hero for accomplishing the task of traveling with my family. The security guards let us cut the line. The stewardesses send extra headphones our way. Other mothers give us knowing glances of sympathy as we pace the aisles with a screaming toddler.

But alone, unadorned with sticky hands holding mine, I was just me. I was not a mother, but just half of my usual whole self. Even though I am a million other things as well, motherhood is the most visible, most time-consuming label of them all, the one that seems to overshadow much of everything else. I felt like smiling at every child, like being that annoying person who comes over and pats you on the shoulder and says, “I understand, I have kids too. Enjoy it while it lasts,” even though nobody really cares.

Without your kids, you are forced to be friendly at annoying social events.

This may not seem like a big deal for many people, but for those who sometimes enjoy solitude, or who are less than successful at making polite, meaningless conversation in places where you don’t know too many people, without having little kids to run after at a party, or kids to feed at a wedding, you are forced to look around for someone to talk to, someone to sit with (especially if it is separate seating, which this particular wedding was) and you may even have to spend an extraordinary amount of time dancing to stave off the loneliness. I sharpened my conversational skills, approached pseudo-familiar faces, tore up the dance floor and looked longingly at the mothers standing on the side, holding a toddler on a jutted-out hip, their hair being yanked and pulled. I missed that. I also had no excuse to leave early, and had to stay all the way till the end. I know. Tragedy.

I am not complaining about my time alone without them. There were many amazing, wonderful things that I was able to enjoy, purely as an adult, and not as a mother. But it made me realize that motherhood has a lot of meaning entrenched in it, and on days when I feel muddled by the routine, I have these alternative reflections to fondly revisit.

Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected].


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