As I write this in a coffee shop, my son is playing pinball at a friend’s birthday party at an arcade around the corner. I dropped him off in the dark room buzzing with neon and remembered something: I love pinball.
Or I did, a long time ago, back when I had hobbies. I think I even tried to “make” my own pinball machine as a kid, probably while singing along to the original cast recording of “The Who’s Tommy,” because I was also a Broadway musical buff. My simple life was full of activities back then. I loved reading, wrote poetry, did swim team, took voice lessons, started my own neighborhood bread-baking company using my mom’s countertop machine.
By college, I’d refined my image a bit. Whatever my résumé lacked in job experience, I tried to make up for in that cute, personable section at the bottom of the page, “Interests,” which was jammed full of hobbies that I hoped said a lot about Who I Was: The New York Times crossword, community children’s theater, choral singing — oh, and “David Mamet plays.” (My husband still gives me shit for that one.)
Then I found my career (easily, what joy!). Got married (young, what luck!). Had my two precious boys.
And I immediately stopped doing anything that wasn’t work or motherhood.
My own mom warned me that for the rest of my life I would have a cultural black hole around my sons’ birth years of 2008 and 2011. But she didn’t tell me that I would go so long without playing solitaire that when one of my kids asked me how to deal the cards, I would have to relearn how.
Here is where this essay is supposed to turn into a lament of the mom with no “me time.” I’m meant to tell you that I mourned my old identity and my freedom. And yes — absolutely — our culture is desperately unsupportive of working parenthood in a way that robs us of choices and time. The Motherhood Penalty is real at work, and gender equality in the home is still a pipe dream, and my husband and I definitely should have taken more vacations and seen more movies over these past ten years of parenthood.
“A few years in to this new zero-hobbies life, I wondered, with not a small amount of panic, have my children become my hobby?”
But I reject the idea that working mothers (and, to be clear, that’s all of us — we all work) are supposed to hate their lives. I hadn’t given up my identity. It had evolved. Life was stressful but satisfying. And purposeful. At work, I told everyone on the conference call that that noise was my breast pump. I had a hard(ish) stop to my day at the office, but I was logged the heck back on at 8:35 p.m.
Meanwhile: I baked elaborate birthday cakes for my boys. I collected and organized bookshelves of charming and subversive children’s books. I volunteered at preschool fundraisers, and stenciled birds around the ceiling of the nursery. I pedaled away at SoulCycle to lose the baby weight. I wrapped presents in Chanukah paper for one side of the family, in Christmas trees for the other. Choosing snowmen for all would have been too simple.
A few years in to this new zero-hobbies life, I wondered, with not a small amount of panic, have my children become my hobby? Didn’t that make me incredibly lame? It was closing in on 1 a.m. as I wiped the smear of birthday cake frosting (color: Mo Willems pigeon blue) from my forehead, licked my finger, and came to my senses: Just because the cake was for my child didn’t mean it wasn’t also for me. This is the life I’d been searching for. The pinball, the voice lessons, even the David Mamet: They had all been placeholders. My old hobbies had never made me me. They’d made me ready for the person I would become.
The other day, my son asked for some string, and I remembered a stash of beautiful embroidery thread I had hidden away two moves ago in the bottom of a hollow storage ottoman. It sat tucked inside a cross-stitching kit. The baby bib was half finished, its yellow duckling without a tail.
“You made that?” my boy asked, not as surprised as I would have imagined.
“Well, I started to, when I was pregnant,” I answered, trying to remember. “I must have had you before I finished.”
“Are you sure I can have that string? You don’t need it?”
“Nah… Oh hey, but you know what we can do with it?” I asked, remembering the feel of the silken thread in my hand. “I used to love making friendship bracelets.”
This summer, he wants me to show him how.
More from PureWow: