Every morning as I lie in bed and hear my three-year-old son begin to rustle in his crib, I vow that today, I will get down on my hands and knees and play with him. Soon, he’ll be going to school, making friends and playing soccer and video games, and at that point, he won’t want to play with me. And then I’ll miss him and feel regret. So when he says, “Mommy, will you play with me?” I vow to say, “Yes,” and grab one of his trucks or Thomas the Tank Engine and drive it around his ringed track saying “Chuggah, chuggah, choo choo. I’m a useful engine!”
And yet every afternoon, as my son drives his cars on the floor right next to me or runs his trains around the track, I not only fail to make good on my vow, I’m barely in the room. Instead, I keep checking my email, thinking about stories I want to pitch, essays I want to write and sometimes taking notes for my parenting blog on raising a toddler — except I spend more time writing about raising him than actually raising him.
“Mommy, who are you talking to?” my son says, as I whisper into my tape recorder to remind myself how when he had his hands covering his eyes yesterday at the playground, I thought he was crying when it turns out he was only playing hide-and-seek.
“I’m, um, talking to myself. I’m trying to remind myself of the funny thing you just did,” I’ll say.
I realize this is bizarre, given that he doesn’t understand what a tape recorder is, what a memory is, and why his mommy no longer has one.
I know I should savor this time with my son, like a peppermint, but I can’t help myself. If I’ve experienced something noteworthy, I want to write about it. And so I walk that tightrope all writers must walk: to live in the moment in order to experience life or to come out of the moment in order to write about it. So when my son does something funny or interesting or smart, my default reflex is to reach for my pen instead of my son.
Sometimes I can’t write it down fast enough, so I scribble on my hand, the back of coupons, inside book jackets – sometimes even library books – or I’ll grab my iPhone and type a note or record a phrase. But when it’s time to turn these experiences, notes and recordings into prose, I fall asleep, and all those pearls of wisdom just fade away like penning a great poem and then leaving it out in the rain. And then the next day comes, when I hear my son rustling, I vow to play with him, and then spend half the day taking notes on what it’s like to half play with him, and the cycle begins anew.
I’m not just distracted from playing with him because I’m a writer. I’m distracted because I’m struggling with the fact that I’m no longer working full time. I had my son at 47 so I’ve spent the last three decades building a career as a journalist, but since I had him, I’ve cut my workload and my paycheck by a third – not to mention the fact that his needs and moods and demands and incessant chatter has destroyed my ability to focus. Stories take five times longer to write, naptime dictates when I can schedule interviews. Worse, I now have severe mommy-brain and can no longer hold a thought for more than a minute. The instant my son interrupts me, which happens all day long, my focus runs off the track like a Thomas train.
My husband’s job, however, has changed little. Except for coming home early one night a week so I can go to yoga, his work hours and job title remain the same, though his office wall is now covered with photos of our son.
There’s a lot of talk about this social dynamic: couple has child, man keeps career, woman watches hers unravel, at least until the child goes to school. First, there were books and articles first about how women can have it all: motherhood and a career. Then everyone admitted women really can’t have it all. And there are cries of sexism and how something has to change. I agree it’s sexist, but at the same time, I’m a beneficiary. I’m glad it’s acceptable for me to put half my career on hold while I spend time with my son in his formative years. My husband could have said he wanted to stay home while I continued to work full time, but he didn’t, and it’s not just because he earns twice what I do and his workplace is less flexible. It’s because underneath it all, despite our liberal beliefs and cosmopolitan sensibilities, like old wallpaper you might find underneath plaster, we still believed boys go to work and girls stay home. And I feel lucky for that. I get to be with my son in these delicious but fleeting formative years. If I could only stop working long enough to enjoy it.
This morning, I went into my son’s room, I said, “I want to play with you.” My son looked surprised but broke out into a big wide smile and hugged me. His response warmed me so deeply, I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s all about. It’s not about awards or accolades or money. It’s about this. Loving and being loved. Wanting and being wanted.” The experience was so moving, I grabbed a notebook to jot it all down.