I Do Not Have It All, But I Hope to Someday
Or, as Steven Wright said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
I’m saying no to a lot of things. In the last two weeks alone I have said no to: drinks with friends, free theater tickets, the WGA New Member Event (involving cocktails on a downtown roof), and a party for The Play Company announcing their new season. Last month, I had to say no to half of the plays in the Lucy Thurber cycle. And although I’ve been back in New York for almost two months, I haven’t seen many friends. All of these are things that matter to me.
But I’m writing and taking care of a child. And between the hours of 5pm and 8pm, I belong to my son. Frankly, I belong to him for many more hours than those mentioned, but the 5-8 thing is iron-clad.
My son has just moved across the country, said goodbye to everything and everyone he knew and hello to a new life in New York. He has started school for the very first time. He has also, not surprisingly, become a sleep terrorist, waking my husband and me at the ass-crack of dawn demanding light, YouTube videos and bunny crackers. (We’re working on this one.)
Mostly, he’s an independent child. He likes preschool. He’s making friends. He can entertain himself with trains and books at home. He is very social and has always done well with babysitters. But independence is relative for toddlers. They need us, and they don’t need us, and it all happens in primary colors.
When I am with my son, I try to be with him entirely. I don’t check my email on the playground. I try not to multi-task. I want him to feel that I am present for him and listening. (Full disclosure: right now, he’s lying on the floor pushing a school bus while I try to revise this essay.) We walk around the neighborhood and visit the local firehouse. Last week, we visited the New York Public Library for the very first time and caught a “preschool story hour.” He even got his own library card. What joy.
But my availability is not without ambivalence. I adore my son, and he’s great company. But I’m still a writer. I need time to “go away” — space out, journal, be inaccessible — in order to get my work done. And so I live in trade-offs. I write when he’s in preschool. I negotiate all non-school hours with my husband (“I’ll take Saturday morning if you can give me Saturday afternoon.”) and I’m less available socially. I don’t say no to my writing. But I do say no to a whole lot of other stuff I that used to enjoy saying yes to. And I’m always tired.
My husband and I co-parent — which means, we share childcare duties and housework — but he is also a writer. And I know that he too struggles with how to be fully available for both us and for his work. We all do. When you’re a parent, “full” availability is really a myth. Everyone juggles whether they work outside the home or not. And sometimes we drop a ball or two. Raising our son has been the most primal and intense of collaborations; each day my husband and I ask, how do we get our work done while taking care of the tiny person we brought into the world? And the answers, if they come at all, are often in some murky gray zone.
I’m a feminist, and I have read all of the articles, from Ann Marie Slaughter to Debra Spar to Sheryl Sandberg, plus the Jezebel posts, on women having/not havingit all. But I also know that this phase is temporary. He won’t always need me in quite this way. He’ll become more independent. And we’ll become more comfortable negotiating the necessary, painful ambivalence in the “no’s” and the “yes’s”. There will be times I say no to my family in order to work. And maybe this will make up for all the nights I have to say no to friends and theater tickets in order to put my son to bed. Who knows?
Or maybe I’m wrong! I’ve watched many of my peers and close friends grapple with this very juggling act. It seems that female writers with kids hit a new plateau around the time their offspring turn four or five. Until then, we’re still lending out part of our frontal cortex or working through sleep deprivation and primal attachment. We are still partially theirs. But by the time they turn four or five, I hope, some alchemy happens; we belong to ourselves again. That said, a colleague recently warned me, “It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.” She said that once your child can voice his or her concern about your absence, it’s even harder to slip away and do your work.
All of this has engendered a newfound compassion for my own mother who, despite her shortcomings,was entirely available for me when I was a small child — even though she had a demanding job. And although my mother and I did not have an easy relationship (a great understatement), she was a fantastic mommy. She listened to me, she made time for me, she cooked for me and took care of me when I woke up scared in the middle of the night EVEN THOUGH SHE WAS ALSO WORKING. I never felt that I was second priority.
And I want my son to have that.
Now, when will he start sleeping until 6 a.m.?