“I can’t even imagine. . .” my friend says to me as we weave our six children across the road – dodging bikes, buses, and cars. The De Valk windmill – the symbol of Leiden – towers above our chaos with indifference.
My friend has just returned to the Netherlands after a five year stay in America. We met years ago when we both lived in the Netherlands and had only four kids between us. When she messaged me a few months ago announcing her family’s plans to return I did a little happy dance. I’ve found that American Moms with three kids living overseas are a rare breed. With each of our three kids born within six months of the other’s (ages 8ish, 6ish, and 4ish) our entire families have bonded again quite quickly.
Our children are bouncing around the foot of the windmill. She’s eyeing me with that wonder and suspicion reserved for people who have crossed a bridge before you. Children in Belgium can start school (like every day, all day) at age 2½ (I can hear the entire continent of the U.S. gasping). Of course, there are some rules – your child must be toilet trained, naps are on a school-by-school basis, and let’s be honest, some kids are just not ready at 2½ to go all day every day. My youngest son started slowly, just shy of three last September. He began with half days all week. In January we tried a mix of half and whole days with naps. After Easter he started going all day every day without naps. Which means for the months of April, May, and June all three of all my kids were in school. From 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Thus, that’s the question in her eyes – the gaze of wonder.
In the Netherlands, school starts at age four. All three of her children will be starting school within weeks. She wants to know. I can hear the whisper inside her head. What’s it like? The curiosity running deep.
I wave the question away with a hand, “Oh, you’ll find something to do,” I find myself saying. Perhaps it was because I was distracted with the six kids. Or the windmill. Or the bikes. Or because I was trying to remember where that playground was I used to frequent four years ago. . . but it wasn’t until later that evening I recounted my response in my head.
“You’ll find something to do???” I taste these words again and spit them out as if I had just found a lego in my sandwich. Oh. My. God. Who am I? An 80-year-old, childless, Great Aunt? I wanted to shrivel and die for this terrible, terrible misspoken sentence. I wanted scream from the blades of that turning windmill – “Wait, Wait, There’s so much more!” I wanted to apologize to her and all my fellow-stay-at-home-moms I had seemingly betrayed. Sure, yeah, you’ll find something to do, but what exactly do I mean by that? I didn’t get to finish.
So please. Allow me now to expand. To put all my good thoughts and hopes and best wishes out into the universe. Dear Friend, I want to tell you – and any full-time-mom who has this taste of freedom on the horizon – what you’ll do is the following:
You will do exactly what you’ve always been doing – feeding your children – but that lunchtime meal will be prepared and packed away. You’ll be cleaning the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher, and putting those breakfast dishes back in. You’ll be doing loads and loads of laundry. You’ll be picking up and cleaning house. You’ll be meal planning and grocery shopping. You’ll be feeding pets. But the difference is. . . you’ll be able to do all those things uninterrupted. No one will ask you for a drink, a snack, to wipe their butt, to tie their shoes, to find their Lightening McQueen, or to paint/color/ play with playdough while you’re trying to rinse off a dish and scarf down coffee. No one will be punching their brother and tackling their sister or run through the house with swords or push-toys or paper kites while you prepare lunch in the kitchen you just cleaned up after breakfast.
You’ll drop your kids off and walk back into your house and find it quiet. You’ll breathe – almost anxious from the lack of sound but that only lasts a minute. You’ll pour a cup of coffee and sit down and drink it. You’ll actually fold and put up those piles of laundry. You’ll clean a room and it will stay clean for at least a couple of hours. You’ll marvel in the fact that no one is pulling every children’s book off the shelf in their bedroom while you’ve been straightening the living room. You’ll organize that drawer and unearth your daughter’s birth announcement from the bottom. You’ll iron. Something. At least once.
You’ll exercise. You’ll rejoice in nature – running or walking outside instead of desperately trying to fit in those fitness blender videos between breakfast and lunch while avoiding the blocks and matchbox cars littered all over the floor.
A friend will call and ask you for coffee and you’ll whisper a “yes. . .” starry-eyed and with a breath of amazement. You’ll take your time getting ready, wear eyeshadow, or a bracelet. You’ll meet her for a cup and sit and enjoy adult conversation guilt free because your kids are at school. Hell, you may even meet your husband for lunch. You’ll cast devious smiles like kids playing hooky because you’re not paying anyone to go on a ‘date’. You’ll return those e-mails from 2014. You’ll finish a book. One that has small print and no illustrated photos.
You’ll breathe. Finish a thought. A conversation. Or just bask in the quiet of your house or garden or car. I’d love to think you’d binge-watch a Netflix series during the day, but you won’t. No one who has ever been a full-time mom is that self-indulgent. Instead and without distractions – You’ll get. Shit. Done.
And then. After all that. You begin to find yourself again. You’ll find that woman that you used to be. The one that has a name other than “Mama.” You’ll start climbing out of this hole of toilet training and nursery rhymes and a five-meal-a-day schedule because that crazy advice, “take time for yourself,” might seem plausible. You’ll recover.
So what happens then? After you’ve resurfaced and caught your breath? I guess I’ll know more in a few months, but what I think is that maybe you’ll discover you’re the same – the accountant or pharmacist or dental hygienist you used to be. Maybe you will revert, consider entering the work-force again because you’ll no longer be handing your paycheck over to the daycare. But maybe and chances are, you’ve changed. You’ll find ways to combine your past professional skills and the incredible project-managing skills you’ve acquired as a mom. This new outlook will compost and grow into something more beautiful that you’ve imagined – you’ll volunteer, find part-time work, or start your own business. You’ll have time to dream and think and be present for your family in a way you just haven’t before with the space between you. And that, my friend, is what will happen. You’ll find something to do.
As another wise friend and full-time mom reminded me the other day – we only live life one chapter at a time. This is not the entire book. You’ve sacrificed your career, your financial independence, and pieces of your sanity. You’ve survived your full-time mom chapter with babies and toddlers and chances are, you’ve raised some awesome kids in the process. Enjoy this time before you pick the kids up at 3:30, because the universe knows, there’s still a lot on your To Do List.