There is something about my littlest child turning 3 in a couple of weeks that already has me nostalgic for the days that my babies rode out their entire days attached to my body. As I have heard many other mothers report, I cannot count the number of times that I wished this stage to be over. I remember wanting privacy while going to the bathroom, the ability to have a shower without opening the curtain every 30 seconds to check on my bouncing baby in their chair, the privilege to make dinner with two whole functional hands.
Yet here I am, nearly entirely past this stage of complete physical dependence (my little one insists on choosing his entire outfit from hat to socks), and I long for them to cuddle up close again. This morning I even reached over our bed and stole the cuddling two year old from my husband’s arms. Gratefully, Rob has been able to sleep with straying toddlers poking limbs into his mid-section. I, on the other hand, would lie awake from whatever early hour they had called or climbed down from their beds and wait it out until morning light. Now I am unable to sleep for a different reason. The boy is no longer a baby. To prove my point, he opens his eyes, gives me a knowing smile and rolls over to go back to sleep.
I am afraid to admit that my children’s needs for me has at times sent me into a dithering panic. Especially the day that my first was born and the nurse handed her to me saying: ‘she is your baby, not mine’ and promptly walked out of the room. The look on my face must have showed my terror and doubt that I could take care of such a fragile thing.
I had also just spent the better part of three and a half decades doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to. I took on the usual responsibilities of educating myself and earning my keep but otherwise the sky was the limit. At least this was true as far as my time was concerned, as long as it stayed within the boundaries of my budget and my moral compass, I was good to go. My mother had given me a fair amount of trust and freedom as a child as she was a single, working mother who often worked late. I’ve known how to meet my own needs for a while now and have gotten pretty used to it. How did it come to be that the better part of my day would now be taken up meeting the needs of another?
I can’t say I resented this, in fact most of the time I thoroughly enjoyed having these small humans to care for. Yet there was something so unfamiliar to me about having so little ‘freedom’ in a day. When I had only recently had hours of time to fill in a day (and sometimes spent it willingly taking care of others), I now had barely two minutes to rub together to myself.
This is the greatest complaint I hear from hands-on mothers (or is that as redundant as the term ‘working mother’?). Mothers only need 15 minutes but they want it when they want it. When the mother-in-law or the husband finally descends to give Mama a break, it just so happens that the little angel is curled up having a nap in her stroller. When the little one is having a hard time articulating exactly what it is that will stop them from their permanent tonsil display, the helpers are nowhere to be found.
In my ‘free’ life, I used to head into movie theatres to escape the world at the strangest times of day. There was something about stealing this time that made it even more delicious. The dark theatre surrounding me like a cocoon, I would sit in my safe little chair with my pile of snacks and let my troubles fall away. With young children, there were years where this habit was no longer feasible. Before children, I was told that I would learn not to care about missing out on the latest movies. But I did care. To forgo this ritual was to give up my decompression chamber, my sanity retreat.
With my infants, I was still able to fulfill many other past-times that gave me a sense of peace. I would go for long walks in the woods or along back roads with my stroller that would make both baby and me happy for hours. We would visit with friends, ride the escalators in malls, or make an activity of helping Daddy dig potatoes in the field. Our lives were satisfying. But something in me felt like it was holding its breath for many years running. I would look around me and wonder if other mothers were feeling this way too.
Now that I am about to emerge as the mother of a 3 year old (is that when the official definition of toddler ends?), I find myself looking to fill the gap that was once ‘free Julie’. I suppose for some women at this stage, their career would have already swooped back in and made them whole again. I have always enjoyed the work I do, but I’ve never found my identity in it. It was never something that defined me.
With this feeling of wanting something to call my own again, I decided to go back to work. This decision came simultaneously as I worked on some budget numbers, painfully exploring every dime we had spent over the last 8 months, tallying the final farm income and teasing out what could or could not be changed in the coming years if we opted to forgo my second income for longer than a year. By my first calculation Rob would need to work over 200 days in a year to cover off the money we were spending on the household and family (excluding farm expenses). On top of those 200 days, there would be a farm business to run which for about 6 months out of the year looks a lot like a full time job in itself at the very, very least.
In the past 8 months I have completely changed the way that I spend money in hopes of making this new life work for us. I felt so angry and ashamed that I had come so far off track somewhere along the way. Even these writings are meant to be a way to reconcile my old life of frivolous spending with a new one of making intentional choices. I had firmly come to believe that taking back control of how I manage my time and energy was going to help me save money. According to these numbers, I had failed miserably at this attempt.
My daugher’s figure skating lessons were starting and Rob was driving back from a meeting so on the heels of this sinking discovery (that there was no way we could continue doing what were doing financially), I took my heavy-hearted self to pick up the kids and head for the task of getting them fed and off to the arena on time. The whole time I kept trying to imagine that spreadsheet and where I might have gone wrong. How does one find tens of thousands of dollars in errors in a spreadsheet that contains receipts for shoes and groceries?
Hours passed and I let the idea of returning to work in May settle into being. It would be what it would be. When we got home and I sat down for my new daily routine on the bathroom floor reading ‘Stuck Muck’ to my little son as he attempted to make good use of his potty, I grew ever more frustrated. All I wanted was 5 minutes to open my laptop, scan over the spreadsheet and try to figure out if there was something that I had done wrong. I screamed out to Rob that I needed a minute, just a minute, to look at something. I was stuck reading ‘Stuck Muck’ on the floor of the bathroom and could he please come and help? He was busy unloading skates and various hats and mitts from the van and came to my call right away. Right when I needed him to.
But at that moment, I looked over and my little boy had taken it all in – my tone, my fear, my frustration, my blame. His eyes filled with tears, his face reddened and the sides of his little mouth dove down in a frown the way a person does when their sadness really means business. He had caught the book name and in his own little way, realized that I was finding this ritual with him a burden.
There are probably not many moments of being a mother that I have felt this ashamed and regretful for my actions. Ironically, the very thing that had been bothering me was that I was facing heading back to work and losing time with my children before they all grew up. And here he was, Spiderman underwear tangled around his ankles, asking for me to sit with him and help him with this new job that he was so proud to be able to do. And I was yelling. Not at him. But about him. And that was enough.
The numbers were wrong. One small but significant error had me including the purchase of our car twice. In fact, what we had spent, including our payments and investments, and what we made came out even pretty much to the dollar.
Once the kids were asleep, together Rob and I made a new budget for the year and discussed possibilities for improvement. It was going to be possible to get by on one income if that is what we chose.
In 3 weeks my little guy will be 3 years old. Maybe in time, my need to have what I want when I want it will catch up with that of a 3 year old. Until then, we’ll make the best of this time while it is still here.