How do you become a parent while keeping hold of yourself?

There’s a famous passage in “The Bell Jar” that hits me in the gut every time I read it.  In it, Esther talks about imagining herself sitting in the crook of a fig tree, and each fig is a dream of hers:

One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

This quote often made me cry when I was younger, and I felt that, like Esther, I was watching as each fig shriveled up and drop to the ground, and that I would probably starve to death before I reached for a single one.

My perspective has changed now but I am no less moved by that quote.  I’ve started reaching for those figs, and I’ve even wrapped my hands around a couple, but in doing so, other figs have slipped from my reach.  Certainly it’s good that I have not attained all of my goals.  Otherwise I would be the world’s first veterinarian-astronaut-president, and I would drive a pink limo every day to my mansion filled with kitties named Tigger. (Come to think of it, that would be kind of cool…maybe I should have stuck with that plan.)  But I have become fairly aware of the fact that I have to make choices, and that some of those choices are going to be hard.

This is the thing: I don’t want to have to choose!  I mean, I didn’t name my zine “All I Want Is Everything” because I thought it was clever.  I named it that because that’s exactly how I am.  I want to experience as much as possible.  I want everything.

I find myself at a bit of a crossroads these days, heightened by my trip to the west coast.  My husband and I had been putting off starting a family until after we ran Big Sur, and…well.  Having a kid is something I never really planned for but I’ve wanted intensely for a few years now.  I hear the time is never really right, but it feels very close to right.

And yet to listen to many parents talk, I should expect to no longer want anything else in my life.  I have been told to do all of my racing now, to do grad school now, to write a book now – essentially, that my life as Caitlin will cease to exist and that I will be little more than Baby’s Mom, Provider of Milk and Buttwipes.  It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for parenthood!  (Seriously, I know y’all are just trying to prepare me, but really, stop it.)

Obviously, I don’t expect that my life would continue on as it has been, and I am fine with that.  But I also have a hard time with the idea that I should expect to let go of two of my greatest passions in life – writing and running – once I have a child.  I have a very, very hard time with that.

I know intellectually that this doesn’t have to be the way, so I’ve been reading and watching and listening and seeing how so many other parents make it happen.   I read a book called Mamaphonic, a collection of essays written by women about the balancing acts of motherhood and their creative pursuits.  I read Hip Mama and all sorts of other mama blogs and zines.  I talked to two women who ran the Big Sur marathon, both thirteen days after running Boston, both posting fantastic times and both having given birth relatively recently (six months for one, fourteen for the other). I talk to my friends and relatives, both online and not, who have kids of all ages, and I ask about daycare, division of labor, work balance, finding solitude, finding time.

As with so many other endeavors I prepare to undertake, I seem to have the idea that if I just research enough, I’ll be able to conquer anything.  It’s a total Type A nerd mentality, this idea that you can pin down something by reading enough about it.  I recognize that this probably an exercise in futility.  But still, I wonder. I need to know that it can be done.

I know I’ve got some moms who read this blog.  Tell me, how do you do it?


32 responses to “How do you become a parent while keeping hold of yourself?

  1. I’m not going to be having kids any time soon, but at one time I was considering it. I think that if you really love something, you will find a way to do it. Not finding a way to do it would be a disservice to both you and your family. Whenever I have a child, I want to be able to go leave the house and travel and work and go on adventures. Yeah, having a kid will change your life, but it doesn’t stop anyone from living and doing what they love unless they let it. Good luck!!

  2. It’s your choice. You can choose to make your kids your life, or to make your kids a part of my life. Personally, I find those who choose the latter (myself included) infinitely more interesting.
    Just because you can’t have it all doesn’t mean you are limited to just one choice. Can’t you grab a handful of figs?

    • I’m trying! It’s just that parenthood often seems like such a huge fig that everything else gets dropped accidentally. 😦

    • This reminds me of the main reason my husband is apprehensive about having kids – he doesn’t want to become one of those parents whose entire life revolves around his kid. Frankly, I don’t either. Another friend of ours (who has two small children), said when their first kid came, they just kept trying to live their life as they had been, just now they bring the kid with to stuff (as long as it is an acceptable place/function for kids). If it works, great, if it doesn’t, they turn around and go home and lesson learned, or try differently next time. I just like that they’re not “now we have kids and everything is different!” but “now we have kids and we’ll just adjust accordingly.”

