Quality time may be overrated -- unless it's with yourself.

Published July 13, 1999 11:45AM (EDT)

It is half past midnight and I am sitting in a hotel room in Berkeley, unwilling to go to bed because I'm so thrilled at being alone. I have just come from interviewing a fascinating 50ish woman who cheerfully told me the reason she has never married is because she learned early on she is her own best company. "I like spending time with myself," she said simply.

Me too, although it is hard to explain this to my husband and son -- both chatty, sociable creatures who tend to take my jones for solitude personally. "Mom, Dad says sometimes you just go to the movies by yourself. Is that true?" my 7-year-old son inquires. When I tell him, you betcha, every time I can manage to sneak away (which, now that I'm incarcerated in an office, is not often enough), he looks at me askance. "That's weird." He has just grown used to it, accepted it as a maternal idiosyncrasy, right up there with my distaste for hamsters and booger jokes.

My husband has learned to ask, "Do you want to go to this yourself, or do you want company?" and not be hurt if I take the second option. He knows I get up one or two hours earlier than the rest of the household on weekends just to savor the silence. Aside from the birds outside or the soothing murmur of Bob Simon, cheerfully dispensing arcana on NPR's "Weekend Edition," there's no noise.

No "have you seen my shoes/glasses/homework/CatDog/shirt/property tax bill?" No "why do I hafta have that for breakfast?" No endless recitations of the Florentine intricacies of second grade social circles, or the latest entertainment industry gossip. No "Doug," "Rugrats," "Terminator" or "We Want Miles" blasting into the lovely, golden silence thick as syrup.

There's only the crackle of the paper as the pages are turned. The hiss of the kettle as scalding water prepares to cascade over a pile of freshly ground Sumatra in the little coffee press. The snatches of laughter from early morning joggers chattering to each other as they huff past my window.

Many women take silence for granted -- until we become mothers and realize what a precious commodity it is. Even Dads Who Help get more time alone than we do: In the end, the little gremlins -- and their papas -- still come to us when they want to locate something, share something or just bask in our availability. To get some silence, you have to get yourself gone.

There are all kinds of ways of making a break for it. One friend, the mother of two active boys, says that when they were little, she used to grab a nap whenever she could -- not because she was especially tired (although sometimes she really was), but because when she was asleep, "Nobody could ask me for anything. I turned into a serious slumber junkie." A couple of years ago, I remember calling to check on another good friend when she was in the throes of a monster cold. I was amazed to find her remarkably cheerful. "Actually, once I got past the fever part, it's been pretty nice; Larry's taken the kids totally, and I'm getting to just lie on my back, blow my nose and read." (Don't laugh -- that comes perilously close to being a vacation for some of us.)

Men get their silence in the daily commute or when they take a stack of material that could supply the reading room of the local public library into the bathroom -- where they stay for incredibly long, unmolested periods of time. We, on the other hand, quickly take baths -- if we haven't given them up completely and resorted to showers -- while our Little Darlin's sit outside the door, banging intermittently or howling incredibly pressing questions: "Are you coming out soon?" "Can I watch Batman?" "Are you ever going to call Daniel's mom and figure out a play date?"

When I finally do get a moment of silence, I'm torn as to whether I should actually indulge myself. In my perpetually chaotic household, I think of silence as a luxury that needs to be deferred to the Practicality Goddess. Enjoy the silence, or do more laundry? Silence, or clean out the refrigerator? Silence, or sift through the pile of junk mail that has grown alarmingly high, and only since last week? (Silence, or write this article, so I can pay off next month's tuition?)

Far too often, the need for domestic rearrangement wins out, and at the end of what would have been my quiet time, I've actually done something useful: Maybe I've found my driver's license renewal form or cleared the dining room table of several days' worth of miscellaneous stuff. Maybe the CDs have been returned to their cases or I've finally finished filing my way-overdue expense accounts. I feel relieved but not refreshed -- because there might be a smidgen more order in my life, but I still need that hit of silence.

So the next time you pass a woman in the grocery-store parking lot and she's just sitting in her car, motor off, staring ahead and not doing anything in particular, don't automatically assume she's having a mental breakdown or a perimenopausal memory lapse. Maybe she didn't forget anything. Maybe she's perfectly happy being in the moment. Maybe she's just taking a deep gulp of silence.

By Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a news correspondent for the West Coast Bureau of People Magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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