Last year, I had a week off from work, and somehow, even with three kids in the house, I found myself home alone. Well, as close as I could get — my wife, Mel, was out with our two oldest, and our 1-year-old was asleep.
If you were to ask me what I want for a dream vacation, I’d say, “The TV to myself and a large pizza.” I say this jokingly, but there is some truth to it. As a parent of three kids under 9, I really long for time alone. Sometimes I think about all the things I could get done without my kids around. My house would be cleaner. I’d be in better shape because I’d have time to exercise. I could watch some of the movies I enjoy rather than Frozen over and over. I could read books and socialize. I could live a life that isn’t centered completely around my children.
I think a lot of parents have similar thoughts, and it’s not because we don’t love our children. I 100% do. It’s just that there really is no “off” switch when it comes to parenting. You don’t get many breaks, so you long for them. But it’s a double-edged sword, because once you do get time alone, you end up feeling like you’re doing something wrong. It’s a strange parental guilt that is a mix of feeling unproductive and neglectful.
For example, with Aspen asleep and the other kids away, I started a movie on Netflix. It was a tasteless action film — something I don’t ever get to watch because Mel hates them and the kids are too young for that sort of thing. And as I watched, I felt guilty. I felt like I should be doing something else, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that something was.
I feel this whenever I get time to myself; I feel guilty. I want it so badly. When I’m at work, I think about time alone. But when it happens, I sit and worry. I feel anxious. I feel like I should be doing something for my children or something for my family.
Honestly, it feels like something is missing when my kids aren’t around.
It’s strange and irritating, and I’m not sure what it means, but I suspect it has to do with the life-changing force that is being a parent.
I’ve been a father for almost 10 years, and in that time, I have held on to two hobbies. One is cycling (although I will admit, I can feel that one slipping away), and the other is writing. I write every day, but I only do it early in the morning when everyone is asleep so I won’t feel guilty about it, and so I won’t feel like I’m taking something away from my family. And to those of you without kids, I have to assume that it seems odd to worry so much about taking time away for yourself. But it really is what parenting becomes. It’s all-consuming.
My children are my passion. I think about them, I worry about them, I talk about them, and honestly, I write a lot about them. They really are all I write about anymore. And the funny thing is that it sounds like this is a problem — like I’m obsessed — but honestly, it isn’t.
I watched a documentary a while ago called The Other F Word. It was about a bunch of old punk bands from the ’90s and how many of the members are now fathers. In it, there was an awesome quote on fatherhood from Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers: “The classic parenting attitude to a kid is like, ‘I brought you into this world. I gave you life.’ But it’s like, I just think completely the opposite: My kids gave me life. You know? They gave me a reason.”
And you know what? I can say the same thing about my kids. When I think of my life before kids — when I think of all the movies I watched, the long bike rides, the long hours hanging out with friends doing nothing but feeling like it was something — I realize that I hadn’t lived. I didn’t know what life was. I didn’t know much about purpose and struggle. I didn’t realize how satisfying it could be to help my son learn how to ride a bike or that it was much more satisfying than riding my own bike. Teaching my daughter how to write feels better than finishing the best essay.
And I think this is why when I get time to myself, I feel unproductive. I feel like I should be doing something more because the fact is, parenting is something more. It’s the most demanding and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Although I get frustrated with it and want to park my minivan and run off into the woods, when I think back on those crazed moments — when I realize that I lived through them and maybe, just maybe, helped my kids learn to be better people — I feel a great feeling of satisfaction.
Aspen woke up while I was halfway through my movie. But it was okay — I wasn’t paying attention anyway. I turned off the TV and went into her room. She was reaching out from the side of the crib, her golden hair messy from sleep. She was crying, so I found her pacifier.
“Did you miss me?” I asked, and she reached up and touched my face. She was calm now.
“I missed you too,” I said.