Mom was the purveyor of all knowledge and sage advice. As a child, I thought she knew it all.
“Girls can achieve as much as boys can; they just need to work twice as hard.” Or, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man.” At the age of seven, I found these words baffling, but would smugly repeat them to my wide-eyed friends who were as clueless as I was.
When I was thirteen and past regarding boys simply as adversaries in Mother May I and Red Light, Green Light, Mom felt it was time for the Big Talk. I think I was expecting something characteristically straightforward and clinical. At the very least, an inventive version of the birds and the bees. Instead, as she coughed, cleared her throat, and failed to meet my eyes, she muttered, “Don’t have sex until you’re prepared to have a baby. It will be eighteen years until you get your life back.”
Mom’s parochial attempt at discussing birth control by putting the fear of long-term commitment into me seemed bizarre. My idea of a commitment was putting a flower-power patch over the hole on my favorite jeans that I’d worn at least three times a week for the past year. Now, that’s commitment!
Pearls of Mom wisdom would follow me into adulthood as her way of trying to influence my choices. From my college relationship with Joe, the serious-minded business major who never laughed at my jokes—“You have to find someone with a sense of humor. How can anyone go through life without a sense of humor?”—to my brief engagement to Jeff, who had barely finished high school—“You need someone you can have a real conversation with.”
I must have paid her some heed. At twenty-six, I married Guy, a man who could both keep me laughing and hold up his end of a discussion.
Inevitably, once the ring was on my finger, questions about plans for a family began to flood in. The threat that “it will be eighteen years until you get your life back” was never far from my mind. Would I ever be ready to give up impromptu trips to the Bahamas or late nights at karaoke bars? For the next eighteen years?
At thirty, I decided if I was ever going to have children it had better start happening.
Mom’s added little warning, just in case I wasn’t apprehensive enough, hovered in the back of my mind still. “You’ll be tired every minute. You don’t know what tired feels like until you have children.”
As my husband and I happily celebrated the impending birth of our first child, I secretly dreaded the constant exhaustion for the next eighteen years until I got my life back.
One thing Mom had failed to tell me was how over-the-moon in love with my baby I would be.
Two days after his birth, I dressed in my street clothes preparing to leave the hospital and skipped down the hall to collect my newborn from the nursery.
A nurse stopped me and asked if she could help.
“My baby and I are going home today!” My face ached from its perpetual smile.
“Your baby?” The nurse looked me up and down. “You just had a baby? You mean you’re a patient?”
Once home, Guy and I quickly settled into a routine and I forgot, for the time being, that I wouldn’t get my life back for eighteen years. On day three after my son’s birth, my hormones flew into a frenzy as they attempted to return to their pre-baby state. Mom had prepared me for that very moment. “Three days after giving birth, your moods will be crazy and out of control.” And, oh boy, was she right! Like a swimmer frozen at the edge of the beach watching a twenty-foot wave barreling toward her, I felt it coming. Luckily, I remembered Mom’s wisdom and was able to forewarn my husband.
“I just want you to know,” I began as he looked up from his newspaper. “My hormones are running amok right now. There’s nothing wrong. I’m really happy. But I can’t stop what’s coming. I’m going to sit here and cry for a while. No need to worry.” As he stared at me, I cried for about twenty minutes, then was done.
Over the next months and years, I settled into my new role as a parent. Running up to the grocery was no longer a quick errand. It required planning around feedings and naps, and likely would be hurried in case the baby had a public meltdown. Going to the bathroom now required my twenty-pound chaperone, and showering included playing peek-a-boo from behind the curtain while he chortled from his bouncy seat.
Since our life wouldn’t be ours for another eighteen years, we figured we might as well have a second baby. Two years later, our daughter was born. We tallied it up. We would get our life back in eighteen years from then, a total of twenty-one.
Having two young children brought on a whole new round of challenges. And new gems from Mom:
“Going from one child to two more than doubles your work.” – She was right on that account. I believe evolution should advance so mothers of two or more grow an extra set of arms.
“Get them on the same nap schedule. Otherwise, you’ll never get a break.” – Really? And how do you convince a colicky newborn that it’s nap time?
“Make sure the older one is potty trained before having the baby. You don’t want two in diapers at the same time.” – Again, really? I never mastered the reasoning-with-a-toddler trick.
My second child was a girl, and Mom’s newest advice carried an undercurrent of sexism:
“A daughter will break your heart in ways a son can’t.” – Both of my children seemed equally capable of breaking my heart from time to time.
“She’ll wrap her daddy around her little finger.” – That absolutely turned out to be true. I don’t know how much of it was a father-daughter thing, though, and how much of it was that they share the same raunchy sense of humor.
