I have a mental rolodex of babysitters on call. There's Kendra, the nurse who picks up nanny gigs between shifts (I pay her extra because she knows CPR). Then there's Mallory, the jobless millennial who always does all our dishes (I pay her extra too). Sometimes, in a pinch, I text my 13-year-old next door neighbor: "Can you come over and play with the boys for a few hours this afternoon? I need a break!"
As a freelancer-mom hybrid, I schedule a nanny a few days a week so I can get my work done. This feels normal, acceptable. But there are other days when my need for a last-minute babysitter feels equally urgent but more gratuitous. I don't do it because I need to run errands or sneak in some writing time; I do it because I need to reclaim my identity.
Before I even get out of bed in the morning, I am Someone's Mom. My 2 and 5-year-old sons wake me up by climbing into my bed and onto my stomach. "My mama," the big one yells, taunting his brother. "No, MY mama," shouts the little one, straight into my ear. They both erupt into laughter, then drag me out of bed. Before I've even had my morning coffee I am a plaything.
The hardest thing about parenting has been managing the economy of needs in my household. My children have a non-stop queue of them, and they always seem pressing (probably because they're louder). The needs start out primal, and as the day goes on, they shape shift into straight-up obnoxious: Hold me, make me pancakes, turn on a show, push me on the red swing at just the right speed while singing that song that makes me laugh, but stop singing it when I laugh too hard because otherwise I'll fall off the swing and pee my pants. Oh, now we must wrestle in the sand.
I hate playing for the same reason I hate working out: It's boring. I don't find talking in imaginary voices while building a Duplo city all that difficult or exhausting; I just find it emotionally uninvolved. Most days, getting on my hands and knees is a very minor sacrifice if it means my kids experience joy. That kind of selflessness is just part of parenting. But beyond my kids' very fair and understandable nagging — they're kids! — there are more demands pulling at the fabric of my mind. They're mine, and more often than not, they remain unmet. Getting away, if even for an hour with the neighbor girl as my pinch hitter, helps me listen.
I used to feel guilty, like escaping to the basement while a 13-year-old played with my kids was not only petty, but selfish. Then I realized, when I sent my boys off with an eager, energetic, toddler-loving teenager that I was thrilled to see them again after I got a little work done. I was a better mom after a break, because I actually wanted to play after a little lapse in our daily routine. I saw for the first time that constantly entertaining my kids at the expense of my own sanity doesn't mean I'm a good parent. It means I'm an exhausted and resentful one. And that's not their responsibility — it's mine.
For me, stepping away from my kids — whom I absolutely love — is an act of love. It's the breathing room I need to re-establish my identity and remember I am more than a toddler's cuddle buddy and more than a 5-year-old's snack servant. It's a win for everyone: The babysitter gets some spending money, my kids get an engaged playmate, and I get excited to be a mom again (at least for the afternoon).
I'll always be there for my kids, no matter how much their persistent demands irk me. But I'm starting to think I'm just not cut out for the plastic toys and scooter rides, and that's okay. I feel most like a parent when I'm explaining what it means to be kind to others or fielding abrupt and morbid questions about death.
The rites of passage most parents dread — the sex talk, curiosities about God and Heaven, first heartbreaks — are the things I'll relish. Rather than building LEGOs and Lincoln Logs, which crumble at my 5-year-old's frustrated outbursts, I would rather build character. Personality. Beliefs. The soul stuff that, if I'm lucky, will outlast the toys. The stuff that will outlast me.
That's the kind of parent I am, because that's the kind of person I am. And in the end, I'd rather give my kids my actual self, not a conjured-up version I created to make them happy.
I'll be honest: One day soon, I'm hoping my kids will need those things from me more than they need me to fetch them a second helping of Goldfish. In the meantime, I'm more than happy to pay a babysitter to fill in the gaps.