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He gets/she gets

By Shannon Hyland-Tassava

I went out yesterday with two fellow-mom friends, the monthly "moms' coffee" date we plan for a weekend day when our husbands can stay home with the kids. And then I felt guilty about it the whole time I was there. Not guilty enough to come home early, of course; not guilty enough to not schedule another one next month -- but guilty nonetheless.

You see, I have it good in my household, and I know it. I have a husband who works hard all day at his full-time job -- even works at home late at night at his second, part-time job -- and who still uncomplainingly takes over with the children when he walks in the door at the end of the day, who still willingly takes both girls off my hands on Saturdays and Sundays, going on errands or to the park or the library, so I can have a break from my full-time weekday job of stay-at-home mom. And then on top of all that, he encourages me to do occasional things like this -- socialize with my girlfriends, get my hair done, whatever--while he does childcare duty.

And yet there's always this constant struggle over relaxation time -- or lack thereof. My spouse is kind and generous, but I know he'd love an afternoon of weekend down-time as well. Not playing-in-the-park-with-the-children down-time. Not folding-the-laundry-while-the babies-nap down-time. But actual, grown-up, free-from-duties-and-chores-and-baby-care down-time, like I enjoyed for two hours this afternoon. And yet, for me to do a good job as an at-home mom, I absolutely need to be spelled from those duties at the end of my work day, and my work week. I'm a good at-home mom, but only because I'm not on duty from wake-up to bedtime, Sunday through Saturday.

The end result of this childcare relay is a serious lack of time off -- for anyone -- from the care of small children. In my ideal scenario, we'd have occasional help -- preferably extended family, such as doting grandparents willing to babysit -- so that every now and then we'd be free to re-charge our parenting batteries by escaping the daily (and nightly!) baby-grind. But our family -- doting and (theoretically) willing as they are -- are nowhere nearby, so that option is out.

Local teenage sitters? In our affluent, educated college town, quality babysitting for two children runs a minimum ten dollars an hour, and on one academic salary, that's pretty hard to swing. For a yearly special occasion -- an anniversary dinner, let's say -- maybe; but to make it easier to get through the weekly marathon of life in a household with two children under four? Not on our budget.

We do pretty well, my sweetie and I; we negotiate schedules and chores with general good humor. But there's an undeniable undercurrent of you-get/I-get that runs through our young-family days. You went for a run yesterday; therefore I get to work out today. I'll grocery-shop during nap time if you'll run to Target after bedtime. I'm more tired than you are, so please won't you get up with the baby tomorrow morning and let me sleep in? It's all about the tug-of-war, the give and take. It all comes down to finding the delicate balance that allows a family to raise small children with joy and enthusiasm, without going crazy at the same time.

But really: does it ever end? Will there come a time when we won't be keeping an internal tally, an imaginary score sheet of what needs to be done and whose needs take priority? Please don't tell me, "When the kids go away to college." Because then, of course, you'll reduce me to tearful contemplation of a quiet house and grown-up girls whom I'll miss terribly when they're no longer babies and their needs aren't so pressing and there (maybe?) isn't quite so much to get done every day.

And why should that be so? After all this complaining about the fight for the right to relax, you'd think I'd be thrilled to imagine a time in the future when I can finish an entire meal in one sitting and sleep past six a.m. on the weekend without wondering if it's really my turn to do so. And I am -- sort of. But in my less harried moments, I also envision the older daughters of my future as not just less needy, but as less a part of my life. I'm still a new mom, after all; my girls are only one and three, which means I'm still nursing one of them and cutting up the other one's food. During these early baby-years, the tasks of mothering tend to take over your life, and sometimes -- maybe by evolutionary necessity -- your whole identity. Despite the giddy fantasies of uninterrupted bubble baths or solo shopping trips without a nursing-related time limit, there's also sadness over the idea of leaving behind an entire unique phase of life, and moving onward to a new one that at present is undefined -- and very hard to imagine.

Maybe it's not so bad, this back-and-forth negotiation for me-time. Maybe my husband and I should be thankful for the very reasons we're both in me-time debt: those girls of ours, who turned all the me-time into us-time, family time, busy time. Remind me again, later today. And then every day thereafter.


Shannon Hyland-Tassava is a full-time stay-at-home mom, part-time writer, and consulting psychologist. You can find more of Shannon's writing on her blog, Mama in Wonderland
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