  3. This is a question that really hits home for me right now. I have a two year old. I am going to have another in August and I’m going to do my PhD defense in July. I had a lot of ideas about what was important to me in my life before I had the first and I have a lot of ideas about what is important to me now and those two lists are not the same. The answer to how do you just do it (for me) is that you just do. You figure it out as you go along and you figure that the things that are important and need to get done will get done because they have to.

    • Oh my goodness, congratulations and good luck! A baby and a PhD defense? You are amazing.

      I had a lot of ideas about what was important to me in my life before I had the first and I have a lot of ideas about what is important to me now and those two lists are not the same.

      I have often thought that my priorities will change after I have a kid, but I have no idea how they will. Plus I have a bad track record when it comes to accurately predicting how I will feel about something before it happens. So I suppose I should also trust that my priorities will shake out exactly the way they need to after the kid comes along.

  4. I have two very young children, I work full time, I have a new yoga practice, and I run about 25 miles a week. I ran a marathon last year while I was working part time and during that time ran more. Now that I am back to full time, half marathons are about all I want to take on. The thing that has made things possible for me is having a supportive partner. And he is a partner. He never says he “babysits” the kids while I am out running or doing my own thing, because you can’t babysit your own kids. He doesn’t help around the house, he does his part. He stays home with sick kids, too. Make your expectations clear at the outset, don’t expect anyone to read your mind.

    And mom groups are nice if you’re into it, but don’t fall in to the trap of believing that all of your social outlets have to revolve around the children. Good luck, whatever your decision.

  5. wow, you really hot a spot with me right now. im a mom, and have a 4 year old daughter and a 2 year old son. they are my entire life, my true loves, my everything and the cutest little stinkers you ahve ever seen anywhere ever. of course. it almost goes without saying that i was somehow, in all my imperfections, chosen to be the mother to two of the most brilliant, funny and adorable babies ever born on this earth.

    THAT SAID, its hard. really hard. i have given up a lot, both physically and professionally. certainly socially. there were a lot of sacrifices on my end. sometimes im better and resentful. sometimes it dosent bother me one bit. in quiet moments without the kids around (like now) i would give it all up and more a thousand times over just to hear their voice. in other moments, like when im being pecked to death by a million pecking chicks at 5:30 in the morning, i want to scream and then disappear.

    certainly there are aspects of single child-free life that i miss, but ive never even in my darkest times ever wished my children away. theres a lot about life that is harder- traveling is NOT easy. in fact it kind of sucks. finding time for yourself can be a challenge in the first few years. nurturing friendships, making new ones. its just a shift in perspective and just really a whole new way of seeing the world and i dont really know how to describe it. there is a wonderful newish trend in mothering that gives women space to talk about the not so glorious aspects of parenting in a non judgmental forum, and thank god for that. aside from the valium, i dont really know how my mothers generation managed.

    facebook is a lifeline, sometimes. i have a wonderful group of other moms who are my sanity and my best friends. honestly, we dont have a lot in common aside from the fact that we are all moms, but i know i can rely on them for anything. i think that its so important, that community building. women were not meant to raise children this way- in isolation. you have to go make your own tribe, which can be near impossible in the beginning when you are trying to figure it all out. life changes radically, and theres no way around it, but you can maintain your SELF, too. it just takes some conscious effort on your part, before mothering and after. its HARD, girl.

    ugh, this is long but its been on my mind a lot lately as i think that i have to return to work at least part time for sanity reasons, even if it might cost me money in childcare. mine are at a tough age- a lot of needs all the time, and need a lot of entertaining, but still babies. i feel like when they are going to school, more independent, and i have more time to pursue my own interests, that things will feel a bit more normal. good luck. either way, you’ll do great. parenting is hard, but its not complicated.

