Susan is sitting on a blanket next to me at the soccer game. Our sons play on the same team. She has a cooler of fruit and bread and hummus and a knife to cut mango with. I have wax paper bags containing leaking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I usually read and write on the sidelines during his games. Susan mentions something about children’s schedules; how busy they are, how these weekends of driving them around are depleting.
"They appreciate it though," she says, waiting for me to engage. She then tells me a child she was driving home once told her that he could tell she was “really into” her kids because she was always at the games. "His parents aren't ... I mean, there's a lot of stuff with their home life."
She shifts uncomfortably on her blanket—as mothers, we are not supposed to say this.
I point out the obvious: "I'm definitely not the parent at all the games.” I think for a moment, I want to defend myself without disparaging her choice—I have been there too. “I love my children very, very much—more than anyone or anything. But raising them is not the only important thing I'm doing," I continued. She shifts uncomfortably on her blanket—as mothers, we are not supposed to say this.
The boys’ father and I are divorced and split custody equally. If it’s not my weekend, I’m not at the game. Of the reasons to feel distress, missing my kids’ sports games isn’t high on my list.
For exactly half the time of my sons’ lives, I am not responsible for their daily needs. Exactly half the evenings of any given two-week period, I am without the responsibility of overseeing dinner or bedtime or homework. It’s tidier. When they are home, things are not where I left them. There are socks on the floor. Always. When they are home, I eat healthy meals and sleep more soundly with the ringer on my phone off. When they are home and there is music playing and we are all comfortably alone together, calling out to one another occasionally, I feel whole in a way I never do without them, no matter how much fun I am having, no matter what I accomplish or write.
Raising them is important to me, but I have responsibilities beyond them, and I take those responsibilities seriously. If I didn’t work this much, I wouldn’t have this much—well beyond financial gain. If I didn’t work this hard, I wouldn’t have as much intellectual stimulation, camaraderie, identity and impact on the world. I like working, and my work is important. My work is my mark on the world. Though my children are brilliant and kind and a pleasure, motherhood does not fulfill me in all of these ways. I don’t believe it hurts my children to know that sometimes I miss the soccer game because I am working late. There are sometimes other things I need to do more, both for myself and for the world. I am more settled when they are home and more productive when they are not.
Mothering changes. When they were infants, I slept and woke in rhythm with them. I nursed them, rocked them, swept their mouths of foreign objects with my forefinger. I helped them learn to walk and read and use the toilet. With the financial support of their father, I devoted the bulk of my energy to their care. That was a very sweet time of my life, though in many ways intellectually barren and isolating. When they are with their father, I work long hours, come home, step out of my clothes, sink into bed and then wake and begin to work before the sun has risen.
When they aren’t home, I install art exhibits, visit friends in other cities, have conversation over long dinners with other adults who fortify me, expand my mind. I also spend Saturdays alone in my apartment, reading and thinking and writing. I spread my books across the couch and bed, eat chips for dinner and leave coffee cups in the sink. I listen to podcasts while I shower. Writing demands my attention and I take it seriously too.
I want my children to understand that they, while precious and unique and special, will not wilt in the absence of my adoring gaze.
There is an inclination here for me to prove that the work I do is superlatively important—I run writing and art workshops for veterans—to shield myself from judgment. But it’s not this work in particular that makes it OK for me to not to belong solely or even mostly to my children. The needs of the world are many, and parents address a great deal of them. I want my children to understand that they, while precious and unique and special, will not wilt in the absence of my adoring gaze. That our privileges—of literacy and food and relative security—come with responsibility. That sometimes my attention is needed elsewhere and that they are not my work in the world. They are their own work in the world. And I am mine. Sharing custody gives me time to do my work.
Adrienne Rich writes, in "Of Woman Born": "It is all too easy to accept unconsciously the guilt so readily thrust upon any woman who is seeking to broaden and deepen her own existence, on the grounds that this must somehow damage her children. That guilt is one of the most powerful forms of social control of women; none of us can be entirely immune to it."
I am not immune to this guilt. I’m their mother and nothing will change that, but if there were a licensure test I’m not sure I’d pass it. Often in the midst of my solitude, the thought occurs, "When was the last time I made pasta from scratch?" In the grip of these attacks, it seems that the happiness of my younger son’s childhood is hinged on whether he has a memory of homemade pasta. I panic. I look up the recipe for pasta in the little tin box of favorites I haven’t added anything to in years. I buy the ingredients and lower the heavy stand mixer from the top of the fridge onto the narrow space between sink and stove in our galley kitchen. When they return home, we take turns flattening the dough between the rollers, feeding the sheets through the cutting attachment, lining up nests of fettuccine on a dingy cookie sheet. The resultant pasta is mediocre. I cross it off of my list.
When faced with a longer than usual stretch without them, I have to remind myself to make a home—to cook meals and eat them at the table, to turn on lights and grocery shop, to eat fruit before it spoils. Soon both of my sons will enter adulthood. My kid-free time will expand to become the ordinary state of my life. I’m not entirely sure what that will look like but I know that without a meaningful life of my own, the pressure exerted upon my sons to fulfill my desire to act on the world would be too great.