This piece originally appeared at The Millions
My parents spent the weekend at my house recently, and besides the standard good feelings of spending time with the people who raised me, I’ve come to look forward to these visits because they are two able-bodied adults who can help watch my kids. Once the initial greetings are shared, bags unpacked, and meals cooked, their presence in the house offers the unusual chance to sneak away to check my email unmolested and go to the bathroom without being interrupted mid-stream by a door-pounding demand for apple juice.
Since my kids won’t be old enough to read this for a few more years, by which time they’ll probably hate me for other reasons, I’ll say this out loud: I sometimes fantasize about a life without them. Okay, I fantasize about that all the time, but the daydream is most vivid at those times when I know the childless people in my peer group are off doing the spontaneous, self-indulgent things you can do when two little bellies and attention spans aren’t dependent on your constant presence. I think about it on Friday nights, when instead of going to a concert or movie I’m chasing my naked two-year-old daughter down the hall after a bath so I can slap a diaper on her before she pees on the carpet. I think about it on Saturday afternoons, when instead of flipping channels between baseball games and movie reruns, I’m at the park spotting my five-year-old son on the monkey bars to avoid another trip to the emergency room for a broken wrist. And I think about it a lot on Sunday mornings, when instead of sleeping in and enjoying a leisurely breakfast while reading the Sunday paper, I’m mopping up spilled bowls of cereal and juggling remotes to find the right episode of Dora on Netflix.
During my parents’ latest visit, I thought I had my chance to pull off that lazy Sunday morning. My mom was helping my son finish his homework for school the next day. My dad was watching cartoons with my daughter on the couch, and I settled down to read the New York Times travel section on my iPad. I was halfway into an article about getting lost driving the back roads of Ireland when my daughter hopped off the couch and announced, “I sit Daddy’s lap.”
No one was going to stop her. It was cute, see. I should mention now that she was wearing nothing but a diaper–she had stripped off her PJs earlier during an Alvin and the Chipmunks dance party in her brother’s room–and carrying a bag of Corn Chex. I tried to prop the iPad on the arm of the chair and continue reading, which worked for a minute until I started looking at the slideshow that accompanied the article.
“Cow! I see cow!” she squealed when she saw a picture of a brown cow standing in a verdant Irish pasture overlooking the sea. “More cow pictures!” I tried to convince her that was the only cow picture in the series, but nothing else would do until I had pulled up a Google image search of every cow, bull, heifer, and steer you’d ever want to see. Soon we were watching YouTube videos of placid Swiss cattle with giant bells around their necks munching grass in the shadow of the Alps. Sunday morning fantasy: over.
What bothers me more than these compromised moments of leisure is the feeling that my kids take up my time to write. In terms of hobbies, writing is a terrible choice, because it may be the only one that makes you feel guilty when you’re not doing it. I use my kids as my excuse, as in “I’d write at night after work, but by the time we’ve had dinner and get the kids to bed it’s 9:00 and I’m worn out,” or “I wish I could write on the weekends, but my wife works a lot and I’m always stuck with the kids.” It’s a convenient way to rationalize pure procrastination and the fear of, I don’t know, failure I guess.
At least parenting is a more responsible excuse than saying I pissed away my time playing video games or nursing debilitating hangovers, but it’s an excuse nonetheless. I know this every time one of those whiny thoughts pops into my head, but it never stops the rush of jealously I feel when a friend from my writing group says she spent the afternoon at a coffee shop working on an essay, or when I hear about people my age with the independence to strike out on freelance writing careers. Never mind that given all the free time in the world, I’d develop much more subtle, insidious ways to explain away my lack of production. I still feel a sense of injustice that they seemingly have all these opportunities to write and I don’t.
I’ve only been writing seriously for about eight years now, but I’ve already inherited the mantle of self-aggrandizing victimhood, that feeling of possessing a voice that must be heard but can’t because of the conspiring forces of short-sighted editors, unappreciative bosses, and family obligations. And since it involves my offspring, it’s countered with equal measures of guilt for feeling like I’m entitled to anything other than the satisfaction of raising two healthy, happy children.
That Sunday afternoon we took the kids to a new park in our neighborhood. It takes up a whole block, crosshatched with diagonal walkways that separate a state-of-the-art playground, futuristic misting fountains, a dog park, and grassy mounds built from the dirt excavated to build the rest of the park. I was standing by the fence of the playground, nursing stale coffee from a travel mug, when I had to stop and chase down my daughter before she opened the gate and made a break for it. After I scooped her up, she saw a man sitting with a Great Dane on top of one of these mounds and said, “Cow!”
To her credit the dog was white with black spots, just like a Holstein cow, and half the size of one too. If we hadn’t spent a half hour that morning watching videos of cows, she wouldn’t have made the comparison. And if I had spent the morning scratching myself in a bathrobe instead, reading the news and watching Chris Berman bellow on ESPN, it would have passed unnoticed, indistinguishable from every other lazy Sunday morning. I might have looked past the picture of the cow, finished that article, and sat down at a computer to write something. But then if I spent my morning alone, what would I write about?