When my husband asked me how I wanted to spend my 39th birthday, I hesitated to tell him the truth. I began with how much I love him and the boys, then made my admission. I wanted to drive out of town alone and go somewhere, anywhere, for the night.
Spending time with my family is the greatest joy in my life, but it also feels like the greatest burden for an introvert like me.
Recently, I heard a sensible explanation of the difference between introverts and extroverts. Extroverts thrive on being around other people and stimulating environments. It fuels them. My friend, Veronica, homeschools her four children who are all happy, well-adjusted people, and her door and arms are always open to as many people as they can hold.
Introverts, on the other hand, might not be quiet and shy, but need alone time to recharge. After a week of just me and the kids at home, or even after a fun social gathering, I feel frazzled, not energized. I need a quiet, familiar setting to come back to my normal. I guiltily dream of the day my kids start attending public school.
As a stay-at-home Mom, I’ve learned to take pleasure in small accomplishments, like baskets of folded laundry. I have even adjusted to the noisy brood that happily overtakes every room in the house.
But once the cooking, cleaning, and shuttling are done, the rarely visited list of things I do for me stays hidden away, probably at the bottom of a bin of unmatched socks. The sense of urgency and endless busyness that accompany early motherhood hold a tight grip when you don’t actively find ways to peel those fingers back.
Since the birth of my first son five years ago, I can’t turn on my electric toothbrush without imagining I hear a baby crying in the other room. I freeze at the slightest noise in the house and assume my response will be needed in under four seconds. The fight or flight response is so close to the surface that relaxation feels unnatural. The only time to have a break is when I’m out of range.
Meeting the needs of my family gives me a sense of purpose and fulfills a deep desire to nurture, but I often fail to extend that care to myself. A friend without children recently lamented that her people were all out of town and that she was feeling so lonely.
“Lonely,” I thought, “like alone.” It sounded simply delightful.
As a child, I was very shy and spent a lot of time on an old swing in the backyard or alone in my room, drawing and writing the wistful thoughts of female adolescence. Marriage, kids, and a traditional division of labor have made times like that a far off, longed for memory.
This year, I dared to make my needs the priority and took a night away. Even as my husband agreed and encouraged me to go, I couldn’t help but worry my kids wouldn’t survive without me. I had convinced myself that only I could take care of the them. Only I knew how to cut their sandwiches just so. Only I was capable of maintaining the peace and order.
As I riled myself up and thought about changing my plans, I realized that supposed “peace and order” was momentary at best. The sandwiches get thrown because I haven’t managed the perfect diagonal. The boys fight over a pile of sand even when the beach is covered in the stuff. I lose my temper and yell about dried out playdoh all over the floor.
Even if my husband was in over his head, it was his turn to oversee the chaos. Imagining myself sitting in the little garden cottage I rented, writing and thinking in blissful solitude, made me so excited I could almost stop second guessing my choice.
I drove south for an hour, blasting my favorite, angry women musicians. I went to a yoga class, picked up a ridiculously expensive coffee, and poked around in stores with fancy, breakable things. And while I enjoyed all these things I can’t do with kids in tow, I couldn’t help feeling the need to check in, to make sure they were all taken care of.
Then, I looked at my reflection in a crystal bowl, the dark circles that had built up under my eyes after years of interrupted sleep, and resisted the urge to call.
I pulled up in front of the 1920s bungalow whose backyard cottage was my home for the night. I unpacked my trunk in the charming, cozy space and thought, “What now?” I remembered the first few years of having a child, the confusion over what to do with my hands when they weren’t busy holding, wiping, or feeding someone else. I still catch myself rocking and bouncing while I wait at a counter for service, an imaginary baby on my hip.
My stomach quickly reminded me that a third coffee and no lunch was a mistake. Sitting there on the porcelain throne, queen of my simple castle for the next 24 hours, it hit me:
When was the last time I went to the bathroom without the threat of a tiny human bursting in, demanding to sit on my lap or in search of new batteries for Thomas the Train? When was the last time I wasn’t on edge, ready to respond?
How long had it been since I was just Laurie?
At last, it happened. The tension I’d been carrying around in my body for years began to release. My shoulders and jaw relaxed as I let go of anticipating. I had convinced myself that my tension and unselfishness were proof I was being a good mom instead of the truth I was realizing – that they were the opposite.
All the time I’d spent drained and not present hadn’t served my family. I’d heard and even advised friends that you have to take care of yourself to have anything to offer others. And here I was, finally experiencing it, the lightness that comes from taking a step back – or, in this case, 50 miles.
I had grand ideas about what I would do with my time, not the least of which was producing a 50-page manuscript so insightful that publishers would be beating down my door. I quickly realized that my own need to achieve wasn’t doing much to relieve the pressure I was trying to escape, so I gave myself a pass.
Instead, I wrote a line here and there, read a book, smoked a joint, and watched a movie. I snuggled into the very fluffy, very white “no kids in this house” linens, and finally exhaled a long deep sigh of relief as I stepped away from the revolving door of being Mom. This was my time, and that was all it needed to be.
It was only one night, but I felt refreshed and a little more like myself – the self that seemed to have slipped through the cracks over the last five years. I resolved to come home and make my off-duty time a priority, to take regular breaks and connect to that old self still swimming around under all the diapers and groceries.
Driving home the next afternoon, I wondered if all moms feel this pressure to be everything and if they, too, forget about the great potential that lies in sometimes being nothing, just being you.