“The kids know not to bother before 7:30” I texted the mom of River and Oak’s friends when planning a sleepover at my house for the summer pod-ish group. “I usually write between 6:30 and 7:30/7:50 and they know to play and entertain themselves quietly since it is mom’s quiet house time.” Once I hit send, I began to dread how awful it sounded. How pretentious? “Mom’s quiet time.” What on earth?! But it was and is true. A not-so secret I use to not only keep myself on a writing timeline to meet my deadlines, but a way to reset my nervous system. Similar to the 20 minute power nap I partake in most days of the week, or just a 20 minute lay-down under the weighted blanket.
Why did it feel so weird to share a routine secret that really helps me and my work?
Long ago I realized that most live-in couples tap in and out with the kids in the morning, even as their kids reach nearly 11 and 7. This tactic saved parents from burn-out and awful moods, and wasn’t just reserved for the newborn and toddler stages. The kids I presumed, needed the parents, more than my own need me. And when faced with what I lacked most early mornings, I had to come up with what I call, a team routine.
“The hardest thing to convey to the children in my life about my childhood is the concept of unadulterated freedom. As people who have been scheduled and monitored down to the second for most of their lives, they truly cannot conceive of life outside of the panopticon of their own experience. When I was a child, a successful day was one where I saw my mother for two hours total, split evenly before and after she went to work.” writes Danielle Henderson in a piece for The Cut when looking back at her 80s childhood versus the childhood for kids of our current era. I’ve thought sentiments like Danielle’s for years. My family has too.
The kids and I explore, sure. I stick to their bedtimes and my/our morning routine too. But those events bracket days where I often want and need them to just be. Even when we all fail to. Like Danielle, I spent days having a similar relationship with my own mother. I knew when she would wake up, how much time she had, what needed to be ready in the evening and how we would spend our bedtimes with her. During the day, it was up to us, and it was the 90s, and yet, those were the days.
“There’s a whole yard! Go!” I found myself repeating to River and Oak last week when we were upstate. “Can we go to the playground?” they pestered. “Why are you asking me? Of course!” I responded. The door remained open, the moon and the mountains lighting their way when I sat at the dining room table to work, unaware of the minutes and hours that passed by. There were days when I whipped dinner up while they laughed like hyenas in the shower as the sun was going down. When they grew bored and frustrated I practically kicked them outside again. Then I took my computer and my mess and joined them from a new table where I didn’t worry too much about what they courageously dug up in the yard. Of course, there were times of desperation when I considered coming up with games to entertain them. Arguments they assumed I would get in the middle of. Then one day, Oak grabbed this water balloon contraption and stuck it on the hose. They both got naked, I threw some soap from the kitchen window, and their bodies danced in the grass and pretended we finally had the outdoor shower I had been dreaming of. Quarrels and boredom ceased, and I realized what I knew as a kid and what they know as children need to exist within that kind of freedom space, for lack of a better word. These are the days, I thought.
In the city, the kids are hardly ever home, which I contribute much to my babysitter and his own need to park-hop and find a mess to get into. When they arrive back from long hot days with him, they’re absolutely filthy, their clothes have gotten wet and dried twice, and they’ve had two or three random meals in-between. But I am not my sitter. I don’t get paid to run the city with the kids. And these days, I don’t leave my desk nearly as often as I’d like.
This summer in particular, I’ve worked on getting the kids and myself used to the ways in which I’m most comfortable as a parent in this phase. I love reading with them in the evening. And swelling them in my arms in the morning. But the freedom that I and they need between those hours, unscheduled, unadulterated, has never been more clear to me as it has been this summer in the upstate house. With all the plans and nothing at all, except outside. And it is magic and mania, and it has titled that once struggle I had on its head. There is no struggle.
During the hurricane watch the other day, we sat inside and the kids began dreaming up all the wild things they would do that day. I noticed how they created and animated without expectations of not just me, but of a structure and of our apartment. They let me be. I let them be. (Without screens) And it was this kind of magical thing that felt right. I reread Danielle’s essay this morning and started howling over my coffee when it got to this part because I heard my mother’s voice mixed with my own, so vividly, “Do not run in and out of this house all day with your friends,” Mom said sternly. “I don’t want you in here ruining everything.” It was never clear to me what we might ruin or how we could ruin it since we had to ask her for permission to play with our own toys, but in Mom’s mind, any child left alone in a house for more than three minutes was looking for an excuse to rip couch cushions apart with their bare teeth.”
Wildness and structure exists indoors in the city and upstate, it’s just not what it once thought it needed to look like.