(Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 1999)
It was one of those rare days at the beach. The humidity was low, the temperature hovered right around 80 degrees, the sky was washed with watercolor blues, and the flags snapped briskly over the boat harbor. Lake Michigan was quiet and waveless, and even the water temperature had risen above the frigid level to merely bone-chilling.
So what was wrong with this picture?
Actually, everything was right. I had finally reached that nirvana of motherhood – that fantasyland that mothers of young children only dream of. My adolescent children, who had accompanied me to the beach, had run off with their friends as soon as we’d arrived. I was alone.
I could reach into my canvas beach bag and read a book or magazine uninterrupted. I could roll over and nap. I could buy myself an ice cream and not have to share it. I could float lazily on a raft, write a short story, reinvent my life.
All around me were mothers of young children. As I watched them apply sunscreen to plump, sturdy legs, run interference over disputes on whose turn it was for the inner tube, and generally pop up and down like jack-in-the-boxes on fast forward, I felt a momentary pang. A feeling of loss came sharply and then left, replaced by the knowledge and satisfaction that I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Let’s face it, a day at the beach is not exactly a vacation for mothers. Take a look around you next time you’re there and you will see mom-as-pack-mule, loaded down with coolers, towels, foam toys, buckets, and shovels. I remember those days, and how often I would think, “If only I could get through one short story in The New Yorker.” If I actually read an entire chapter of a book during an afternoon on the beach, I considered it to be a good chunk of quality time for myself.
Now that my children have entered their teenage years, my role has shifted from playmate and sandcastle architect to designated driver and cash cow. Even though I still stay at the beach when they are there, they drift as far away from me as possible, appearing periodically to get money for popsicles. No more dimpled arms to rub sunscreen on; now those arms are gangly and impossibly long, and reaching away from me toward others.
It’s an odd mixture of nostalgia and pleasure that I feel when I think about re-claiming, bit-by-bit, the life I had before I was with children full-time. My life for the past fourteen years has been so encompassing and intense that I simultaneously reveled in it and fought against it. I made it through pregnancies, childbirth, babyhood, toddlerhood, and childhood, and looking back, I wouldn’t change a day of it. I may look at that rush of days that somehow added up to years with a catch in my throat, but I will not weep.
Instead, I will pick up my 500-page novel and get through a very large chunk of it. I will raise my face to the sun, listen for my childrens’ voices, and listen for my own voice as it emerges in a new form.
If I close my eyes, I can hear their voices coming back to me on the lake breeze. And they are laughing.