  6. you absolutely can run and write and still be you after having kids. The problem is, i think, that the first few years can be VERY HARD and they seem to LAST FOREVER so it can be easy to lose perspective. Sometimes people don’t seem to be prepared for adjusting to a slower pace or at least giving themselves a break if they find they need a slower pace. There are so many unknowns in having kids, the best thing you can do is be flexible and kind to yourself whatever happens and keep in mind that what seems like forever isn’t actually.

    • Thanks for this bit of advice. I tend to be pretty hard on myself, a bit of an overachiever, actually, and so I’ll definitely need to keep this in mind.

  7. Having a child is only part of me. It’s an important part–I never would have become the wiser, more compassionate, more humorous person I am now without having had my daughter nearly sixteen years ago. And I am a good parent. My daughter is a caring, thoughtful, happy, sensible person. But there is so much more to me than just being a parent. It was true for me on the first day of my daughter’s life, and it will be true for me on the last day of mine. (Corollary: there is so much more to my child than just being my child.)

    Oh . . . and a big thumbs-up to what Minniekins said. She’s absolutely right.

  8. Hi there, a friend of mine (and yours) pointed me to your blog. I can tell you that I have a 3-year-old and have been able to do exactly what I want to do. It’s all about compromise.

    I am married to a wonderful guy. We both work full-time, freelance a few hours per week and are members of a running club. We take turns and help each other reach our goals and it’s worked out just fine. He’s a few hours away from a master’s degree that he’s getting on top of working, I’ve run 10 ultramarathons in the past two years. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot accomplished in the time since I’ve had my son.

    And though, as minniekins says, the first year seemed to last forever, it was really that year that pushed me into learning how to balance “me time” with “mommy time” and “wife time.” Do I get to do everything I want to do? No. Do I get to be there for every second of my child’s day? No. Do I cherish every moment with him? Yes. Do I enjoy myself when I’m doing things for “me”? Yes.

    It is possible to be yourself and achieve your goals and not give up and still be a kick-ass mom. In fact, I think it’s important for children to see that their parents are more than “just” parents. It’s good for my son to come to my races and events just as it’s good for him to get all afternoon to bake cookies with me or go on a walk.

    Having children isn’t an ending. It’s part of life, if you want it. And if you do, you’ll make it work.

  9. I am not a mom, so I can’t testify to the HOW, but I will say that in my large, competitive, time consuming roller derby league, we have many, many moms. It can be done, and it can be done well. And oftentimes, they are my fiercest competitors.

  10. You’ve gotten and will get lots of information/advice from those who have young children now. I’m here to report from the other side. I didn’t start working out/running until my kids were almost grown (they’re 21, 24 & 26, and this is my third track/road racing season – I’m 52). Kids are important, and will consume a huge amount of your life while they are living with you, but that won’t last forever. There’s boatloads of life and time after kids, too.

    What Paleo Yogini says is right on: it’s your decision whether you choose the focus exclusively on your children, or have them be part of your life.

    I got a master’s degree and started working while my children were young, so I’m sure that if I had wanted to run then, I could have done it.

  11. you keep reading my mind!! i have been struggling with this same issue. specifically because i’m entering into a five year phd program and i’ve been thinking about what the next five years of my life will look like (prime baby time – i’m 29). as i was deciding on programs i found myself asking about the “work-life balance” a lot because i felt i needed to advocate for that part of myself, even if i don’t necessarily feel “ready” right now, and i was heartened that so many women were willing to discuss something so personal, and their strategies to make it work. reliable child care and an involved partner seem to be the key to maintaining your sanity and getting work done, although the cost of child care is insanely expensive (at least around here). unfortunately, i don’t know many women who have had children so i could talk to them pre-child and post-child.. because everyone always says, “you think that will be your priority but then once you have a baby THAT will be your priority.” well..does having a baby give you a lobotomy or something? because i know what i need to keep me sane: regular exercise, at least a little bit of quiet time alone every day.. i find it hard to believe that i would be soooo about the baby that i would no longer prioritize those things in my life. i mean, you have to take care of yourself first to be your best self to your partner and child, right? i accept i won’t be able to do everything i do now well, but my guess is that we’ll make concessions in the areas we care less about.
    it’s a huge, scary leap and i just have to hope that if we make a concerted effort and are really aware of it going in, we won’t lose ourselves entirely.
    ALSO i read an excerpt of a book you might find interesting – run like a mother. two women writing about fitting running into their lives as mothers. spoiler alert, it’s about waking up at the ass-crack of dawn to get your miles in, basically.

