Several years ago I talked through this dilemma with my therapist: I couldn’t seamlessly switch back and forth between mommying and working. When I was on deadline and working from home, as I mostly do, and in the flow of writing a sentence or article, it would be terribly aggravating to have to stop to tend to one of my children’s immediate needs. And of course children’s needs are often immediate, even when they’re in middle school.
I’d end up snapping at my children, and frustrated with myself, feeling inadequate that I could not manage to gracefully deal with the ping-pong of switching between their needs and my own.
What the therapist said immediately lifted my guilt: opposite sides of the brain are involved with mothering and with work, so a real physiological shift has to take place. Being able to switch seamlessly back and forth is not a matter of capacity or talent. It is simply not possible. It takes time.
You would think, then, that now that I have just sent off my 11- and 13-year old daughters for a month at overnight camp I would be clicking my heels like a 40-something Jewish leprechaun. After all, I am certain that they’ll have a great time. They went to the same “Jewish hippie farm camp,” as Girlchik described it today, last year. It is a lovely place full of activities different enough (long mountain hikes, milking the resident goats, concocting medicinal salves, enjoying a spiritedness to Shabbat worship that just isn’t matched anywhere around here) from anything they do at home.
And for me it is real respite. Nearly a month of being able to mostly tend to myself. Of being able to write this at 8:30 PM without having yet given a moment’s thought to dinner. Of not needing to wash sinks full of dishes made dirty by children who view themselves as super-helpful because they made their own quesadilla or some such but don’t seem to think cleaning up is part of the deal. My husband and I will be able to go out often and not worry about getting home in time to tuck the girls in. I can write without anticipating an urgent knock on my home office door because Rockerchik can’t reach what she needs in the fridge.
And yet. I really enjoyed the past couple of weeks with them. Knowing I would want to spend enjoyable time with them between school and camp, I took no new assignments. We hung around the house. And we played. We spent an afternoon on a speed-boat ride around lower Manhattan, seeing familiar sights from new perspectives. We saw a movie in the middle of the day and browsed in a bookstore. We caught up on doctor’s appointments without being stressed because the doctors ran late. We took unhurried trips to stock up on clothes and shampoo for camp. The girls bickered less because they were rested. It was, by and large, a real pleasure.
And now that they are off, the house is unfamiliar in its quiet. Already I miss Girlchik’s adorable sighs of 13-year-old worldly ennui, and Rockerchik’s chortle and the sound of her singing to herself as she moves through the house. Now that my tournament with Girlchik is on a mandatory month-long hiatus, with whom will I play round after round of Words With Friends? I feel wistful, and a bit lonely for them.
It will take me some time to make this switch between the hemispheres of my life, from needing to cycle constantly between patient nurturing mommy-dom to generative work mode and back again.
Because my need for transition before being able to revel in the pleasure of having time to myself isn’t a lack of capacity or talent, and my ambivalence about sending them off to camp feels right in its complexity.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
The Ambivalent Joy of Camp Season