Exhaustion. Restlessness. Secrecy. One mom shares what it was like to parent two preschool-aged children while longing for her old life of romantic dinners and impromptu weekend getaways. This is her story.

By Erin Balsa
Illustration by Emma Darvick

My midlife crisis didn't involve a shiny red sports car or a sexy younger man. My midlife crisis bubbled underneath the surface, invisible, but no less real.

Some women are like volcanoes—they erupt to release pressure. Others struggle in silence. I boiled with restlessness and anxiety, too, but I swallowed it down, swiped on lipstick, and went about my day. My rational mind knew I had everything I ever dreamed of: a handsome husband, two healthy kids, a job I loved, a big house with a pool. I hated myself for wondering, "Is this it?"

I'd always been fueled by a desire to move forward in time. I couldn't wait to get my license, to graduate college, to buy a house, to meet the man I'd marry, to experience pregnancy and childbirth, to lay eyes on my babies for the first time, and to make a living as a writer. With each of those goals attained, I felt successful but empty. There were no alluring milestones left to reach. Plus, the ticking clock overwhelmed me; I no longer wanted to move forward, I wanted to go backward.

Time and time again, as I scrubbed sippy cups or stepped on Legos in the middle of the night, I found myself longing for my old life—an unencumbered existence marked by self-indulgence and impulsivity. Candlelit bubble baths. Cake for dinner. Impromptu weekend getaways.

Anatole France once said: "All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another."

I've found that melancholy doesn't always hit at the exact moment you enter your new life. For me, it came only after the buzz of new motherhood wore off.

The Monotony of Motherhood

When you're a mom, there's always work to do, and there's rarely time for rest or self-care. Parenting is the antithesis of freedom. When coupled with thoughts of mortality, the monotony of motherhood can be downright suffocating. At least that's how it felt to me.

Sometimes my kids snuggled up against me and it was pure bliss—our bodies melted together like hot fudge and ice cream. Other times, their skinny arms were lead weights around my neck. There was constant duality. I counted the seconds until bedtime, although I realized each moment was precious and fleeting. I dreamt of being alone, although I missed them when we were apart. I longed for freedom, although the thought of living without them under my roof terrified me.

I carried on as if nothing was wrong. We cuddled, we laughed, we played, we loved. It was business as usual—as far as they knew. But how long could I keep up the act? How long could I suppress the hot lava inside me?

I wasn't willing to wait and see.

Learning to Live in the Present

To kick my midlife crisis to the curb, I tried to live in the present. That meant getting comfortable with the monotony of motherhood. And shifting my internal talk track: My kids aren't driving me crazy by tugging at my sweatpants and fighting for my attention, they're showering me with love! (On occasion, my talk track is more like "Get off my lap, can't you see I'm trying to pee?!" But hey, nobody's perfect.)

Freedom is a boomerang; you lose it when your kids are little, but it returns to you when they turn 13 (at least that's what everyone says). I force myself to remember this when my skin starts to itch with longing for the past. Twenty years from now, I know my skin will itch with longing for these days—when there was rarely time for rest, but I was the center of my children's universe.

I wish I could tell you that my midlife crisis is a distant memory, but that would be a lie. Truth is, I'm making progress every day.

To celebrate my daughter's third birthday, we went out for hibachi. The four of us sat around the grill as the chef juggled an egg on his spatula and caught a shrimp in his coat pocket. My 3-year-old sat on the edge of her seat, eyes wide and smiling. My 4-year-old couldn't contain his giggles as the chef shot sake from a squeeze bottle into my open mouth. Finally came the gold medal of hibachi tricks: the onion volcano. Both kids squealed with joy.

In the end, I did have an erupting volcano—and I'll carry that happy memory.

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