Taking a break from being a mom was harder than I thought

August 25, 2014
Carrington Tarr, a former newspaper journalist, has written for The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine. She lives in Washington, DC.
tarrphoto
The Tarr family. (Courtesy of Carrington Tarr).

It was the first night of a first-ever week-long stint without my three kids or husband — words I still can’t believe I just typed. After a long drive dropping my daughters at camp, I was elated to be in my home alone, watching, eating and doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

When I called to tell my friend Ashley, she reacted like I’d won a trip to Paris.

“What are you going to do? Do you have Netflix? You should binge on ‘Scandal!’ I told Anna about it and now she’s three shows ahead of me!”

“That sounds perfect!” I exclaimed, almost giddy at the prospect of not having to watch another Nationals game on TV or search for age-appropriate fare the entire family could watch.

That evening, I took our terrier Cookie for a long walk, rummaged through the fridge for mozzarella and roast chicken, and sliced a fresh tomato. I wanted to send camp e-mails to our twin 11-year-old daughters, so I sat down to eat and type, turning on the TV for background noise. The Nationals game came on, and I reached for the remote, but then noticed they were one run behind with two innings to go. I’ll have to see how this ends, I thought.

As I wrote, ate and watched, I would intermittently receive texts from my husband, who was traveling by train to Oregon with our 13-year-old son. He was sending photos of the passing landscape, and I, in turn, updated him on the game.

With e-mails sent and the game over, I considered starting the “Scandal” binge but decided it was too late. I scrolled casually through the movie channels, pausing on “Parental Guidance,” which one of my daughters had enthused about to me. Curious, I clicked on play … and watched it to the end.

Sometime during the movie — maybe the point where Billy Crystal’s grandson takes a whiz off the top of a skateboarding ramp — I saw what I was doing.

I was e-mailing the girls at camp, saying how eerily quiet the house was. I was texting my husband, commenting on his photos. I was rooting for my son’s beloved team, reporting the scores. I was laughing during one of my daughter’s favorite movies, even shedding a (tiny) tear at the end.

And when I went for a run the next day and found myself for the first time ever listening to my daughter’s playlist — containing songs from Katy Perry, Cassadee Pope, and yes, the “Frozen” soundtrack — I knew I was in trouble.

I normally spend so much time being a mom — specifically, a full-time mom — that I’d forgotten what it was like being, well, not a mom. As someone who embraces girls’ weekend, date nights and snatches of solitude, I hadn’t anticipated having difficulty shedding my “mom” skin.

In fact, my husband and I were married eight years before we had our children. Back then, I worked full time, read actual novels, traveled on weekends and hosted impromptu dinner parties. I cooked from gourmet cookbooks. My house was clean.

“It always takes a couple of days to get used to the silence,” Ashley told me.

Maybe so. But it was uncanny how, with no kids to feed, direct and drive around, I was still figuring out a way to be with them anyway.

Later at yoga I ran into Sherri, whose kids are in college. “Enjoy the break,” she said with a knowing look. “You may not get it again until your kids are gone. And even then, they may end up back at home.”

Yes, yes, I nodded. I’ve got writing projects lined up, my office to clean out, old friends to catch up with — lots to do!

But I felt a twinge of uncertainty. I’d been exultant after dropping my husband and son at the airport. And I’d been uncomprehending when my friend Kristen said that while her kids were at camp, she began to question her identity as a mother: “By the end I didn’t fully feel like a mom anymore, and that felt awful.”

What I hadn’t truly appreciated is how my role as a mother isn’t merely a role, it’s embedded in my being. It’s what I do and think about most of the time, directly and indirectly. I shop for my kids at the grocery store, buy their clothes, fill out school forms, make appointments and bring them smoothies from our favorite shop — just ’cause.

I ended up at the smoothie shop yesterday and ordered only one smoothie. It seemed wrong, so I made it a large.

It’s like I have “mom muscle memory” — I’m going through the motions even with no kids around. Maybe having three kids in two years created a sort of “child tsunami” in my life. I have no regrets about immersing myself in this life. But along the way, one hazard of immersing myself in motherhood has been sometimes neglecting my former self.

Now, with the intensity of the early childhood years behind me, I’m seeing the seas start to calm. I’m seeing my kids slowly, slowly gain their independence. I’m seeing me slowly regain mine.

While I would never want to return to my life before kids, I’m grateful for this glimpse — however temporary — of the trail to come. I may be humming the “Frozen” soundtrack along the way, but I also might fit in a “Scandal” viewing by the end of the week — right when my family gets home.

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