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Leave Your Kids Before They Leave You

Creating a separate existence for myself was a gradual process, and it started with opening my marriage.

by Molly Roden Winter

Sometime in late August, I hovered over the shoulder of my youngest child as he navigated the housing portal of his new college. When he clicked on a move-in date, I said what you’d expect a soon-to-be empty nester to say. Something along the lines of, “I guess I’ve only got you for a couple more weeks,” complete with a dejected sigh and funereal undertones.

I remember my mother saying similar things to me when I left for college. She had one line that got a lot of air play all the way through my 20s.

“You said you’d live at home forever,” she liked to remind me.

“Mom, I was ten,” I’d reply, still feeling a wave of guilt.

Unlike me, my son didn’t fall for such a blatant attempt at emotional manipulation. He shot me a sharp look. “Don’t do that, Mom. You know I have to leave.”

I do know. He does not owe me his life. It is entirely his own.

But there’s a comforting corollary here: Even though I’m a mother, I’m a person first. And my life is my own, too.

It took me a long time to learn this truth. When I walk down the streets of Park Slope, my neighborhood in Brooklyn — a neighborhood so famously fertile that it’s represented by a stroller icon on my Brooklyn Industries tote bag — I see a past version of myself everywhere I look. Beleaguered parents chase runaway toddlers, manage post-playground meltdowns, or listen to Minecraft-themed monologues. I remember those days. And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy for me to get nostalgic, to run my reminiscences through a rose-tinted filter. To say to those parents (as I remember older, well-meaning passersby saying to me): “Enjoy them while you can.”

I didn’t physically leave, but I left in other ways. And thank goodness I did.

For many years, I took that mantra — enjoy them while you can — to heart. I calculated the hours that my children spent with a sitter or in school and vowed to make up that time and then some. I mean this quite literally. I have the scrawls in an old notebook to prove it. If my kids were in school or afterschool for 40 hours a week while I worked, and maybe 10 hours of babysitting on top of that, then I would need to find at least fifty-one hours of Mom Time so they didn’t feel neglected.

Despite my absurd calendar audit, I felt shame. For I held a secret so unforgivable I could barely whisper it to myself: Rather than truly enjoying all these counted minutes with my children, I often wanted to escape.

I didn’t physically leave, but I left in other ways. And thank goodness I did. Before someone retroactively reports me to Children’s Protective Services, let me clarify: when I say “Leave your children before they leave you,” I don't mean leaving them alone as infants or toddlers. (Although there are times when we imperfect mothers do just that. My older son once shouted down the grocery aisle at me from his seat in the shopping cart, “MOM! You’re leaving me unattended!” I never should have taught him to read.) What I mean is leaving the role of mother behind from time to time, leaving some space between your true self and your mom identity, so that you don’t forget which is which.

This inner split from oneself, so often experienced by mothers, is why I try to keep the words of another writer, Geoff Dyer, top of mind: To be free is not the result of a moment’s decisive action but a project to be constantly renewed.

I eventually took on the Freedom Project for myself. This meant I began to pay attention to my truest self, the one that exists apart from my role as a mother. For me, a part of this was allowing myself to be a sexual person. A bigger part was starting therapy. But I also learned to play guitar. I carved out time to sustain meaningful friendships. I meditated. I moved my body in forms of exercise I found challenging and fun. I wrote about my life.

But before that, when I didn’t realize that freedom was what I was seeking, I looked for the fastest getaway car I could find, one that didn’t have infant seats in the back and Cheerios crushed into the floor mats. The first car to pull up to my curb took the form of opening my marriage. I drove that vehicle pretty recklessly for a while. (But that’s another story)

Creating a separate existence for myself was a gradual process, eased by my sons’ growing capacity for independence.

Be assured, one can find many less challenging escape hatches than non-monogamy. (Getting a pilot’s license comes to mind.) But even exploring my sexuality wasn’t enough to truly separate myself from my children. In A Life's Work, her memoir on motherhood, Rachel Cusk writes about childbirth dividing women from themselves, arguing that it’s as difficult for a mother to leave her children as it is to stay with them. The line I remember verbatim is this: Because when she is with them, she’s not herself, and when she’s without them, she is not herself. Even lying in a hotel room in a post-coital haze, I have felt the truth of this, and hurried to text the sitter to check on my kids.

Creating a separate existence for myself was a gradual process, eased by my sons’ growing capacity for independence. While one of my children was happy to spend hours alone in his room at age 6, the other wanted constant check-ins with me until he was 13. There is no one-size-fits-all timetable for cutting the proverbial umbilical cord, and a “republic of the spirit,” to borrow a phrase from Edith Wharton, starts with not only imagining what this republic might look like, but also feeling entitled to it. Especially when a child is 18 months rather than 18 years old, it’s easy for mothers to feel that time focused on oneself is time selfishly spent. It’s only now that my children are adults — in a legal sense, anyway, and not just doing fine, but thriving — that I feel confident in my choices. I realize now that creating space for parts of myself that motherhood couldn’t feed allowed me to be more present with my kids. I learned to enjoy baths and bedtime as much as I looked forward to dinner and drinks.

Some weeks after my snarky comment about his imminent departure, I dropped off my youngest child for his first year of college. Before my husband and I had even hit the Massachusetts Turnpike, my phone was ringing. It was my son.

“Everything’s fine,” he assured me. “But are you okay?”

I admitted to him that I’d burst into tears as we left the dorm parking lot. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t okay. I have a full life outside of my children. And this is a good thing — for both me and my kids.

Molly Roden Winter is the author of More: A Memoir of Open Marriage, to be published by Doubleday in January 2024. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two part-time roommates, also known as her sons. You can find links to her social media and more by visiting her website: mollyrodenwinter.com.