  12. I am really happy to find this kind of question and to see all the answers given! It’s a discussion I have had with my husband for the last 4 years (I’m 32 now): I am a little worried about the changes in my life a kid or two might have but my husband is positively freaked out. I’ve tried to tell him some of the things I have seen above, mostly that I’m convinced you can still have your own personnality and activites and not live only for your children. But I must say that parents around me (my brother and my colleagues) are mostly the opposite: it looks like parenthood has lead to the vanishing of all their hobbies, interests and discussion. Some of my colleagues talk only about their kids and it’s very bizarre. I see that I’m not the only one thinking that you can still have a little life of your own.
    I’ll come back to check what other people have to say about this very interesting subject!

  13. Like D, I can point to my roller derby league! Many of us are mothers of young children, and it is definitely a challenge. I started derby a few months after my son’s second birthday, and turned myself into an athlete while raising him and working full time. If I can start from scratch and be successful, you’ll have a huge advantage! You’re already in good shape and have established fitness habits.

    Sometimes I have to get creative… I can’t justify going to a gym, because I spend so many hours away from home for practice. So I have weights and home gym stuff that I can use whenever the opportunity presents itself. If my son (now almost 5) wants to watch cartoons, I can work out in the same room. Sometimes I make part of my workouts into games that he can play with me. And of course, he is the BEST weight to lift and throw, and he automatically gets heavier as I get stronger.

    I’ve had to put some of my other hobbies on hold. I’ve given priority to my son and to roller derby, so I only sew when my team needs jerseys mended or when I’m injured and have to take a week or two off. I didn’t plant a thing in my garden or flower bed last year, but I’m trying to do a little this year. Mostly I just cut myself a lot of slack, and don’t feel guilty if I decide to cut my workout short and cuddle up with my son in a blanket.

  14. I’m mom to a 4.5 year old (VERY active!) boy, a full time professional, wife, volunteer and runner. Yes, it get complicated to juggle everything and yes, sometimes I miss some of the important (and not-so-important) stuff. And I think I’ll spend the next several decades (hopefully!) considering my priorities both for what I need to do and what I want to do. It’s complicated.

    While, as previous posters have said, the first year or two seemed to last forever and I didn’t know what would happen on the other side, I have come out on the other side and I’m about to start my 4th year as a marathon coach. Running is a constant connection to who I am and what I love, and I’ve made it a priority.

    My husband struggles with the same balance. He is also a parent, full time professional, husband and runner (not as much of a volunteer, though :). And it’s not simple for him. The biggest hit that we’ve had to take is that we can no longer do all of our weekday runs together – it would be illegal for us to leave the child to fend for himself while we go out for a daily run together! But we really do enjoy it when we’re with family and can sneak off for a run while the child hangs with a grandparent or a cool aunt/uncle.

    There’s defintely a bumpy road, but you come out on the other side still yourself! Good luck.

  15. my sister urged me to register for a marathon earlier this year and the reason she was so eager was because she’s planning her second baby. she said, “if i don’t do it now i don’t think i’ll ever do it if i’m planning on getting pregnant by the end of the year.” i told her this second baby wasn’t the end of her life or the end of her fitness life. she might be speaking from experience, though, since she does have 1 child already.

    i agree with what people have said so far, the kid(s) are a PART of your life not your WHOLE life. i’m sure you’ll catch yourself saying “my kid is my life” at some point but the reality is you also have to be a part of your life and if you are a writer and a runner, then that’s who you will be- no matter what.

    good luck with everything.

