Sweet face. Naughty smile. Huge brown sparkling eyes that stared straight into mine. We’re not usually at eye-level. He’s only 5.
“Will you, Mom? Get me the sunscreen? Now? Will you get it for me now?”
We were having this conversation eye-to-eye because I was sitting on the toilet. I’d been in the bathroom 30 quiet seconds before he barreled in with all his bursting, small-boy energy. It was only 8:30 a.m.–he still had oodles of it. And he needed the sunscreen, right now, immediately, now, now, now.
“Jed.” Inhale. “I will get you the sunscreen. But not right now. I am on the toilet.”
The surprise registered on his cute face. He hadn’t noticed where I was–I could’ve been sitting on the couch downstairs, or in my car outside, or even perched on the roof.
And he still didn’t notice. Even when I told him. The surprise was because I said I could not fulfill his request immediately. Because I wasn’t available, wasn’t able to do it right then.
You’re not? I saw the incredulous question in his eyes. But: “Um okay,” and he and his small hunched shoulders trudged dejectedly out the bathroom. He went to play Legos while he waited for Mommy to once again be there for him, and only him.
I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for almost 13 years, with a few periods of part-time work here and there–periods so brief and elusive they’re not even worth remembering. Well I remember them, but my children do not. What they remember is me here, there, and everywhere. All the time. For them.
Whatever they needed, whenever they needed it. Sometimes they didn’t even know they needed it.
A snack before their tummies rumbled. A sippy cup full of cold apple juice leaking in the diaper bag, in case they got thirsty. Mommy at every model seder, every Hanukkah concert, every poetry reading. Mommy bringing fresh socks to school because he stood in a puddle at recess. Mommy chaperoning every field trip from the visit to the majestic monarch butterflies at Ardenwood Farm to a walk with the exuberant third grade across the Golden Gate Bridge, freezing my tushie off in the gusty wind and swirling fog.
I have been exclusively, exceptionally, and happily available to my kids for 13 years. And, until recently, I have enjoyed my ability and availability to make their lives as stress-free and carefree and need-free as possible. I set it up that way, for them. And for me, too.
But my set-up failed to account for my changing needs and wants. My bright and shiny on-demand availability, which felt so good and right when my kids were younger, has slowly dulled. Feels tired. Burdensome. Wrong. It’s no longer a pleasure to run down to Walgreens on a busy weekday afternoon just because my son’s protractor has vanished and he needs a replacement right now. No longer am I willing to stand in the kitchen all afternoon, and cater to every whim and whine. That enthusiastic desire to be ever-present for them has been replaced with resentment and faint flickers of anger–can’t they see I’m busy, too? Why do they think it’s okay to interrupt me? And: Why can’t they help themselves?
I know the answer to that one. Because I’ve always done it for them. So how can I expect them to suddenly figure out that they can, that they should, do it themselves?
The glaring moment of truth almost blinds me when I inform the two middle ones I would no longer be driving them to and from school.
“Whaaat? But whyyyy? It’s only a three-minute drive, Mom! It’s so easy for you. I don’t want to walk to school.” Sulk. Stomp. Sulk some more.
Just a teeny bit impatiently, I explain that a three-minute drive equals an under-10-minute walk, that the air is fresh, that exercise makes our bodies strong and our minds sharp, that the two of them can talk to each other and see friends along the way.
“But..but…but… why can’t you drive us, Mom? What are you doing, anyway? You can drive us.”
I set it up this way, it’s true. But it’s not working so well anymore–not for me who feels unable to accomplish anything productive and fulfilling, and not for them who bear the brunt of my frustration and are missing out on the chance to develop resilient independence.
And so, I take the time and the patience to explain that driving them to and fro means I have to deal with traffic delays, and pedestrian crossings, and illegal U-turns in front of the fire station.
It means I have to interrupt my morning, break the rhythm of my day, rush the appointment I finally scheduled, neglect the article I’m writing. I explain I have things to do that do not involve only them, that do not always include them. Things that make me someone, a person other than their always-available mom. Things that are important to me, that I want and need to do, and that make me happy when I do them.
This morning they each kissed me sloppily on my cheek, gave me a hug–one neatly around my waist, the other wildly in an almost headlock–and set off down the road together, backpacks bouncing in the cool, early summer air.
This morning I finished writing an entire blog post. And sat on the loo, by myself.