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The Endless Loop of Stay-at-Home Motherhood

Photograph by Twenty20

Each year, on my birthday, I take the day off from motherhood.

I tell my husband he will be in charge for the whole day. I don’t perform any of the tasks I normally do when someone else is caring for my kids for a prolonged period of time: prepping meals and planning schedules and making notes about naptime and laying out changes of clothes or diapers.

“Feed them and keep them alive. I’ll be home later,” I say to my husband. He’s an amazing father—he can do that and more.

I declare myself queen for the day. It’s gloriously freeing. There is no other day in the entire year that I can claim as my own. I’m there to make breakfast in the morning and I’m home at dinner to sit down as a family and eat cake, but what I do in between is completely up to me. It depends on the day, on the year. On what I need.

And what I need—more than anything—is time alone. My three boys are 7, 4 and 2. I stay home with them and work freelance jobs. We are always on top of each other, in each other’s business, connected in ways that blur and blend. Maybe someday, when they are a little older, my birthday plans will include a family trip or activity, something experienced together. But right now, all I want is one day that’s just mine. One day that is different from all the rest.

Why? Because stay-at-home motherhood is an endless loop.

It’s a cassette tape with a glitch, a DVD stuck on repeat. It’s a never-ending circle of events. Where the day begins and where it ends is unclear. I don’t have a segregated weekend, distinct from my weekdays. Each day, week, month flows into another. I am busy—but with what, I can’t quantify. Breakfast, diapers, snacks, lunch time, blocks, books, errands, dinner time, bed time. Collapse and repeat.

My husband, who pulls his weight in ways that might one day qualify him for sainthood, still doesn’t experience this loop in quite the same manner. He works hard and his days are long, but the fact that he has a pattern of leaving and returning each day means his loop is interrupted.

Mine, on the other hand, is continuous.

Sometimes I wonder why I have no patience. Why I shout when someone does something I asked them not to. Why the sight of three toy cars floating in the bathroom sink can defeat me. Why dealing with crumbs on the floor or a jelly stain on a shirt or a missing shoe feels insurmountable.

Then I remember it’s because those problems were here yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. These have been my problems for seven years. They’ll also be here tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after. On and on, ad infinitum.

There is no real end. There is no change. There is no different place to go when Monday morning rolls around or when vacation time is over. There is only me, performing an endless series of tasks for my children, then going to sleep and starting all over again.

If I didn’t love these children with every one of my molecules, I don’t know how I would survive.

This work accumulates. Imagine a snowball rolling down a hill. It accumulates and so does everything that comes with it—the frustrations, the worries, the restlessness, the fatigue.

After seven years of stay-at-home mothering, I can’t be relieved of those burdens after 10 hours away from my children once a year. It would take significantly longer to shake loose the stress and anxieties of thousands of hours spent in full-time service to small, mostly helpless people. It would take more time than I have, more than I can afford.

More time than I would want to give, even if I could. Because here’s the thing: the joy accumulates, too. Thankfully, the joy grows right alongside everything else. If I didn’t love these children with every one of my molecules, I don’t know how I would survive.

But I do—I survive.

I put one foot in front of the other. I crawl out of bed and make oatmeal, make beds, make-believe I’m happy to be awake until the coffee kicks in. I do one thing and then another and still another until dusk arrives, and then I wrestle pajamas onto wriggling limbs and sing lullabies and tuck blankets underneath chins.

I mother yesterday, today, tomorrow and the next day. All at once. Even when I’m staring down the barrel of stay-at-home motherhood, in all its repeating glory, with years stretched out ahead of me before all three kids can assemble their own sandwiches and tie their own shoes and wipe their own bottoms, I keep on mothering.

Except on my birthday. That day is mine.

The accumulation of stay-at-home motherhood is real and it’s heavy. It’s not easy to carry. It’s a relief to hand the burden of responsibilities over to my husband and say, “Feed them and keep them alive, I’ll be back later.”

While taking a day off doesn’t magically erase everything that came before, or everything that will come after, it does interrupt my loop. I can take my time, be in charge of my own schedule and recall with bittersweet familiarity how it feels to have no particular place to be at any given time.

I can be queen, just for one day.

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