  16. I started running AFTER I had my first baby. I did it to get the “me” time I so desperately needed, in addition to other reasons.But what it ultimately comes down to as others have pointed out is that you get to choose what type of parent you are. The first few months will be hard, but they don’t last forever and you definitely can run, write, and probably do pretty much anything else you like even while you have kids. Babies are surprisingly portable and adaptable. And now my 3 year old pretends to run marathons around the living room, he wants to run just like mom.

  17. This is something I think about a lot, as my due date approaches! I plan to keep as much of my “me” stuff around as possible – I’ll keep running (well, get back to it, since this fetus seems to hate it), and working, and maintaining friendships. I realize that things wil have to change for awhile during the first few months, but I have enough friends with small kids who still have a strong sense of self that I can see how possible it really is.

    Of course, get back to me next February when my kid is 6 months old and all I talk about is spit up and baby shit. And by “get back to me” I mean “SLAP SOME SENSE INTO ME.”

  18. I’m happily child-free, myself, but I have always been grateful to my mother for demonstrating to me, by how she lived, that a woman could be a mother and a wife and still a woman in her own right with her own life. I think in her case, it helped that my parents were married for more than a decade before kids were part of the picture — they had time to be together as adults, as a couple, and figure out who they were in their marriage before being parents. They screwed things up, they made decisions they regretted, they tried things and changed course. And they didn’t hide it all from us.

    It can be done. Just remember who you are, and keep in mind what model of adulthood you want to demonstrate to your children. You and your spouse are their most important examples.

  19. Aargh! I’m so totally in the same spot right now. It’s kind of caught me off guard, because I was never interested in kids, and now I’m really feeling the ticking clock. In the realm of real-life models, my mom is an awesome athlete and professional and really inspiring, but I also can’t help feeling that it’s easier in retrospect, ie, once your kids are grown. Let me know once you’ve got it figured out, though. 🙂

  20. I’m 32 and my life is pretty stable and I’m thinking about having kids somewhere in the near-ish future. Which is cool. But it feels like everyone is telling me I’ll have to Drop Everything– career, hobbies, travel– for a kid. And if I don’t devote myself 100% to this child, I’m being selfish. It’s enough to turn me off children altogether. But I’m glad there are people out there still doing it all 🙂

  21. Thanks for the Bell Jar quote, very moving.
    I think an important factor in hetero relationships is how much of the real work of parenting is the father going to do? I have seen that really affect how much time/energy the woman has for her own interests.
    Best wishes.

    • I think this is such a good point, and something I’ve talked about with my husband. I think part of why I feel like I’m ready to have kids is because I know he’ll be a good dad and not just the kind of guy who will expect a cookie for taking them to the park once every six months.

  22. Perhaps I am unusual, or perhaps it’s a result of having my child at the ripe old age of 34 (per the lactation consultant, who referred to me as an “older mother”), but having my son made my life explode in the best possible way ever. Before him, I felt like I had all the time in the world – I deferred dreams because there would always be time, right? I muddled along, working at my job, and envisioning what I might do some day.

    Then the boy came along, and I realized that time zooms by and anything I wanted to do was worth doing now. My creative life is *so much bigger* now than it ever was before my son. I’ve learned all kinds of new, non-kid-related skills. I’ve taken up new hobbies. I’ve run races. I’ve settled into my own skin. All the energy I used to direct into my weird body-hating habits has been redirected into living the broad, joyful life I want my son to someday tell his grandkids his mom lived.

    I guess my point is, your life after you have a child is whatever you choose it to be – it will change your life, sure, but you get to decide how!

    • This is such an interesting perspective and so reassuring to hear! I’ve heard constantly the vague “my life changed so much when I had kids!” and “my life got so much better!” with no real specific explanation as to the how or why. I’ve never thought about it this way, and frankly, I’m a little relieved to read this 🙂

