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With kids off at school, how I answer “So what do you do all day?”

Quiet time to cook. (Andrew Knight)
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On the first day of school, I drove my three boys to their Montessori school and stepped out into the foggy morning air. They lined up along the fence while we took the obligatory first day photos. I walked them to their classrooms, kissed them goodbye, and returned to the car. There were no tears, only a feeling of bewilderment and I’ll admit, some excitement. After seven years of having a child or two or three in tow, I was alone. All day.

The first two days were a blur. I rushed through housework, doing dishes and laundry and sweeping up like a madwoman. I grocery shopped alone but still with a sense of urgency; the time felt borrowed and the desperation I felt to accomplish everything was palpable. I packed in exercise and appointments and picked up the boys at the end of the school day exhausted, but with a sense that I had done enough, that the time had been worthwhile and productive.

The second week in, the questions started pouring in from family, friends, neighbors, coffee shop employees, and acquaintances who noticed my lack of tiny companions. “Where are the boys?” was inevitably followed by “What are you doing with yourself all day?” At first I was vague, “What am I not doing?” I said  with a chuckle. Then I found myself needing an answer. I talked about writing, cooking, cleaning, gardening, laundry and chores, visiting with friends and going to trapeze class. I listed more and more, found myself needing an answer, a better answer.

And then a good friend, who happened to overhear my 700th answer to the same question, approached me. She looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said, I know everyone is asking you what you are doing all day. And you feel like you have to say something profound. But I think they’re just asking because you are the light at the end of the tunnel. You are entering the place we [with young children] are only dreaming about. I think people want to know what it’s like because you give them hope.”

I felt myself fully exhale for the first time in two weeks. I had been so busy trying to live up to my own expectations of accomplishing enough during the childless hours that I was totally unaware of the pressure I was putting on myself: the pressure I put on myself with the clear knowledge that staying at home is a luxury to many, and something I feel humbled and grateful for on a daily basis. It is a beautiful gift.

The conversation felt like someone had let me off the hook; I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. It was at that moment that I realized there would be days that I did nothing but drive the boys to school, return home, and lie on my back staring at the ceiling to work through some idea or another, do some dishes, and drive back out to pick up my boys. Then there would be days where I spent hours cleaning and organizing our home, prepping for elaborate meals for my family, baking three loaves of pumpkin bread, weeding the garden, running errands, picking 30 pounds of apples from our tree, making applesauce, taking the dog to a vet appointment and then getting the oil changed in our van just in time to pick up the boys.

Which day is more worthy? Which day would I talk about when people asked?

What kind of value do we place on a day with nothing planned? On a day not filled with lists of accomplishments, but with peace and quiet: a long walk to a coffee shop to enjoy a book, a phone conversation with a family member with whom we’ve lost touch. Will we tell those stories, or leave them out?  There is value in both the busy days and the slow, reflective ones. There is value in finding time for oneself.

When the next person asks me what I do all day, maybe I will simply say, “Enough.”

Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.

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