This evening my daughter went to a slumber party. As a single mother, I don't get many evenings to myself, and I had a few possibilities for this one. I opted out of all of them and went out to dinner by myself, to a tiny Mexican restaurant that my daughter doesn't like. I ordered too much food and sat for more than an hour, picking at bits of it and reading an old Robert Parker novel that I'd somehow missed the first time around.
If you have children, perhaps you understand why I didn't go out to dinner with friends or my family or even take the all-too-rare opportunity to hear some live music. An hour of silence with a good book and food someone else cooked was like a little slice of heaven.
When I left the restaurant the night air was soft and so I rolled down the window and drove through town with the wind in my hair and a friend on my CD player and didn't feel the least bit like a grandmother. Quite by accident, that drive took me through the neighborhood where we lived when my daughter was a baby, and suddenly its cracked sidewalks and run-down houses looked a little bit like heaven, too.
I gave up my job when my daughter was born; my husband paid child support for his two older children. I scarcely exaggerate when I say that we didn't have a nickel to spare. More than once I went digging through coat pockets and purses in hopes of finding a few dollars to buy dinner with, and I put together a little book of dinners you could cook for under $3.00. And however we all tend to romanticize it, there's nothing glamorous about being poor. It's hard and it's stressful.
But what I found myself thinking about tonight was the quiet night air around that neighborhood, about walking the dog in the evening, about the adolescent neighbor girl who loved our baby so much that she became like part of the family. There was something somehow richer and more real about that neighborhood, where my husband didn't want me to walk alone at night. There was a little dog whom I don't think I'll ever stop missing. But mostly, there was time.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the trade-off between time and money. For a parent, it's a Catch-22 of astronomical proportions. Your child wants and needs your presence at exactly the same time that she needs and wants your financial support. Then boom...one day she's supporting herself, busy with her own life, and you have time to slow down...but for what?
I know I have nothing to complain about. I've got a great job that allows me to earn a good living from home, family half a mile away, a fabulous kid whose friends have adopted me as a second mother...but some days I think that I'd give most of this money back and go back to digging for change in the seat cushions if I could have back those aimless days when my daughter sat sleep-mussed in the chair with a doll in her lap and said, "So...what do you want to do today?" and the answer was wide open.