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Parenting in Absentia

“Are you coming to my book fair this time?” my second-grader asked one morning over breakfast. Her innocent question may have been simple, but I knew it wouldn’t warrant a one-word response.

“No,” I answered, somewhat hesitant to leave it at that. “I need to finish my writing so I can make my deadline.” Even as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, I could predict the drama that was about to unfold.

“But you never come to any of my school stuff,” my daughter lamented, her voice raising an octave as she scrunched up her face in a look, bordering on tears. “It’s not fair!”

And so begins the exchange my daughter and I have had more times than I can count. No matter how well I craft my argument for not being present at the school/social obligation du jour, the outcome is never to her liking.

As a work-at-home mom, I have the benefit of being able to get my kids off to school and then being there when the bus returns them home. And in between, when my girls are happily ensconced in their school-day routines, I savor the satisfaction of doing my own mental exercise by accomplishing something other than playing chauffeur, laundress, and cook all day long.

Finding a way to do what I loved, while caring for my kids, made me a much better mom.

Even though I left my full-time job as a magazine editor eight years ago with a heavy heart, I felt like being home for my daughters was the right thing for my family. (My husband works long hours and has a city commute to boot.) And while there have been moments — and I mean plenty of moments — when I’ve wondered why I traded in my stilettos for sneakers, I’ve come to realize that being a mom means it’s not all about you anymore. But at the same time, I didn’t want to lose myself in the parenting process completely.

Instead, through juggling the act of writing during naptime and school, and coloring and carpooling during the hours in between, I came to believe that what I’d heard all along was true: finding a way to do what I loved, while caring for my kids, made me a much better (read: more patient) mom. Having the opportunity to carve time out of my day to focus solely on a job that I love makes me feel like I didn’t sacrifice my entire life for motherhood. When my work ends for the day and I turn myself over to my kids completely, I can breathe easier, especially on those days when getting through bath and bedtime without a meltdown is as much as we can manage.

On the days when I was truly productive, I didn’t yell (okay, well, not as much). I laughed when my 4-year-old’s hand became a puppet. I listened intently while my old daughter mourned a friend-turned-frenemy. I didn’t protest when the 4-year-old wanted an Elmo bandage … no, a Cookie one … wait, Elmo … for her skinned knee.

When I completed my monthly assignments, or, even better, landed a plum writing gig, I was more inclined to play that second round of Candyland or read 10 more minutes of Anne of Green Gables.

Yes, I had become the mom I never thought I could be.

And yet, there was a flipside to all of this: the guilt of not being able to be there for each and every class trip, field day, or PTA-sponsored activity. Some nights, I’d toss and turn over the thought that I wouldn’t be able to accompany my daughter to her school’s holiday boutique. Who would help her decide between a “You Rock!” keychain and a pen in the shape of a screwdriver for my husband?

Instead, I set her up with a carefully labeled envelope bearing her name and the amount of money she would need for one gift. I told myself that this was an ideal opportunity for her to learn how to make change, especially since her class had just completed a math unit on money. Of course, when my not-so-cost-conscious daughter returned home later that day, her overstuffed backpack teeming with wrapped gifts for our family — and with only two quarters to spare — I realized my expectations had been a bit too high. “I can’t believe you spent nearly twenty dollars!” I cried, bemoaning her less-than-frugal spending habits. While I admit being frustrated by her choices, I still didn’t feel guilty about not being there. In fact, I saw this as one of those “teachable moments” I was always writing about, an opportunity to show my daughter how to be more independent: I would help her figure out how to count her dollars and cents at home before she heads up to the register at next year’s holiday boutique (without me).

Before you go thinking I had adopted a bah-humbug attitude for good, let me set the record straight: I’m not always the “parent in absentia.” Give me plenty of advance warning and not too many irons in the proverbial work fire, and I was happy to shift my schedule around.

I volunteered to be a parent reading partner.

I attended my daughter’s Thanksgiving pageant.

I even pushed back a phone interview so I could run up to her school and drop off her forgotten math homework.

Taking special pains to make these types of concessions is a part of parenting that I’ve had to learn as I go along. And even if I didn’t love having to perfect my balancing act, I realize that in the end, I’m better for doing so. It helps me to better manage my time, and make those precious moments with my children even more precious, because there aren’t a lot of them.

And considering I was often doing double duty, I think I did a pretty decent job. But it wasn’t long before another instance would arise that put me on the defense yet again — and this one, I didn’t see coming. “I want you to be the class mom next year,” announced my daughter one afternoon, as the school year was winding down. “You said that once Presleigh [my youngest daughter] was in school more that you’d do it, and I’m already going to be in third grade. If you don’t do it now, maybe you never will,” she added to her otherwise-convincing argument.

I sighed, but not entirely in defeat. It was true that a year or two earlier, when her now-4-year-old sister was a baby, I had gently explained that it wouldn’t be possible, but maybe in a few years … and I left it at that. But when she saw me filling out the paperwork that would put Presleigh in preschool five mornings a week, she figured now was the right time. (Never mind that my decision was based on the prospect of more uninterrupted work time and leaving the afternoons free for homework, shuttling her to after-school activities and — oh yes — a few moments to breathe.)

But before my gums could start flapping, my brain kicked into overdrive. “Can’t this year,” I responded quickly. I got up from the table, grabbed a saucepan and started preparing dinner. Sometimes, less is more.

Judging from my daughter’s exit in a huff, I knew she wasn’t thrilled by my response. But later on, when we had our nighttime chat before bed, we talked about how I might have more time once her younger sister was in school full time. That might not be for another year, but putting it out there as a tangible possibility helped her to better envision it.

For my family, the realization that mom is at home, but she may not always be able to tend to every matter, has been a gradual, sometimes even painful, one. But putting something else ahead of my girls sometimes doesn’t make me love them any less. In fact, I’ve noticed small signs that my choices have helped build their independence. This year, I have a third-grader who writes out a holiday gift list on the back of her cash envelope, and sets a budget for how much she can spend on each person. She’s the same kid I’ll be able to watch and wave to during the relay races at Field Day … even if I may not be able to stay when her team wins the tug-of-war — it’s that balance that has been crucial to feeling successful in my personal and professional life.

So the next time you’re cheering on your son’s team during sack races, or you’re helping your daughter figure out how to decide between a Judy Moody or Cam Jansen book, I applaud you. Just don’t look for me; I won’t be there.

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