Married with Children? It’s Not the End of Individuality

Sometimes Shannon Hayes finds herself missing the days before she was a mother. But the circle of familial give-and-take love makes the trade-off worth it.
Family Feet Photo by Sasha W

Photo by Sasha W.

Bob and I vividly remember the first winter we bought our house here on the edge of this 5,000-acre state forest, high in the hills of Schoharie County. We were newly engaged; shortly thereafter, newly unemployed; and immediately following, newly broke.

But the mortgage payments were manageable with a few odd jobs and business ventures, and the land surrounding us was captivating. We’d spend our mornings drinking coffee while I held a calculator and punched numbers, imagining different ways we could make a living.

When the winter sun rose high enough in the sky, we’d head out into the cold snowy landscape, blithely unaware of the passage of time as we skied along the nearby snowmobile trails, hiked untraveled roads, snow-shoed through the woods exploring the hills, ravines, and streams. If we remembered to bring food, maybe it was some wine in a bola, or some cheese in my pocket.

We’d do our best to return home by sunset, but it was never a worry. No one waited for us. If we wanted to eat, we would. If we wanted to skip a meal, we would. If we felt like coming home early, taking a small glass of sherry, then lying down together as the afternoon sunlight poured into our sleeping loft, that was fine, too. We’d listen to the radio, read by the woodstove, stay up as late as we chose, wake when it suited us. No one depended on us. We were on our own time, our bodies were our own, our minds free to wander wherever they were inclined.

Two years later, we were still too broke to afford our scheduled summer wedding, so before the deposits for my wedding gown, the tent rental, and the outdoor furniture came due in January, we eloped on New Year’s Eve, then enjoyed our January honeymoon, happily free of one more financial obligation, with plenty of beautiful snow, sparkling sunrises, and vivid sunsets to round out the celebration of our union.

And so it goes, round and round, that sweet rigidity that defines parenthood, that serves as a perpetual reminder that our bodies are somehow no longer our own.

By the next winter, I was pregnant with Saoirse. Our winter hikes were to be shortened by bouts of nausea and our morning coffee replaced with hot milk or herbal tea, whatever my tender stomach would allow. The wine and the sherry collected dust in the basement.

Within the next few years we had two beautiful daughters, with growing bodies that require regular meals and little legs not quite suited for hours of meandering through the deep snows in our wintery landscape. Our morning coffee is not about imagining; it is about settling arguments among the kids. Our time outside in the woods must fit into the rigid schedules of our work and homeschooling demands. Lunch must be served promptly in order to make way for afternoon schedules; dinner must be served early to allow for ample story time and early bedtimes. And so it goes, round and round, that sweet rigidity that defines parenthood, that serves as a perpetual reminder that our bodies are somehow no longer our own.

It probably comes as no surprise, then, that when Bob’s and my anniversary rolls around, our ideal celebration isn’t to steal away to a cozy B&B, or even to head out for a special celebratory dinner. Instead, we wait until the holidays are finished, take that first quiet weekend in January, pack the kids up, send them down to the farm with my parents, and spend the weekend on “staycation.” The car stays parked in the driveway, and we do what we want, re-living those glorious memories from our early days together.

After dropping the girls down at the farm this past weekend, we stoked up the fire and did all those things we never get to do: watched a movie, stayed up late talking, slept late, drank coffee in bed, ate spicy food for breakfast, hiked along the snowmobile trails, spent the bulk of the day amusing ourselves with needle-felting projects, skipped lunch, went for a sunset snowshoe expedition through the woods, and came back to enjoy our supper by the fire while we listened to the radio. I knitted, and Bob played his mandolin along with the music we were hearing. Our bodies were our own again. We were responsible for no one but ourselves. Our conversation stretched no farther than what we might do together the next day.

And then the phone rang. Ula had a tummy ache.

And so there we were, driving down to the farm at nine o’clock that night. I felt like crying.

“We had a good day,” Bob tried to reassure me as we wound along the dark and snowy roads. “At least we got that. It’s not the kids’ fault.”

Ula kept her face brave when we got to the farm. “I’m okay, Mommy, really I am. I don’t want to ruin your vacation.” She was in her pajamas.

“She’s okay,” Saoirse assured me, “and I’m with her.”

I drifted between light sleep and alertness between bouts of cleaning up puke, thinking “right now, I really hate my job.

Just then, Ula smiled at me. She’d lost her front tooth earlier in the day. And as she looked up at me, I couldn’t help noticing her glassy eyes. She said she was okay. But something wasn’t right.

And so we bundled the girls into the car, drove them home and put them to bed, our day of splendid honeymoon renewal suddenly a distant memory. A few hours later, Ula called me to her side. And there I sat, rubbing her back until she was able to release the contents of her stomach into a stainless steel bowl. The rest of my night was spent perched on the edge of her bed, psychosomatic waves of paranoid nausea sweeping through my own body as I lay beside a vomit bowl and a little girl with notoriously bad aim. I drifted between light sleep and alertness between bouts of cleaning up puke, thinking “right now, I really hate my job.”

And I reached out and took her hand, and we lay there in the dark, connected.

We made it to the pre-dawn hours when Ula began moaning and whimpering once more. “Mommy?” she whispered out into the dark.

“Here’s the bowl sweetie,” I jumped-to, and lifted her into position, instantly ready to catch the next one.

“I don’t need to barf!” she exclaimed with exasperation.

I shifted her back to her bed. “Sorry. What do you need?”

“I’m seeing shapes in the shadows. Can you just hold my hand?”

And I reached out and took her hand, and we lay there in the dark, connected. I felt my own body grow calm.

It is true. My body is not my own. It is my husband’s, and my children’s, and theirs is mine. We are a family. And maybe that Saturday was the only day Bob and I will get alone together this year. But in exchange, there is always someone’s hand to hold in the dark.

It’s a fair trade.


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