When my youngest was an infant, her poor health forced my transition from in-the-workplace to freelance. I had, at the time, a fantastic job, working three days a week in the office and two from home, managing the web site operations of a non-profit organization whose mission was close to my heart. On my last day, I brought my four-month-old daughter to the office. Swinging her carseat into the car in the parking lot when we left, I looked her in the eyes and said, “Well, kid, I guess it’s just us, now.”
Thirteen years later, in a recent meeting with fellow-volunteer members of my synagogue, I found myself floundering, not sure how to begin the conversation with these grown adults — many retired, all without kids at home — without saying, “How was your winter break?” Internally, I rolled my eyes at myself; I didn’t always have children. I didn’t always have two weeks mostly-off, flanking the end of one year and the beginning of another. What do adults without children say to each other at the beginning of January? I asked myself, and the answer was an imaginary shrug.
This is more than an academic question. In less than five years, I will have no children at home anymore. Though there will be a few more years of one child or another at home over university breaks at the holidays, it won’t be the same, and the rhythm of the whole of my life will change completely in the months between my youngest girl’s departure in the fall and her return in the winter. The first time she leaves, it will have been more than eighteen years since my daily life included guaranteed interactions with other adults.
In the intervening years, I held several identities in my never-empty hands. For nine of them, I was the Parent of a Sick Child, an identity it is shockingly hard to relinquish. The antennae were constantly up and searching for signal, stiff and unyielding, scraping the top of the tunnel as we crawled out. That identity came with excuses handy; I couldn’t be sure of my ability to do anything, in case she got sick, in case we couldn’t find the right food, in case she got hurt.
The flexibility of freelance life was a perfect second identity for me. I could work anywhere, I said — and I did. I worked in coffeeshops, on my couch on the afternoons of endoscopies as she dozed next to me, in hospital rooms, and finally in a co-working space in my town. I worked on vacations when my family traveled, cradling a laptop in chairs on hotel balconies or AirBnB kitchen tables. Over the years, I expanded my hours and raised my rates. For some time, my earnings covered our insurance deductible and our out-of-pocket maximum; when my daughter was well, finally, they covered college savings or family vacations.
Meanwhile, my husband’s career grew and grew, his knowledge and expertise in his industry — and the joy he took in his work — eclipsing my own by leaps and bounds. I held down the fort, as they say, finding myself in the traditional identity I’d never expected. If the passageway around me was growing wider as my daughter grew healthier, I could also see the rubble behind me growing taller: there were my thirties, habits created and dug into grooves upon which the years piled in a holding pattern. Sometimes, a look over my shoulder at what has passed yields my former self atop the pile, yelling “you’re a hack!” Sometimes, I peek behind me to see myself at thirty-five, the tiny versions of my daughters dancing with me in the kitchen, and I am bathed in gratitude for the way I swashbuckled my way through parenting.
Whenever I reach a crossroads in my life, I dream of going to college. Sometimes the dreams find me, stereotypically, on my way to a class shirtless, clutching my books to my chest. Sometimes, I dream about arriving on campus without having made arrangements for my children back home; I’m decorating a dorm room and suddenly recall my younger daughter’s play rehearsal, with no-one to pick her up. Sometimes there are roommates to choose, boys to date, brilliant professors with whom I discuss literature and smoke cigarettes. Always, my conscious mind reminds me: this passage has closed. Go home; it’s time for dinner.
Some day, January and June and September will just be the next month, no different from December or May or August, no special meaning, no rhythm change. Some day I won’t need to rush home at 4pm to supervise homework or start chopping vegetables. Some day, I will have no one but me — and my husband — to consider when I begin and end a day, a week, a job. It’s a hard truth that I no longer remember how to operate that kind of life. This passageway will come to an end, but the path behind me is easier to see than the one in front of me. Ready or not, I’m journeying there. I’ll report back when I arrive.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post. This week’s prompt is the photo “Passageway” by Tim Wright co-hosted by Kristi Campbell of Finding Ninee and Mardra Sikora (mother to Marcus and the superhuman who invited us to celebrate Down Syndrome with Colin Farrell).