When I moved to Hebden Bridge, a rural town tucked away in the north of England, I might have imagined myself taking long walks on the moors, pondering life. But then, the reason I moved was to have a child somewhere habitable. Three years in, those pensive walks over windblown hills are still a pipe dream: I don't believe there's anything that could've prepared me for losing my private life as a mother. No self-help book or "what expectant parents need to know" listicle out there could have ever accurately conveyed what it is to lose yourself — your you-time — after the arrival of your offspring.
Particularly in the first year of a child's life, they are wholly co-dependent. Both of my daughters (now ages 3 and 1) nursed for over a year — meaning my body was needed to sustain them. They shared a bed with me, even though that wasn't the original "plan." They took baths with me, and still do to this day. My youngest began sleeping independently and through the night when she was 8 months old (bless her little soul). My oldest, on the other hand, might sleep solo for a few hours on a "good" night. At that point, however, she will still refuse to go back to bed unless I am nestled beside her (and honestly, I'd rather do that than risk not getting any rest at all).
When they began crawling, they became shadows. No trip to the bathroom was uninterrupted, nor any jaunt to the kitchen to re-fill a cup of a water, nor any rushed attempt to shove dirty laundry into the washing machine. Because I work from home, it's not as though I could have found privacy in the comfort of a company bathroom or office cubicle. My dear babysitter and mother-in-law are champions at keeping the kids away from me when I'm trying to answer emails or interview sources for a story or actually write that story, but I would hardly call these moments "private." My daughters' voices echo through the house; little reminders that it's never just me. I am never just me anymore.
Mom guilt, the pervasive creator of anxiety loops and self-criticism that it is, often tells me that I'm being ungrateful. After all, my children adore and depend on me, and that's a beautiful thing. I am usually the one they want to see first thing in the morning and last thing at night. My oldest, in particular, always wants Mama after she has busted up her knee or gotten into an argument with her bestie or lost her favorite Frozen figurine. To be loved and wanted so unconditionally is, indeed, unlike anything I've ever experienced before.
Mothers are multi-faceted beings, though. We can appreciate the unbridled affections of our children, while simultaneously wishing we had some more time to ourselves. Although humans are pack animals, and subsequently need to engage in social, communal, or familial activities, many of us also find a lot of fulfillment in alone-time. Some might call it "self-care," others might call it "R&R," others still might call it a basic human necessity.
That's what it feels like for me, anyway. My need for privacy isn't just about the obvious things I do in that time (whether it be reading or walking or journaling), but what those things yield. They provide moments of reflection. They allow me to sit with myself long enough to consider my wants and needs; to analyze the things that are making me happy, and the things that are making me unhappy. They just let me think — something that's actually quite difficult to do when your day is spent feeding children, dressing children, changing children's diapers, playing with children, being jumped on by children, or hearing children scream and talk and laugh and cry.
The good news is that things have seemingly begun to improve, in small but meaningful ways. For example, both of my children are weaned from breastfeeding now. My body isn't exactly my own yet, given they enjoy using it as their trampoline, their comfort blanket, and their punching bag (often all in one go), but it's at least more mine than it was when they were also using it as a meal.
The fact that one kid sleeps through the night while the other at least sleeps alone for one to three hours provides just a bit of extra time in the evenings as well. I find that there is a lot to pack into these precious hours. Sometimes they are the only opportunity my partner and I have to check in with each other — to chat about our days, or snuggle together on the couch for a Netflix show, or curl up in our own bed before I'm summoned to my daughter's.
These hours are also the only opportunity I get to have any kind of privacy. Sometimes, I use them to have a bath all by myself, free from toddler kicks and baby dribbles. Sometimes, I pull off a book from my shelf. Sometimes, I watch a show. Sometimes, I just lie down alone with a cup of tea and think.
It's not a lot of time, especially when there are other things to fit in — but it's precious time. Thinking — alone, uninterrupted thinking — has become a gift I can give myself in these hours. Sometimes, it's then that I realize these days are temporary. My eldest will sleep alone one day, I'm sure of it. One day, they will both be in school. One day, they will crave the company of friends or boyfriends or girlfriends over my own. One day, they'll be more independent, and as a result, so will I.
In my moments of solitude, it's a future I can imagine — and yet, in these moments of solitude, I may pull out my phone. I may scroll through months worth of photos of the small and wonderful people I have made. But I am, at least, viewing them with a pixel or two of distance.