The first time A went away, Ingrid was four months old, nursing constantly during the night, napping for no more than 20 minutes at once, and screaming throughout most car rides. A was away for three days, and I just about lost it. It was unseasonably, stiflingly hot and humid outside. Halfway through his absence, loopy with exhaustion and desperate to get out of the house, I took Ingrid to the mall to walk around in the air conditioning, and she had a cranky fit I couldn’t soothe her out of. I remember sitting on a bench in the middle of the mall, holding her against my shoulder as she sobbed and squirmed and I barely choked back tears myself, and whispering What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
The next time was the following January. He was away for six weeks, and I dreaded it right up to the day he left. Dread can be useful; it made me prepare. I signed us up for a full slate of toddler activities, lined up visits with friends old and new, and got my folks to fly into town for a few days in the middle of it, all the time expecting all hell to break loose anyway. And things ended up going just fine. A would call when he could, every few days, to ask how it was going, and I’d say in a tone first tentative and then shocked, It’s fine. Everything’s going just fine.
That trip of his was a milestone. Ingrid was nine months old, and it was the first time I remember feeling like I might be able to get on top of this mama thing after all. Ingrid and I had figured each other out, and the fact I could handle things on my own for so long made me realize I was finally getting comfortable in my new-mom skin. I’d also learned some important rules:
- Use all nap and post-bedtime time for relaxation and sleep.
- Housework that can’t get done while the baby’s awake doesn’t need to get done.
- Don’t cook. There is a reason you can purchase Indian food in packets.
- Plan at least two outings every day.
The exciting and weird corollary for the rules of solo parenting happiness is that most of them work while you’ve got a partner around, too. In fact, for all the sympathetic words and gestures I get when I tell people my husband’s away for several weeks, daily life without him, short-term, isn’t as different from our family’s norm as you might think.
Don’t get me wrong. It is more joyful to have A around. There is more laughter in the house, and more silliness from Ingrid, and more energy, and life all around is just lots more fun. I miss him when he’s away. Lots.
But when he’s here there isn’t necessarily a ton less to do. With two adults in the house, there’s a need to prepare actual meals rather than eat omelets three times a week. There’s more laundry, more dishes, a larger volume of encroaching clutter and dirt to deal with. A does a good share of this stuff, but he also works full time and does things around the house that I never do, whether he’s here or not, i.e. mowing the lawn, swinging Ingrid around by her feet, certain cleaning tasks that are never high on my priority list. So my days are no less full, and as a result I need no less time for rest and quiet thinking.
If I hadn’t had, during the past two years, those stretches of time where it was so clear that the vacuuming and all the other shit didn’t need to be done as much as I needed to stay sane, it might have taken me even longer to figure out how to free up the time I need and to realize what a difference it makes to take it.