“I try not to be a dick to my kids, but it’s okay if sometimes they’re inconvenienced by my needing to be a human in addition to being a mother.” – JJ Keith
Everyone knows how sleep loss transforms parents into less-patient, less-understanding, and less-engaged caretakers. Discussed in far fewer circles is a phenomenon to which I recently, finally managed to put words: hobby deprivation.
After the birth of each child, I’ve regained the essence of my humanity incrementally, in stages keyed to certain competencies and beneficiaries. With a newborn on hand I need help getting through each day. In fairly short order, I’m capable of caring for the children. Within a few months, I can keep them happy and do the housework. Cooking follows. When truly adequate sleep returns around the nine-month mark, I have the bandwidth to focus on my husband, resuming (in government parlance) nonessential services like date night, watching movies I know at the outset will be terrible, and ironing (okay, fine, I never iron; but as soon as I have the energy, I do drop clothes off at the dry cleaner with extraordinary care). Only around the time when I stop nursing do I manage to plant my feet firmly beneath me, carving out time for my own interests while still keeping my kids, home, and marriage in good working order.
Now please don’t picture me gently peeling off a few hours to myself with an elegant little paring knife. When I write “carve,” I seek to call forth an image of me wielding a big-ol’ butcher’s knife with crazed determination narrowing my eyes – because I fight for every minute of me-time. Not just against my mate, kids, and society; in large part, I battle myself. Somehow my natural set point is different than my husband’s. Ian simply takes a shower each morning. It took me years – literally, four of them – to stop requesting a few minutes to bathe (which I mustered the wherewithal to do about twice a week) and just emulate his disappearing act. (I’m clearly onto something; Ayelet Waldman advises, “Stop complaining, just dump the kid on his lap and take a personal day.”) In a similar vein, a stay-at-home mommy friend told me she looked up from her life one day to realize that she feeds her family in the following order: kids, dog, herself. Conversely, a friend’s husband walked into the kitchen on a Saturday morning and announced his plans to train for an Ironman; just like that she found herself managing childcare solo for months of evening and weekend running, swimming, and biking. A similar move on her part – or even a much smaller commitment like joining a weekly book club – would have been unthinkable. Though these examples would suggest one, I don’t sense a battle-of-the-sexes dynamic here. Regardless of gender, there’s something about being a primary caregiver that makes one foolishly balk at the FAA’s greatest life lesson: “secure your own mask before helping others.”
But I’ve gotten quite adept at fighting the self-abnegation impulse, shamelessly asking for alone time on weekends, arranging childcare swaps with other moms, and hiring a babysitter for a few hours each week. Unfortunately, thanks to our recent move, from May until late September I had only enough “free time” (during my non-napping toddler’s one hour of quiet time each weekday) to keep up with bills, emails, and other necessary administrative tasks. That means none to engage in activities that feed off and replenish my own creativity and energy. For me, it’s reading, writing, scrapbooking, and getting drunk with friends – because ‘rithmetic is highly overrated. (In this way motherhood revealed myself to me; extreme limits on my time forced me to distill my interests down to their essence: the written word, paper products, and social ties.) Other parents prioritize things like personal hygiene, following current events, and “fun cooking” (defined as making a meal that requires more than ten minutes or involves more than four ingredients). For one friend, it’s tennis, NPR podcasts, and reality TV. Another chooses massage, gossip magazines, and knitting. You get the picture: stay-at-home and working parents alike run triage on their lives, leaving simple personal pleasures at the end of the queue.
When your pastimes don’t make the cut – because your husband is busy running his sixtieth mile that week or because you haven’t found a babysitter yet – something happens. I noticed an increasing distance between me and my kids. Sitting in a person-sized dollop of shade on the side of our local spray park one morning – cocooned in the glorious weather of the Mission District and surrounded by the squeals of delighted children – I found myself wishing I were alone at my desk with the shades drawn, staring down a stack of prints, tickets stubs, and double-sided stickies. I realized that for weeks I hadn’t been able to fully engage with the objectively fun activities I’d arranged for us (like petting bunnies, learning physics the play way, and sing-alongs). The impact wasn’t huge; I’m not talking the zombie-mom born of sleepless nights or postpartum depression. But without being one-hundred percent present, my smile arrived a beat too late and my enthusiasm sounded a bit forced. The kids didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. I tried my damnedest to just snap out of it, but I couldn’t shake the disconnect.
After my spray park epiphany, I scratched the itch. I used UrbanSitter.com to find a Tuesday afternoon sitter (though “find” sounds too serendipitous; the kids and I interviewed six and hired two – one for Saturday afternoon date “night” as well – which is far better than our Seattle UrbanSitter interview/hire ratio of 7:0). After just one delightful two-hour block of unencumbered me-time, I felt that part of me who had been distracted dive back in, soaking up my kids’ attention as the gift it is rather than the burden it had become. A few days later, she’d wandered off again. So I started asking the sitter to come on Thursday afternoons as well. Two weeks in (meaning a sum total of about eight hours, okay, fine, more like ten), I manage to live contentedly in the moment a startlingly high percentage of the time.
In this way, hobby deprivation mirrors sleep deprivation only on a smaller scale. Lose time to yourself, detach a little; get some back, come back some; get a lot, come all the way back; never catch up, never come back. Or maybe a parental hobby is more like bikini-line waxing: the more frequently you make time to do it, the less you need it. Regardless of whether harried nights or hairied thighs parallels best, the bottom line is clear: a little breathing room for Mommy means less airtime for the kids short-term but a topflight childhood.