Since I became a mother, delicious afternoons curled up with a novel are mostly memories. Ditto long solitary walks or soaks in the tub. These days, I consider it a minor victory if I manage to shut the bathroom door and pee all by myself. Naptime, or when Daddy's running errands with tots in tow, represents nothing short of a mini-vacation. (Never mind that I usually squander those precious minutes emptying the dishwasher.)
Maybe finding time alone gets easier when your children are older. I wouldn't know. With the arrival of kid number four last year, I've been changing diapers every day since August 22, 1992. And I've learned one indisputable fact about little ones: They never nap enough.
It's the greatest push-pull of my life: To give my kids all the attention and juice cups they need while carving out the occasional minute for myself. There's simply not enough time in a typical day to give 100 percent to them, my husband, my work, and all the daily necessities with more than a few exhausted nanoseconds left over for me.
Oh, I've read all those smart parenting bibles about the importance of regular escapes to "recharge my batteries." A happy mama makes for a happier baby, and all that. I believe it. That's why I joined a morning step-aerobics class and a lunchtime professional support group.
Trouble is, I've never been able to sustain such wonderful liberations very long. Inevitably, I grow overloaded at work and feel guilty diverting even 45 minutes toward exercise. A lunch date gets pre-empted by grocery shopping or pediatrician's visits. Guilt whispers in my ear when I attempt a walk or a trip to the mall without a stroller. Besides, I adore my babies' company. Often, it's not that I want to be away from them so much as that I wish, desperately, to be in two different places at the same time. If modern medicine can achieve the miracle of pain-free labor, why not cloning upon delivery? One Paula could handle the diapers and peekaboo while the other Paula continues reading novels on the chaise longue.
I try to remind myself: Workouts and haircuts are not frivolous if they make me feel great. Lunches with friends at places that don't serve chicken nuggets nourish the soul. So why can't I follow through? Even my friends who are at home full-time wrestle with this. "I feel guilty paying a sitter so I can go to Wal-Mart all by myself," confesses one friend. "But if I don't get away once or twice a week, I go crazy."
Giving birth is like gaining an indelible shadow, knit fast to your feet like Peter Pan's. Young children are so demanding and needy -- and so fun and downright adorable -- that separations are laced with ambivalence. So we struggle to find the right balance of self and selflessness. How little time to ourselves can we scrape by on? Where do we fit it in? The answer is different for every woman. We compromise: If I can just get a long, hot shower in the morning, I'll be okay. We rationalize: An hour in the nursery while I'm at the gym three times a week won't hurt her. We justify: My book club is just one night a week. Or we simmer and pout: I've got to do something! (After all, we're mothers here, not martyrs.)
This dilemma has given me new insight into my own mother. Despite having five children, she never seemed to be without needle and thread. She's a virtuoso with cloth, yarn, and embroidery floss. She never had an office but always a sewing room. I used to think that she worked so hard -- making our clothes, re-covering sofas, designing needlepoint tapestries, knitting gorgeous sweaters -- because we couldn't afford to buy these things. But now I see that her handiwork was more than that. It was her mental oasis, her way of being alone in a crowded house.
My own haven is reading. I scan the newspaper while I cook. I flip through catalogs while I breastfeed. I keep one eye on a magazine as I color with my 3-year-old. I have a book stashed in each bathroom and nursing station in the house (nonfiction, since there's no plot to forget and I manage only a few pages every few days at best).
Surprisingly, I don't allow myself to feel guilty over this particular bit of selfishness. Though I might be mentally absent (but only for a paragraph or two at a time), I'm physically present. A baby doesn't need nonstop stimulation, anyway.
I also like to think my habit has the added benefit of good role-modeling. Maybe my children will grow up to consider reading as natural and essential as breathing. Not that I ever took up sewing or knitting or any of my mother's hobbies. But now I see that I absorbed a different legacy from her: The understanding that everyone deserves a little space all their own.
Paula Spencer is a contributing editor of BabyTalk magazine.