If there were a gold medal for synchronized wailing, my kids would win it every single time I drop them off at our gym’s childcare center.
My two-year-old daughter starts as I walk her into the bright, colorful playroom. Even before I let go of her hand, her bottom lips trembles, her blue eyes widen, and she tugs me toward the exit.
My eight-month-old joins in the moment I hand him off to one of the kind, enthusiastic workers. He is typically a sweet, placid, smiling baby, but the moment he leaves my arms, his face contorts in a mixture of fury and despair. He blinks back tears. And he screams like I have just deposited him in a baby gulag.
It is at this point that I am confronted with a choice. I can be a monster, leave my two, hysterical children to the horrors that await them, flee the scene and spend an hour on an elliptical (or sunbathing at the rooftop pool). Or I can be that perfect, angelic, selfless mom, scoop them in my arms, dry their tears, and promise I will never leave them again.
Every single time, I choose to be a monster and flee.
It’s the same choice I make when I hire a babysitter so that my husband and I can spend two hours remembering how to be humans again, adults who can talk and hold hands and eat a civilized meal without a toddler sticking her fingers in our entree. It’s the decision I make when my mom comes over so I can go out for a girls’ night, change out of my worn yoga pants and put on an outfit not chosen for how well it camouflages bodily fluids.
I know it’s the right choice, and yet, of course, I struggle with the guilt.
It follows me, like an obnoxious devil on my shoulder, whispering in my ear that if I were a good mom I would never leave my children with strangers, or let them cry for half an hour at a gym daycare. If I were a good mom, I would stay with my kids all day, every day, devote myself to their upbringing like a monk, sacrifice my own humanity all so that their delicate souls will never know a moment of sadness or fear.
As moms, we all deal with this voice. And as moms, I think we can all agree that this voice is total BS. We have to leave our kids. And I’m not talking for work or doctor’s appointments or anything that comes out of duty or obligation.
We have to leave our kids for reasons that are entirely selfish.
We have to go on dates and out for coffee, sit down with girlfriends and talk in actual sentences instead of the broken fragments our speech is reduced to when our kids are with us.
We have to travel without them, sit on a beach and read a book instead of slathering on sunscreen or preventing the baby from eating sand. We have to go out with our partners, hold hands and flirt and date each other instead of scream from the nursery that we need help with a diaper blowout.
We have to do these things, precisely because they are selfish.
Because if we don’t, if we stop taking care of ourselves, stop doing things that are fun and frivolous, stop taking time out of life to enjoy ourselves, we will LOSE ourselves. We will be only mothers, and while mothering is honorable and massively important, it is not, and never should be, the sum total of our worth and value and happiness.
When I was five-years-old, my parents went on a vacation to Hawaii. 99% of the time, my mother devoted herself to us. She was always there, the kind of old-school mother who packed our lunch every day in a brown paper bag, who picked us up from school and took us all over the city to classes and sports and activities.
But she and my dad planned a trip to Hawaii without us. And I distinctly remember the day they left, how sad I was, how I cried as their car drove away, hid in my room because I didn’t want to say goodbye.
When my kids are older, they may remember the times I left them. They may recall that they were sad and scared when I dropped them off at the gym, or left them with a babysitter, or went on vacation without them. But that’s okay because I know how they’ll feel when I get back. It’s how I felt when my parents returned from Hawaii.
They came back to us refreshed and renewed, and I, all of five-years-old, saw that. And I was fine. I had spent the week playing with cousins and eating pizza that we convinced my grandparents to order instead of reheating the casseroles in the freezer my mom left behind. It had been fun for me too, to have a little break from my parents, to learn that I could be in the world without them, that something scary and sad could turn into something wonderful and new.
They brought us back lava, smooth black rocks hardened by time. I held them in my palm and marveled how lava from the other side of the planet could have found its way to me. The world grew for me because my parents widened it when they left.
Every time we leave our kids, even if it’s just an hour at the gym, we push the boundaries of their little worlds a little wider.
We show them that they can be brave and independent, teach them that we are not the only sun and moon, that there are in fact vast, massive, dazzling galaxies out there to navigate and explore.
It’s okay to leave our kids, even if they cry. It’s okay to do things for ourselves, to remember that we’re humans and not just moms. The world will keep spinning if we hire a babysitter or spend a day away or travel without them. In fact, it may just spin a little faster, whir right off its axis, expand and deepen and change, for us and for them.