by Dana Schwartz

The sun hadn’t finished rising when my nine-year-old daughter bounded into the kitchen and asked if I could volunteer at her school lunch. My entire body went rigid, as if a hand had crept beneath my skin and was reaching for something vital.

Smiling gently, I shook my head no. “I’ll come another day this week.”

Her face hardened. “Why not today?”

I hesitated. It was a valid question, but I didn’t know how to answer.

Every week I volunteer at both my children’s schools during lunch and recess hours. The younger kids require actual assistance, unscrewing thermoses and tying errant shoelaces, but I love visiting the fourth graders for more selfish reasons. None of them need my help, but their faces brighten at my arrival, my daughter’s most of all.

The day before I couldn’t come. Well, that’s not entirely true. I chose not to. As co-leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop, I’d spent the morning prepping for our meeting and decided to skip lunch in lieu of some mental health time. I made a cup of tea, and stretched out on the couch with a library book. Nearby the laundry sat in a jumbled heap and the sink was full of dirty dishes, both of which I ignored. In a long, hard-earned battle, I’ve finally figured out what it means to take care of myself, to set boundaries, and protect them.

When my daughter posed her question, I felt a flash of annoyance, followed immediately by anxiety. I had no appointments or meetings. My schedule was, technically, open. An ache filled my chest, knowing what is fast approaching: puberty, middle school, and that soon my daughter will no longer welcome my presence. A sly knowing voice whispered in my ear, one day you’ll regret saying no. My heart lurched and I almost changed my mind.

But I didn’t.

I thought about how I’d imagined my day. No interruptions, no errands to run, just hours to myself. Not for domestic tasks or even leisurely reading, but to work. In addition to being a mother, I’m also a writer, and this creative act sustains me as much as oxygen. I’m a better person when I remember this, but I wasn’t always so aware.

During the early years of motherhood, I lost track of my creative self. I let it drift way, like a boat at sea, while I sat on the dock and watched. For a while I assumed I couldn’t do both, writing and mothering, but as it turned out, I couldn’t not do both.

When my daughter was a toddler, we were talking about what her daddy did every day when he left our home. “He goes to work,” she told me.

“What do I do?” I asked on a whim.

She cocked her head to one side. “Nothing.”

Soon after I began hiring babysitters and leaving her for a few hours a week. “Where are you going?” she’d ask tearfully, clinging to my legs.

“I’m going to work,” I’d tell her, pointing at my laptop. “I’m going to write.”

Again and again I did this until it became second nature – for both of us.  

Years later, my daughter knows what happens when I don’t have enough creative time. “Mommy, you really should take a few hours to write,” she recently said, after a week of snow days and school delays. “Otherwise, you get grumpy.” I laughed in agreement. It’s true. I’m a better mother – a better person – when I take care of myself.

What my daughter may not realize is that this lesson isn’t just for me.

“Do we want our daughters to live their lives primarily in the service of their daughters?” writes Jill Filipovic in a recent New York Times column. This line took my breath away. The answer is a resounding, echoing, adamant NO, which means, we must model the alternative.

When my daughter implored me, again, to volunteer at her lunch, I said no. Each uninterrupted day, each handful of hours, is a gift. Like a woman too long submerged under water, every greedy gulp of air is delicious and quenching. I no longer give up my time so easily.

As she stomped away, I felt the familiar pang of guilt, but I didn’t call her back. I finished my coffee and made the lunches. After our usual hectic morning routine, we ran outside to catch the bus. Smiling, my daughter hugged me goodbye. She didn’t ask again.

I think she is beginning to understand, but she is still a child. This won’t be the last time she asks, and it won’t be the last time I say no. But each time I’ll say it with love, and in service of us both.


Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.