There used to be this commercial on TV from Staples, the office supply store. You know the one: a white, overweight, balding stereotypical “dad” guy dances while pushing a cart full of school supplies. Two tweens, presumably his children, sulk behind him, dragging their feet and looking forlornly from one another to their uber-embarrassing father doing arabesques through the aisles to the tune of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Then they look at the floor and follow their dad slowly off screen as the week’s sale items are displayed for our viewing pleasure.
As a kid, I hated this commercial. I thought it was lame and overblown. Parents don’t really feel that way. They’re so trapped by their crap jobs and stultifying worldviews, having the kids home would have to be great, right? Everyone knows parents have no desires of their own, because as we all learned from John Hughes movies and Peter Pan, when you grow up, your heart dies. The fun part of your parents’ lives is over! Stupid Staples. Parents don’t dream of their kids going back to school, much less dance through the aisles of a store (in public!) at the mere thought of it. Yes, I actually thought this. Now that I have children, I realize how foolish I was.
My kids were enrolled in camp 5 mornings a week for 7 weeks this summer. Since the kids were born 3.5 years ago, these 7 weeks have been the best part of my life. I had my mornings free! Tuesdays and Thursdays I was free until 1 o’clock! Oh, joy of joys! Free time! I could do whatever I wanted to do! I could even practice ballet moves behind a cart at an office supply store! I didn’t, but I could’ve.
Every morning after I dropped the kids off at camp, I felt like painting half of my face blue and running down State Street in a kilt yelling “FREEDOM!” at the top of my lungs. It was better than the feeling of 3 o’clock on the last day of school before summer break. I could take off the Mommy hat for a few hours and put the Nicole hat back on. The kids were safe. They were happy. And I had time to become myself once again.
And it wasn’t just me who experienced this transformation. All the other moms and even some nannies were so much more themselves once the kids were in the able hands of the preschool teachers. The parental film was blinked away from our eyes. We saw the world anew. We drank coffee together. We talked about things other than children’s shows and potty training and others we knew who were pregnant (suckers!). We swore and told stories about drunken debauchery in college and more recent years. We showed off tattoos and talked about crushes we had on various actors, singers, guitar players. Yes, we devolved. And it was delicious.
We’d all been wearing the mantle of parental responsibility for so long that it felt great to put it down (folded properly, of course) for a while and let our inner giggly girls run free. Except now our giggly girls are much wiser women. We still love to giggle, but it’s giggling with a purpose. Just as giggling at age 12 and 13 helps distance you from your parents, giggling with peers as a thirtysomething helps distance you from your children. It reminds you that not only are you still who you are and who you’ve always been, but also that you’re not in this thing alone. You have your sisters to help you through it. Your girlfriends helped you grow and survive the crazy transition from childhood to adulthood. (Oh, adolescence. So painful, but so necessary.) Your girlfriends will also be there for you in the even crazier transition from non-parenthood to parenthood. I can’t speak for the dads out there, but I’m sure a similar safety net of friends exists for men, too. If not, man, are you guys screwed.
So there I was, happy in my small amount of freedom each day, when the unthinkable happened. Camp ended. It was over July 29th. School doesn’t start up again for the kids until September 15th. That’s 6 whole weeks for those keeping track at home. My initial response was to go out and buy a couple cases of whiskey and Scotch, aka magical mommy juice, that would ensure maximum relaxation for me once the kids went to bed. I didn’t do this. I seriously thought about it, though. But at the last minute I was once again saved by a girlfriend. In this case, it was my own mom who saved the day.
She offered to take the kids back to Ohio for two weeks to give me a break from parenting and to let me work on some non-kid-related projects I’ve started. She even drove out here to pick them up! Who is this woman? How is she possibly the same person who used to yell at me when I’d play my music too loud or nag me incessantly about getting homework done or caution me about the boy I was madly in love with who would only go on to break my heart? She was so clueless and such a bore. How did she become so awesome?
The answer is that she always was. She was simply cloaked in that parental mantle I was talking about, hiding her true self from me. But now that I’m an adult, she can be herself around me. I can join her circle of girlfriends and giggle knowingly about the world. We can all dance together down the aisles of any store, office supply or otherwise, and embarrass the hell out of our children and grandchildren because we know the secret. We know that people never really change. They simply have responsibilities. And when raising a child is their main responsibility, they take it very, very seriously.
This is why you rarely see any holes in the mantle when you’re a kid. It’s because your parents care about you and want you to be safe, happy, and healthy. It’s only when you get older and can take care of yourself that you see who your parents truly are. They are the kind of people who tell dirty jokes, drink too much on occasion, make stupid decisions, and sing along with their favorite songs on the radio. They are people like you. I don’t say this to frighten you. I say this because it’s true. We’re all pretty much the same when you get down to it, we just express ourselves differently. For some, it’s dancing at a store, for others it’s dressing up like an extra from “Braveheart” and running down one of the busiest streets in the world proclaiming your freedom for the world to hear. (I didn’t actually do this, but wouldn’t it be great?) However you choose to express it, express it you must. But I would seriously recommend against dancing to anything sung by Andy Williams. That stuff’s not cool no matter how old you are.