On Balance

Published on August 18th, 2020 | by Natalie Brandt


Guilty Pleasures of Part-Time Mothering

The instructions: Write a confession (or more) on a strip of neon paper and drop it into the crystal bowl at the front door. Once we had spilled our guts, the host of the dinner party rewarded us with a cocktail. 

After dinner and copious amounts of wine, we passed the bowl around the room and took turns reading selections aloud and guessing the author. The disclosures covered everything from “when my ex used to piss me off, I’d run his toothbrush along the inside of the toilet bowl…after I peed,” to “I was married once before, in college, to a hottie who needed a green card.” My silliest disclosure included wearing the same bra for four years and washing it only twice. There was a lot of laughter. But there were a few uncomfortable moments, too, like when the most beautiful woman in the room admitted she couldn’t orgasm with her husband, and when a friend read my most personal confession. 

I felt a quick stab of shame as I heard my words repeated back to me. “Divorce sucks but sharing kids with the ex is great. Not because he’s a gem, but because I get a damn break.” I noticed, or perhaps imagined, that a few ladies nodded in agreement before they started guessing the author. While girls’ night was a safe place to be vulnerable and I sensed no judgment, except perhaps for my poor undergarment maintenance, I was still aware that I had committed an unpardonable sin: admitting, out loud, that being Mom isn’t always my favorite job. 

From childhood, just as the allure of baby dolls and play kitchens wears off, our bodies take over and prove to us once a month that it was never a game; we are indeed destined for motherhood. Then some tiny carbon-based life form makes us mothers, either by splitting our nether regions into fleshy puzzle pieces or by acquisition of some kind, and the entire world reminds us that it’s not enough to just love and care for our children; we have to kick ass at motherhood, too: Mommy and Me classes for babies that can’t yet hold their heads up; school sign-up sheets to be not just mother but Room Mother; birthday parties with acrobats and swag bags; an email from the mother-in-law that says, “Congrats on the sitter. I just wish I’d had the courage to choose my career over my kids. You’re so brave to go back to work and let someone else raise them.” 

I love my son and daughter. I am in love with them. They are my favorite humans. Some mornings when mere tufts of their hair poke out from under the covers, it is all I can do not to hurl myself onto them and kiss every exposed inch of face. I worked hard to become their mother. Numerous miscarriages, round after round of IVF, and literally thousands of self-administered shots. I willed these two creatures into being. Even at 11 and 13, they are my babies. And they are my babies who I love to see wave goodbye as they pull away each week in my ex-husband’s car, taking with them the shoes, the sticks, the papers, and the questions. It is his turn to answer “why do I have to brush my teeth every day?” and “if the parabola is rotated to X, is the axis of symmetry parallel to Y?” 

I wasn’t immediately ok with relinquishing my kids each week. As we sat across from each other at the negotiation table to part the Red Sea of memories and IRAs we’d forged over two decades, my ex and I jockeyed for more kid time. The benign sounding “parenting schedule” we hurriedly agreed to was intended as a fallback in the event we could not later agree to a bespoke routine that made us all jolly. The fallback quickly became the rule, and I was far from jolly. Suddenly I had weekdays with my kids, but no weekends. I started dreading the arrival of Friday. For months, I’d find ways to speed the weekend hours, dodging waves of guilt and sadness by taking long runs and cooking classes or sitting alone at soccer games, avoiding my in-laws’ hateful stares.

Then one Sunday evening about six months post-divorce, I crawled into bed surprised to realize that I’d enjoyed my two days alone. No guilt. I’d finished a book, gardened, tried – and failed at – making curry, and spent long stretches of quiet time doing nothing but thinking. And I was…fine. More than fine, I felt re-charged for another long and hectic week of meals and homework and racing to practices. Turns out, my weekend reprieve makes me a more patient mother. I can make three meals a day without grumbling and smile my way through editing a paper on the Lincoln assassination. 

While one should never underestimate the thrill of being liberated from the vagaries of domestic life with its endless dishes, unmade beds, and putrid uniforms, the joy of part-time parenting is more than that. As a busy mother and wife, I had acted almost exclusively on maternal instinct for so many years, it had stopped occurring to me to even wonder what I might actually want for dinner, where I might like to go for vacation, or what color I’d like to paint my bedroom. If someone had asked, I would not have had an answer. 

It is hard to be selfish when you love your children. We are mothers and we sacrifice. I don’t regret taking a step back from my demanding law practice years ago to spend more time at home, but I do lament what that decision means for me now, a single mom with a spotty resume. Because I lag professionally, I get paid less than I should, and am perpetually defending the gap in my work history. But there in the precious solitude of my weekends, I have started to reclaim some chipped and jagged pieces of the girl I once was. I am partial to spicy stir-fry for dinner, and I painted my bedroom white with a few splashes of hot pink, orange, and blue. I have gotten reacquainted with the girl I once was, the girl with the big ideas and the bigger mouth, sitting on her grandfather’s porch writing in her pink journal with its broken lock, dreaming of traveling to islands dotted with thatched huts over blue water.  

While I have not reclaimed some desire to climb K2, sing on Broadway, or argue before the Supreme Court, I have discovered the absolute spastic joy of doing things just for the hell of it.  Like (poorly) playing piano again without worrying about other people or an upcoming recital. And running without keeping track of miles. And taking cases at work that scare me but make me flex muscles I thought had atrophied. In other words, I’ve learned to enjoy my own company and know I can depend on myself.  As a middle-aged single mother with an abundance of alone time, self-reliance is my superpower.  

When COVID canceled school and sports, my kids were suddenly home with me all day every day. I panicked at first and ate a lot of peanut butter to cope. But my ex and I finally brokered that bespoke schedule. I got days, he got nights, and we split weekends. It took a global meltdown, but we finally made some peace and structured a deal that worked for all of us. I gave up nighttime rituals but gained more actual quality time with my kids than ever. And my kids have gotten to experience both parents a little, every day, for the first time in years. I love my two new weird and funny coworkers, who become playmates around 4:00 when we unplug the Zoom connection and head outdoors. And I absolutely love waving goodbye to them every evening as they pull away in their father’s car. 

Recently over ice cream, my son said, “Momma, you’re kinda like a friend now, not just the boss.” I might be a lesser Mom because I can live without my kids half the time. I am sure there are a lot of women, including my former mother-in-law, who would gladly tell me so. But I don’t think my kids would agree. Either way, I am for sure too busy enjoying their company, and my own, to worry about it.

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About the Author

Natalie is a Texas native, an attorney, and writer. She is also the lucky mom of two fabulous kids, two dogs, a Beta fish named Sushi, and a large Mason jar of mystery critters from the yard. When not otherwise preoccupied with politics and what Joan Didion is up to, Natalie is busy cooking, jogging, and writing. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays, and her most recent attempt at fiction can be found at the Prompt Magazine.

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