Thursday, January 28, 2010
Third and Final Step: Run Away...Return Rejuvenated
This past December, while visiting family in Utah, Robbie decided to pull out some of my old memory books. Among the reams of vacation photos and elementary art work was a binder I created over several years - my "inspiration" binder. After flipping through a few pages of images cut out of magazines and books - images of passionate (and as I was soon to learn, unrealistic) kissing, dream homes, dream dresses, collages of words like "HOPE" and "DREAM" - he repressed his gag reflex and tossed it over to me.
I made my way through it, sighing a jaded sigh over the relentless romanticism, until I came to a section that stopped me cold. It was a magazine article that featured pages and pages of women in their 20s who had already "made it big." Actresses, CEOs, athletes, activists...women of all sizes and ethnicities, dressed in sleek shades of black and white, projecting power and confidence. I remember spending hours reading and re-reading their biographies, determined to be worthy of such a list in my own time. And here I was, 28 years and 1 week old, and I was not even close.
It wasn't so much the lack of accomplishments that sent me into a quarter-life crisis - I knew I was slowing my career by having two kids so young. I also take consolation in the fact that I'm at least working on a Master's and have time in the future to conceivably write the great American novel. Conceivably.
No, what scared me was the realization that this incredibly ambitious, confident girl I used to be had nearly been pushed out of existence by the anxious, self-deprecating woman I had become. Corny maybe. But true.
This is perhaps a long way of explaining why, when it was time for me to go to an intensive class in Chicago last week, I did not fret over leaving my kids behind. It was only four days, but it would be the first time I had slept without Fionn next to me since his birth 14 months earlier. I had to wean him the weekend before, to his great dismay, and neither child has let me out of sight without immediately screaming a frantic "MAMA!!!!" When it was time to leave for the train station, I literally had to peel a crying Fionn out of my arms to get out the door.
I should have cried and mourned and worried. But I knew that I was long overdue for some alone time - and I needed all I could get if I was going to recover some of that teenage optimism. As the train huffed and groaned away from the station, I sat back in my seat and luxuriated in the realization that for the next four days, I could eat when I wanted to eat, sleep when I wanted to sleep (in a bed all to myself!), I could pee when I needed to pee, and I could think entire thoughts without interruption. The train may have been filled with worn seats and loudly snoring passengers - it may have lurched from side to side like a drunkard - but in my mind it was as good as a golden litter held aloft by four shirtless men carrying me off to a private beach.
For the next four days, I did yoga, listened to whatever music I wanted, participated in intense class discussions, ate community dinners with my classmates, went to a Vesper service without worrying about kids in the nursery or being the one that had to preach, I thought about my future and made major decisions. After a class presentation, I was told by two different people that I could have been a lawyer (one was a lawyer, so I know at least that one was a compliment). One of my professors, who used to be president of the UUA and a major NGO, told me I had the potential to be an amazing preacher. It was awesome.
When I came home, I admit I was a little sad to leave it all behind, but I also saw our family with fresh eyes. With a little distance, I had the ability to put albinism and apraxia and house renovations and potty training and temper tantrums into perspective. In case you're wondering, part of my ability to enjoy the week came from the fact that my parents watched the boys for me. There may have been dramatics as I said my goodbyes, but once I was gone, they were just fine.
I'm not naive enough to think this euphoria will last, but I'm hoping it will be a catalyst for change. On several occasions, my considerate husband has offered to take the kids for me so I can have a day to myself. But I know that his (and let's face it, most men's) definition of watching kids is literally taking care of them and nothing else. A quick cost-benefit analysis always convinces me that it would be a more efficient use of time to stay put. I realize now that I need to do a long-term cost-benefit analysis, weighting sanity and personal growth at least as heavily as a clean bathroom or a newly-painted wall.
With only two years left in my 20s, I'm afraid I've got no shot of making that magazine list. I'm sure my 16-year-old self would be extremely disappointed - this is why my 16-year-old self disavowed marriage and kids, instead dreaming of a house in Maine and four dogs. But my 28-year-old self knows that marriage and kids are pretty amazing, careers can't be rushed, Maine is even colder than Michigan, and four dogs means a hell of a lot of dog hair on the couch. Live and learn.