Last week, I achieved parental nirvana.
It was 7:30 a.m. on a Monday. I asked my kids if they had their lunches and walkie-talkies. Then I opened the front door and kissed them goodbye. I said, “Have a great day!” I watched them walk up the street and disappear around the corner.
Seven hours later, they burst through the front door. I took a break from work to administer hugs. (My kindergartener hugs me with abandon; my fourth grader still willingly hugs me, but I know my days are numbered.) I asked about their respective days, then I pointed to the afternoon checklist on the fridge.
Afternoon snack, bath or shower, 30 minutes of reading time, 20 minutes of computer time, and an hour of outdoor play. I told them I’d be back upstairs in two hours, and I descended the stairs to my basement office to finish my work day.
One week later, we are settling into our new routine, but I still can’t believe it’s happening. I’ve calculated that over the past decade, I’ve spent approximately 2,000 hours of my life carting my children to and from their various places of care. That’s the equivalent of 83 days, or 143 days if you only count waking hours.
Just to drive this point home: I’ve spent the equivalent of 14 hours a day, every day, for five consecutive months dropping off and picking up my children.
My husband has pitched in whenever he can; without his help, it would likely be the equivalent of six or seven months. But because of his school schedule, and then because of his work schedule, the lion’s share has fallen to me. Not all of the dropping off and picking up has been unpleasant. And some of it has been downright harrowing.
For nine months, I toted my daughter, then two years old, to daycare on the back of my bike before continuing to work. I had totaled our car when my daughter was not yet one, falling asleep behind the wheel and nearly killing my entire family. I wasn’t anxious to get back behind the wheel any time soon.
Families don’t need cars! I thought smugly as I coasted down 76th Ave, the wind whipping against my face. They’re just not creative enough. And besides, have you seen my butt lately?
Going without a car in Washington DC had been easy enough. My daughter attended a daycare across the street from our condo, we had a Zipcar on our block, and we often took advantage of the city’s excellent metro system.
But when we moved to Portland, Oregon, things got more complicated. Public transportation was much less accessible, and our closest Zipcar was six blocks away, which meant 12 blocks of lugging a car seat to and fro while clutching the hand of a toddler who was hell-bent on plotting her escape. I realized how incredibly lucky we had been in Washington DC to have a daycare within walking distance, let alone across the street.
We arrived in Portland in July, and for the first few months, the bike rides were pleasant, if a little sweaty. By October, I was starting to rethink our plan. The only affordable daycare option with an immediate opening entailed a six-mile detour, which meant biking over 10 miles to get to my office, most of them with the added weight of a very dense, sometimes fussy two-year-old.
I was prepared for the rain, but not for the dark or the cold. At 7 a.m. in October, Portland was still shrouded in darkness, and dusk encroached on us earlier and earlier each evening. And toward the end of October, the early morning was becoming freezing.
Have you ever tried putting gloves on a toddler at 6:45 a.m.? In retrospect, it was probably exactly this experience that led to the invention of mittens. But I didn’t have mittens, and I continued to struggle with those goddamn gloves. During that dark, wet, cold period of my life, I was becoming a bit of a masochist. I embraced the spitting of rain across my face, the numbness in my fingers, the endless fussing with gloves and straps and bike locks and bags.
In a way, the gloves were my morning victory. No matter that I had a dark, often wet, 10-mile ride ahead of me, not to mention a full day’s work. Once I got those gloves on, I knew I could do anything.
In November, I once again embarked on the frantic and eternal quest for that elusive trifecta of childcare quality, convenience, and affordability.
I was able to find a new daycare that was only two miles out of my way. That helped, but meanwhile, it was only becoming darker and colder. Morning temperatures were regularly in the low 30s if not below, and by 4:30 p.m. night had smugly descended.
When my daughter fussed, I sang her Christmas carols. I particularly liked The 12 Days of Christmas because it could get us from 20th Ave to 57th. I had to sing loudly, which meant that passing pedestrians and other screw-the-weather cyclists also got to enjoy my out-of-tune renditions of Christmas classics.
When we finally broke down and bought a car, life was easier but not much easier. There was traffic to contend with and parking to find. We were on daycare #3 by then — almost perfect, except for the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours. When coupled with a downtown commute, I couldn’t quite get in an eight-hour workday.
