As usual, Mom and I came up with a great idea over glasses of Chardonnay. We were gazing at my two boys. The 4-year-old was aiming his bow and arrow at some precious antiques, and the baby was foraging for windpipe-size objects to ingest. It was the Christmas holidays, and we were visiting Mom in Savannah, Ga. "I wish I could be with them all the time," my mother said with a sigh.
She put her hand on my hand, and I remembered what my son had told me that morning as he sat on my lap, squirming and watching cartoons. "Your hands are old, Mommy," he'd said, tracing the veins.
"I'll pull them out of day care," I suggested, "and you can watch them all the time."
"Hmm," said Mom. "No," she decided, "I don't want to be a nanny in Texas. But I'll be a nanny somewhere interesting, like Bermuda." Mom had already accompanied me on a book tour all over the country, and I knew she was up to the job. "How about Greece?" I said. "How about India, or Costa Rica? If I pull them out of day care, we could travel the world with the money I'd save."
We locked eyes. The candles flickered, and my son shot the coffee table but missed. This felt like an important moment.
My baby crawled over, and I picked him up. He was warm and smelled like squash. "That's all I really want," I said. "I want to be with them all day, but I hate being with them all day."
"I drop them at day care and I try to write, but I'm worn out. I miss the boys."
Mom had heard all this before, but she listened anyway. "Just let me get another teensy splash," she said, refilling her glass.
"If I'm with them, I'm bored and think I should be working. If I'm working, I feel like I should be with them."
"More?" said Mom.
"I never feel proud of myself," I said.
"Well, I'd love to travel," said Mom. "I'm 57, you know. I'm not going to live forever." She had been 57 for some time.
"There's one more year until kindergarten," I said, gesturing at my eldest, "and then he'll be in school until he's middle-aged."
"But I'll still be 57!" added Mom.
All evening, as one son mashed sweet potatoes and the baby bobbed on his chubby legs to Christmas carols, I daydreamed. With my mom around to help, being with my boys was a joy. Alone, I couldn't bear it. The stultifying days at the park. Paying for music classes so my baby could crawl around another room for a while, trying to eat the cymbals. The impossibility of careful thought, the sheer exhaustion. Some women seemed blissful, but I was always seething. I didn't go to college for this, I'd think, maneuvering a shopping cart with a screaming toddler through Target, or staring dumbly at my son playing with trucks at the children's museum.
On the other hand, when I drop them off at preschool, I go home bereft. Most mornings, my son protests, saying, "I just want to be with you, Mommy," or "Please let me stay home in my pajamas." When I've wrangled him into his clothes and dropped him off, I stare at the Playmobil pirate ship scattered all over the floor, missing the boy who's playing a few blocks away. I replay the moment when my baby reached up his arms and cried for me, before he was whisked away by his teacher. I wrote much of my last novel through tears, and finally found a therapist to help me cope. And then I would drop my son at day care, drive to the counseling center and cry about missing my son. I was spending a fortune and not accomplishing a thing.
It's a question I'd been struggling with since my first son was born: How do you raise a child without losing yourself? Does a mother have to give up what she loves, if what she loves is travel, reading, time alone and lazy dinners with her husband? Everyone I ask seems to have the same answer: Yes, for a while. "When the kids are older," people advise, "you'll have it all back, and you'll miss this time with the kids." Inevitably, the older and wiser folks say this while gazing tearfully at my two young sons. "I remember when mine were that age," they say, and then they wander off to have an interesting conversation, followed by a nice nap.
I'm not willing to lose myself, even for a few years. I want to be the brave traveler I was just a few years ago, when hopping off a plane with a backpack and a map of Nairobi, Kenya, was an unencumbered thrill. I want to be engaged with adults, with intellectual ideas and politics. But something happened to me when I became a mother: I stopped caring so much about the world beyond my own home. Some of this was due to necessity. I was needed, purely and simply, almost every moment of the day. I couldn't think in the few seconds between a diaper change and the shrieking of a toddler who has broken his light saber. The conversations of friends without children seemed unnecessarily digressive, even pointless. I was keyed into an almost animal existence, my body constantly taxed with no sleep and constant anxiety. And to leave my house required more baggage than a monthlong trek in Chile.
"I read an amazing novel," I told a friend over lunch one day. "It had some really fascinating ideas."
After a moment, my friend asked, "Well? What were they?"
I couldn't even begin to respond.
I'll be honest: There is some relief in letting go of the world, of just saying to hell with it. No, I can't meet for coffee. I haven't seen the latest Wes Anderson movie. I didn't return your call, and I'm not going to. I have spent days with my boys when I am the happiest I've ever been, playing underwater sea rescue, nursing, eating pancakes at 4 p.m. and leaving the Times entirely untouched. I know this is a magic time, a once-in-a-lifetime time. I know how lucky I am to have these amazing creatures wanting to spend time with me, and how soon I will no longer be the first person they need. Oh, that's the other thing: I miss my mom.
But I feel yanked between a pajama-pancake world and a satisfying adult world of experience and adventure. I want to embrace both sides of myself, to become a new character entirely -- a worldly mom! And maybe this could be a way to make that happen. I can read the International Herald Tribune while Mom takes the boys to an Italian market to shop for dinner. I can write in a thatched-roof hut while Mom sips margaritas and supervises the construction of castles made of spun-sugar sand. My son can stay with me, in his pajamas, all day. Then again, maybe exhaustion in Bali is just as miserable as exhaustion in Texas. Maybe my sons are better off in a safe day-care setting than being carted around the globe. And the plane rides, Lord help us, the plane rides.
That night, I broached the subject with my husband. I assumed he'd argue me out of it, tell me this was a silly fantasy, that I was insane for wanting to drag his children around the world. What I didn't expect was that he'd tell me how he hated the way our kids played only in our fenced-in yard. That a trip around the world was the antithesis to the sheltered, frightened way kids today were growing up. That even if our sons wouldn't appreciate Thai cuisine, at least they'd try something other than Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. Maybe they'd learn self-reliance, sensitivity, Spanish. I could take them to see the polar ice caps before they're gone.
My husband touched my cheek. "Come home every few weeks," he said. "OK?"
The next morning, when she got up at 5:30 to keep me company while I lay on the floor with my early-bird baby, Mom told me she hadn't slept a wink. She tightened the sash on her bathrobe, she sat on the floor, and the baby crawled toward her, grinning. She began to list the places she wanted to go before she turned 57 again.