For six warp-speed hours every week, my youngest son is in preschool. Since he’s been my constant companion of the last four years, I’m overtly protective of this sacred time alone. I try to maximize my productivity while allowing an ever so slight width of margin … just in case something pops up.
Although I typically start adding to my Next Preschool Day agenda before the current one has ended, I found myself without a plan one random Tuesday a few months ago. Two confused hands on the steering wheel, my blinker on to turn left, I stared out the front window in shock: How can this be?
I always enjoy having time to write, but I bucked against the thought of going to the same ‘ol coffee shop up the road, the one I can literally (well, almost literally) throw a stone from when I’m in my driveway.
It’s a special free day! What a gift! Do something different! Low level "don’t waste this precious time" panic set it. A small roast-their-own-beans coffee shop I’d never been to popped into my head. It’s only a few miles away but across town. I’ve heard the coffee is excellent.
Give yourself permission, said a voice in my head.
With the flick of my wrist, I switched my blinker to signal a right hand turn and headed east to my destination.
My son was four months old. My daughter, two and a half. We resided a small third floor condo in a building full of young professionals which somehow hadn’t moved closer to my family, despite all my praying. It was freezing, a New Year, and my dog wouldn’t stop needing to be taken out to pee twice a day.
You know how they say drowning is silent? Well, this was the part right before the silent drowning. This was the flailing stage. This is when I could sense how close I was to becoming too tired and physically spent to do anything but slip under the waters in a sea of diapers and tears and let the four walls of my new-construction urban home envelop me. With all my might I yelled a desperate, “Help!”
I need help. A declarative. An imperative. A New Year’s resolution that was more of a plea than a battle cry. “Babe. I need some help.” My husband, ever supportive, simply said, “Okay.”
I’d already been back to work for a month, and the part-time schedule had not provided me the break I craved, because I worked nights on the weekend. It was the stay-at-home mom thing during the waking hours of the week which left me spent. My form fluid, I was melting into my life. I wanted to feel solid again, even if only for a few hours at a time.
In a few weeks, through inquiry and interviews, I found someone to come watch my kids for four hours every other Friday.
Although I struggled with seeing the expense of a sitter as an extravagance, I wondered, like with counseling, if taking care of my mental health should be considered a frivolity.
I’d love to tell you that I fed my soul with books, friends, massages, or coffee shops and writing. But at that point in time, writing was only a dream and being alone was about the extent of my self-care capabilities. No matter what I did, I enjoyed that time of freedom from searching for shoes, lugging a bulky car seat, breastfeeding in the middle of an errand, and walking at a pace more suitable to an adult with average length legs.
Looking back, I don't remember much of anything except the joy of having four hours in silence without holding a small breathing being. Save one. Each babysitter Friday, I’d get sushi and sit in the park or (depending on the weather) at a table for one, and read a book for a few minutes before heading back home.
I’m sitting across from the woman from my church I meet with a couple of times a month and we’re discussing getting (or taking) time away from our family. She’s almost an empty-nester and although my kids are growing up quickly, we still fall solidly in the "young family" category. I ask her if she ever spent a weekend away from her kids.
“No. I didn’t. But I always wanted to.”
We talk about the people in our lives who regularly give themselves permission to retreat and rejuvenate - even if for short periods. “You know what?” she says, “I have a friend who used to go away regularly. She always seemed so refreshed afterwards.”
A half mile down the road, I’m greeted by a blazing wall of red lights. I realize we all hit traffic at some point in our lives, but traffic around DC, even in suburbia at 10 a.m., is a special kind of frequently recurring hell. Stuck between crossroads and turn-offs, I watch my precious preschool time tick ever-so-tauntingly away for an infuriating thirty minutes. I moved 400 feet. Committed, I cautiously plowed past the men in yellow vests and orange cones and up the road to sit through another four lights to end up at the strip mall coffee shop. I open the door and walk on the yellow laminate tiles to find four industrial-style two person tables shimmied against an empty, acrid orange colored wall. Besides the glorious roasters in the front room and the woman behind the counter, the shop was empty.
“Um. A small coffee. To go.”
Today during my preschool time, I plopped my purse down in an empty chair and placed my laptop next to my latte in the coffee shop two seconds away from my house. At home I have laundry to fold and tasks to do, but I’m learning to understand: giving myself permission to have a break and do what I enjoy is not the same thing as being selfish.
Sometimes we give ourselves permission and we get to eat spicy tuna on a sunny day while reading a book off the Time’s best seller list. We return to our life feeling rested and refreshed. But sometimes we give ourselves permission, and end up in a traffic jam and kick ourselves for not making a left hand turn. Giving yourself permission doesn’t guarantee a perfect day.
But it’s in the practice of giving ourselves permission that we learn to know right where we belong.