My coworkers were not sympathetic.
On my first day back at work after my second maternity leave, I side-swiped another car while attempting to change lanes.
I’ve gotten into exactly two car accidents in my life, and both were while attempting to operate heavy machinery in the perennially sleep-deprived state of early motherhood.
They say just one sleepless night can impair performance as much as a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent. That’s beyond the legal limit to drive.
I thought, “Why am I doing this?”
Why am I endangering other drivers, not to mention my children? Why am I commuting downtown only to hook my breasts up to a machine while my baby, who is far more adept at milk extraction, is being bottle-fed by another woman? Why am I paying this woman half my monthly paycheck? Why is this woman, to whom I am entrusting my 12-week-old baby, earning only slightly more than minimum wage?
“Is this really how it works?” I kept asking myself. I thought I must be missing something. Maybe in the hours I spent sleuthing around the Internet to find childcare options, I was typing in the wrong keywords or missing some magical search result buried on page six.
Surely, there was a secret network of affordable neighborhood childcare centers that were open for enough hours to accommodate a parent working full-time? Surely, there was a secret network of companies that offered childcare subsidies, flexible work hours, and a minimum of six months of paid leave? Surely, someone was holding out on me, having a joke at my expense?
If this was The Way Things Were, I thought, why weren’t more working parents up in arms? Why weren’t we storming the Capitol? Not with guns, but with babies and children? I had to chuckle just thinking about it. Some lawmakers, I imagined, would rather face an armed militia than a mob of crying babies who needed care.
My childfree sister asked me not too long ago, “Do you like being a parent?” It was a fair question. I do my share of griping.
I often try to remind myself that for many women throughout history, and in some parts of the world today, birthing and raising children wasn’t just hard — it was, incredibly, impossibly hard. The babies just kept coming. Half of them died before adulthood. And every time you had a baby, there was a not too statistically remote chance you might die yourself.
To be clear, what irritates me is not that modern parenting is hard. Parenting should be hard. Raising small humans is no small task.
What irritates me is that modern parenting is needlessly hard. Many of the hard things don’t have to be this way.
Parents, I invite you to close your eyes and imagine with me. (Please don’t fall asleep.)
Can you imagine a world in which new parents are honored with time and space to make one of the most challenging transitions of our lives? A world in which childcare facilities are as ubiquitous as gas stations? A world in which work and school schedules are aligned? A world in which you can save for your family’s future instead of bleeding half your paycheck so you can work 40+-hour weeks? A world in which we honor the people to whom we entrust our children with financial security and societal respect?
Can you imagine a world in which you have the time and energy to do the real hard work of parenting? To have those crucial conversations with your children, to teach them vital life skills, to model values like empathy and curiosity, to hold them through their tears, to bear witness as they flourish and flail?
Our country has the resources to make this all happen. But our leaders don’t have the will.
Nine years, six daycares, one preschool, two after-care programs, and a few dozen summer camps after it first dawned on me that this was The Way Things Were, I now enjoy the “luxury” of having two children at the same public school.
Photo: Mary Taylor/Pexels
A school to which I don’t have to fork over half my monthly paycheck, a school that resides nine quiet blocks from our home.
And suddenly I have so much energy. Not just physical energy, but mental and emotional energy. Room to think. Space to breathe.
I think about all the creative brain power our country could be harnessing — to make art, build bridges, fight for justice, solve climate change — that is instead invested in the logistics of piecing together childcare.
I also know how lucky I am. I am lucky to have a public school I feel good about within walking distance of my home. I am lucky that my neighborhood is walkable. I am lucky to have a remote work option and lucky that my kids are now old enough to more or less manage while I finish up my workday. I am lucky that I no longer have to pay my mortgage in childcare costs. I am lucky — oh so lucky — to be able to open the front door every morning, hug my kids, and watch them walk by themselves up the sidewalk.
So, how did I achieve parental nirvana? It wasn’t inevitable. It didn’t happen by default. It required working against a system that wasn’t built for me.
All told it took 10 years, plenty of tears, a few leaps of faith, and a lot of luck.
Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.