“Your son is your son ‘til he takes a wife. Your daughter is your daughter for the rest of your life.” I don’t know. I grew up hearing that one. Maybe it was Mom’s subtle way of ensuring I’d be around to change her Depends in her old age. My brothers certainly couldn’t be counted on. As for my own kids, that remains to be seen.
By then, Mom had retired and made herself available to help me when my active toddler and screaming baby had me reaching for the Xanax. One day, as I changed the baby’s sixth or seventh diaper, cleaned up my toddler from his second poopy-pants accident (yes, that’s how I’d actually begun to talk), and picked up yet another cat puke, I had a revelation.
“This is it for me, isn’t it?” I asked her. I felt a heaviness fall on me as I sank into a chair. “There’s nothing more. First you’re born, then you get married, then have children, then you die. Is that all I’m doing now? I’m just waiting to die?”
As I dissolved into a sniveling mess of self-pity, Mom rubbed my back in that tight area between my shoulder blades and said, “You know perfectly well there’s more to life. You’re raising your children right now; that’s important. You’ll find activities and community and, once they’re in school, you should go back to work. And don’t forget, once they’re eighteen, you’ll get your life back.”
I appreciated her wisdom in the moment. Though by then, I had started to wonder what that would look like anymore. Getting my life back. Back to what? I was too tired to even want to go back to a karaoke bar, let alone until 2 AM as we’d done before having children. Maybe back to our island getaways? It was hard for me to envision our hand-in-hand midnight beach strolls or dancing under the stars to a steel drum band when we were in our fifties. Wouldn’t we be too old for that by then? Wouldn’t a nice hot toddy in front of a fireplace be more appropriate for a middle-aged couple?
Through the years, as I kept my eye on the magic mark when I would get my life back, I discovered Mom was right about finding a purpose. Somewhere along the way, I stopped feeling as if I was just biding time until I died. My son started school, then my daughter. I had begun to work part-time in my husband’s business, and being married to the boss afforded me the flexibility to be a room-parent or chaperone on class trips. We joined a church where I taught Sunday school and started a nature-based summer camp. We made friends with other families and planned outings for groups of parents and their children. We bought a house with a pool and hosted summer parties. We vacationed at kid-friendly locations where we could ride roller-coasters and log flumes. As our children entered high school, groups of their friends found our home an inviting hangout. Our weekends involved stepping over sleeping teenagers in our family room.
Suddenly, our son was eighteen and heading off to college. Our daughter would be following three years later. We stood blinking in disbelief that we would soon be empty-nesters. Our goal was now in sight. In just three years, we would get our life back!
I discovered that while the physical challenges of caring for small children were behind us, the emotional challenges were ongoing. With teenagers came first heartbreaks and academic decisions. They began to look toward their own futures as independent adults.
“Will I ever find the right girl?” – I drew on my personal experiences and doled out Mom wisdom. “When you stop looking, the right girl will come along.”
“How should I pick my major?” “Do you think this is a good internship for me?” “What should I do after graduation?” “Will I find a job?” “What if I make the wrong choice?” – I had gained knowledge and insight and a perspective that can only be earned through having done it myself. “There are no wrong choices. Only lessons to be learned.”
And my kids listened to me. That was kind of a scary realization. That you are on the front line when your children want advice. “Be bold and take chances. You don’t want to look back on your life and think ‘I wish I had…’”
My husband, emboldened by my growing arsenal of advice, joined in with his own. “Life is a game. You’re allowed to cheat. Just don’t get caught.”
He’s been benched ever since.
I made my own attempt at injecting humor. “As you stroll through your field of dreams, steer clear of the poison ivy.”
The blank stares told me that I wasn’t as funny as I thought.
Now that both of my children are in their twenties and on their way toward independence, I can get my life back. Only, there’s no going back to being in my twenties as a single woman. There’s no returning to being a newlywed buying our first home. We’ve been raising our children for the past couple of decades, but we didn’t put our identities on pause during that time. We grew with our kids, taught them, and learned from them.
While Guy and I are still a couple, we are also a family. We no longer look for karaoke bars and have found that we’re not the hot toddy kind of folks either. Hanging out with friends or a night in binge-watching Mad Men or Downton Abbey is more our speed now. And we enjoy the company of our adult children on vacations, having wine with dinner, laughing over card games, and watching movies that aren’t G-rated.
I now understand what my mother really meant about “getting my life back” was that once they were grown, my children would no longer be dependent on me for everything. They still need me as a mentor, as a friend, and, yes, as the purveyor of knowledge and sage advice, but they no longer require my full, undivided attention and I can enjoy the fruits of my labors. I’ve also come to realize that I wasn’t treading water for eighteen years, waiting for my children to grow up and leave home so I could wipe my hands of that duty. The truth is, this is my life. It has been my life for the past twenty-plus years.