The Single Biggest Difference Between Parents and People Who Don’t Have Kids

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Mother and child take a load offPhoto: DEA / STUDIO AB/Getty Images/DeAgostini

There is something that went away once I became a mother, and I can’t get it back. I still mourn its loss sometimes, almost always — ironically — when I am alone: I lost time.

I feel this more acutely now that my daughter is nearly 3 — also ironically, as I arguably have more time to myself now than I did when she was 2 months old. I’m in limbo now: I don’t think like a fully independent, self-interested woman, nor do I think like a mother 100 percent of the time. Who am I?

To be clear, it’s not clock time that I’ve lost, but something that’s harder to grasp. Here are two short memories:

A Sunday morning before my daughter was born: We had stayed up a little late — never too late, our patterns are very consistent — watching The Walking Dead or Mad Men. I left my books where they dropped on the couch, didn’t do the dishes. I wake up at nine Sunday morning, stare at the ceiling for a while. I leave Josh asleep, get a newspaper. I don’t read it. I sit outside. I think about eating, but there isn’t any food. I should grocery shop but don’t feel like it. I need to do laundry but don’t want to. Will we go to brunch? Who’s to say?

And now: We stayed up a little late — never too late, our patterns are very consistent — watching the O.J. documentary or something I nodded off during. We scramble around before bed putting glasses in the sink, lightly scanning for scissors and pens. Our daughter wakes, singing over a baby monitor, at 5:45 or 6:30 a.m. I ignore her until 7 a.m. routinely, but the stress in our bedroom builds up as we wonder: Who will break first and get her? One of us does; the other is grateful but also awake. We want to sleep in, but we are conflicted because we are all three together only two days a week.

If it’s me who gets up, I run to the bathroom, splash water on my face, throw in my contact lenses, get dressed. I go into our daughter’s room, change her. We head out to the kitchen carrying dolls and tiny strollers, books, diapers. We are so laden with items we leave a breadcrumb trail behind us. She knows to be quiet but isn’t capable. We might have breakfast. I have coffee.

While she gets to work on a craft or caring for her dolls, I begin to make a list: I need groceries, which can’t be avoided now because kids always need to eat, and she needs school lunches for the week. Her laundry is not negotiable. Her bag from Friday sits on the floor still; it needs to be repacked. She asks to go to the park. “Okay,” I say, standing up, thinking we can go to the store on our way back. It’s 7:45 am.

I’m tempted to call the loss “spontaneity” — it’s certainly a huge part of what I mourn. Most mothers I know, when we talk about what is hardest, say something about how much having to plan and how much work it takes to have a night out with friends.

It’s not simply “It’s difficult to get a sitter,” it’s not that at all: It is so much more vast than that. Everything needs to be managed: the timing of a school pickup, the meals to be accounted for. The next day must always be blocked out — you need to know in advance. And of course, because I work, my time with her is limited. Do I really want to go out on an evening when I could be with her? Of course I don’t. Of course I do. We struggle together, mother and child.

This is very stressful for parents as partners, I have found: My husband and I worked together for years and I was still surprised by the amount of collaboration that was necessary to keep our daughter alive. Remember: She must be accounted for 100 percent of the time. That’s a given — “No shit, Laura,” you might say. But mentally, it’s a real accomplishment! And it is weirdly deflating to your sense of self sometimes. Even when I’m alone, my time isn’t wholly mine. I am mentally, often, just partly, somewhere else.

There’s an upside! I don’t want to make it sound like there isn’t. I am the very center of someone’s world and as such am truly never alone — how wonderful and how stifling. How awesome and how weird, after 35 years alone on this big planet, to feel always naked when I walk out of the house with just a purse. What a ride.

It will be over soon. I will be almost completely re-assimilated back to myself. She will complete the process of detachment from me that started on the day that she was born, and I will go back to being Laura — a mother with a child, not a baby. I expect it will happen somewhere around her fifth birthday, but I’m not sure. I only know it’s not complete yet. I look forward to this and fear that I won’t be happy about it when it comes. We are both feeling a little conflicted.

I try to take my cues from her, to follow her example: It’s okay to be afraid of walking away from your heart. It’s okay to run back for one more kiss and one more hug. But it’s also okay to be happy to go.