A thirty-five year old mother at my son’s preschool didn’t wake up on Sunday morning. There was no warning. No goodbye. Leslie died in her sleep, leaving behind a shocked husband, a seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son.
The mood at the preschool gate has been somber. We nod at each other with a troubled look in our eyes as we shuffle our little ones into our cars, gripping their tiny hands a little tighter.
I knew Leslie well enough to smile with recognition at preschool drop off and pick up, but not well enough to know whether she liked sushi or art house films or scrapbooking or hiking. And yet I can’t stop thinking about her.
I’m supposed to be writing a column about how to keep the self in your life after having children, but this week as Leslie’s image flickers in my mind, all I can think of is that maybe I’ve been letting the Other take over the Mother, instead of vice versa.
When my son was a baby, I had a babysitter only one day every week. I loved spending slow days watching him laugh at birds splashing in puddles and pushing him in the baby swing at the park. But by the time he was one, my career started to blossom, and I was aching for more time to focus on work. So, one day of work turned to two days, which quickly turned to three days.
Last year, when my daughter was born, I vowed to keep Mondays and Fridays exclusively for the kids. I pledged that on those two days I wouldn’t even turn on the computer or answer my work phone line. I professed to everyone who would listen — including myself — that three days of work would make a perfect “balance.” I’d have enough time to concentrate on work and finish at least a few of the many projects I’d begun, but I’d also have enough time to watch my son overturn bricks looking for bugs and enough time to watch my daughter take wobbly steps on the grass.
But lately, I find myself tapping my fingers on the toy-laden floor on Friday afternoons. Before I can remember my pledge of “balance,” I put my daughter in her crib for an early nap and sit my son down at the kitchen table with a popsicle. Then, I creep upstairs to my office and start scrolling through email. I tell myself I’m just going to look. No really, I’ll just take a peek to see if anything is happening. I pledge not to reply to anyone until after the kids are asleep for the night. But then I sit down in front of the flashing screen and I can’t resist trying to sneak in a couple of quick replies. And sometimes before I know it, I start editing a piece I’ve been working on or I begin writing notes about an image from a dream that I don’t want to forget.
Not infrequently as I’m tapping away at the keyboard with my back to the door, I hear my son’s voice behind me. He stands in the doorway with grape popsicle lining his mouth, and I hear, “What are you doing?”
or, “Can I help?”
or, “Will you play with me now, Mommy?”
or, “I want some orange juice.”
And not infrequently, I snap at him, “I just need to finish this.”
or “Give me five minutes.”
or, “I’ll get it for you three minutes.”
or, “I’ll help you in one minute.”
And in those seconds, I know I’m not being the kind of mother I want to be.
My life seems to be about walking this invisible thin line, and if I take one step in either direction, I’ll fall over into one abyss or the other.
I know I need to be away from my kids because I feel overwhelmed when my life’s purpose seems reduced to juice fetching and toy-battery re-installing. But I need to spend quantity time with my kids too. I want to be the one who takes them to the doctor when they’re sick. I want to be the first one to know that my daughter loves black beans and that my son’s favorite dinosaur is the Triceratops.
So where does all of this leave me? Grateful that I woke up this morning. Conflicted about how to spend time. Scared that I won’t be granted enough time to see my children grow up. In love with my work. In love with my family. And trying to walk a thin line called “balance.” Just like a million other moms out there.