  23. I read your blog regularly but this is the first time I’ve ever felt like I had to comment – this post really spoke to me! I agree that everyone tries to prepare you for motherhood by warning you you’ll give up your other passions and hobbies- the problem I have with this is the implication that you’ll be glad to give it all up because having a baby will fulfill you in every possible way.
    I’m a mom of a 2-year-old (with another on the way) and having my son was the best thing that ever happened to me. Having said that, being a mother has taught me that there really is so much more to life than having kids. The entire first year of motherhood was spent living and breathing my baby’s needs, and that year was a huge struggle for me, for so many reasons. I finally realized I had to make time for the other loves in my life (writing in particular) and that became a bit easier once he was 2 years old. Every woman is different, but in order to be happy I MUST feel like I’m more than just a mom, and maintaining other identities is incredibly hard work. But it can absolutely be done and I’m quite certain it makes you a better mother (at least it’s made me a better one).
    Sorry if I’m rambling, I didn’t realize how much I had to say! The bottom line is that it’s much harder to keep other hobbies and interests in your life after kids, but definitely doable and completely worth the effort 🙂

  24. I’ve got four kids (four months to nine years) and didn’t start running until after number 3. i’m a SAHM (hate that term!) who unschools so I have my children with me almost always. The almost is most often because of my running although at other times it has been different. At first it was placements for school, then a part time job, then a masters degree and now running. Each of these activities that have taken me away from the kids have also served to give me some space, a chance to talk to adults and an opportunity to flex a part of myself that parenting may not. I would say that I live for my kids and I don’t think that’s a bad thing perhaps because to me that doesn’t mean I’ll get lost for them.

    My own mother (also a mother to four) has early onset dementia and lost the ability to mother us from when her youngest was 21. We may not have been little but it means we have raised our children without her guidance, and had to take over a caregiving role for her much earlier than we might have otherwise. What stands out to me in the loss of the mother I knew was that I never really knew her. My mother had no hobbies, took no classes, and listened to the same music/read the same books as my step father. When we tell people about her now those stories always revolve around her role as mother. The lesson I see in this is the importance of being a person in your children’s eyes. Love them, yes, but also love yourself. Indulge in your interests and share them with your children, be excited, be passionate about things, it can only help you both.

    Lastly, a great reminder to me of my priviledge, my husband is not only supportive of my running he assumes there will be things I want to do and happily works around my running plans. He also looks forward to the chance to hang with the kids on his own.

    Having kids is a big decision for sure, but maybe not as big as it’s made out to be. Have them because you want them, work the rest out later.

  25. I know EXACTLY what you mean! To listen to my parents talk about it, you will cease to be an autonomous human being after you have children (or, for that matter, get married). When my brother got married at the terribly young age of 24, they sat him down and had a conversation about how he really needed to wait to have children until he was at least 30, so he still had time to do things he wanted to do. I’m not sure they ever even grasped that, by extension, this meant that having children was the end of getting to do anything for yourself.

    It was only recently, on meeting people who had married or had children younger, that I’ve begun to realize that having children doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence for being a person. One of my coworkers just had a baby, and got him a passport photo when he was about 1 month old, “so they wouldn’t be restricted if they tried to travel internationally.” I was just agog: I would think that the BABY was the big impediment to international travel, not the baby’s passport. Right now I’m trying to find women I really admire- the executive director at my research center, my boss’ wife who’s a tenured professor, etc- who have small children and still do all kinds of awesome things, and just watch how they do it.

  26. My advice to you is this: make damn sure you have help.

    Every mother who does anything other than child care (be it running, writing, or just taking a dump by herself) has help. Remember that, as I cannot stress enough how important this is.
    All this talk of how important it is to continue your interests and career is just so much waffle if no one can spell you from child care.

    And don’t think you can just do your work after baby goes to bed, or that you can get up at sparrow fart to cram in a run or yoga, or whatever. You will be exhausted, and you will want to just sleep.
    When the child is a bit older, or even in school, then you will be able to cram some ‘me time’ in when she/he is asleep.

    Be prepared to do almost if not everything by yourself. Any break is a bonus. Pay for a house cleaner if you can. Register for day care as soon as you pee positive on the stick.

    Oh, and don’t buy an expensive jogging stroller until you know the baby digs it.

    This reply to your post my seem a bit harsh, but it is the absolute truth.

    I love my child deeply. I love being a mother. Sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, etc. I just wish I had a little time to myself.

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