My parents and in-laws occasionally take the kids for a few days so that we can, well, not have our kids for a few days. When this happens, I do crazy things like watch HBO at 8 am, and grocery shop without scolding, and yell across the house “Do you want ice cream?” at some moment after 8 pm. So to translate, if you are in your pre-child, DINK, or adult children phase of life–while the kids are gone we get two days of a boring Saturday. And if you are a parent of little ones, sorry for causing you to burn with jealousy.

I usually love the blissful time I get away from my kids to refresh and remember the sounds of silence. I love when it is just enough to miss them and their proximity and the things they say that make me laugh. (I find that after so many hours of uninterrupted time with them I am less able to laugh at even their most hilarious things. And after a kid-free refresh, I can find them funny again.)

Whenever I have kid-free days coming up, ahead of time I do what every parent of little ones who finds herself with 24 hours of no “I’m hungry”s and “I’m thirsty”s does: I plan hundreds of hours worth of To-Dos. So without the kids, I will:

Clean. Because cleaning the house with a 4 year old around is like raking the leaves when the wind is blowing. I will reorganize the kitchen cabinet where millions of kids’ cups waterfall at me every time I open it; I will vacuum, clean the bathrooms, change out the kids’ clothing drawers.

Organize. I will go through the hoarders-worthy piles of junk in our closed-door, no-one-can-ever-see section of our basement. (Although I secretly know I actually won’t go near that room because it scares me. I look at it and it reminds me of how I feel most of the time—packed full of 6 years of things to do if I could only get the time.)

Grocery shop in attempted silence. But actually, even without the kids I probably will still talk my way through the grocery store—this is something I am so used to doing that I find myself doing it even when solo. I say things like, “Hmmm, do we need more cereal? What kind should we get? Allllllllmost done!” and when startled nearby strangers look at me, I am tempted to look in my shirt pocket and yell-whisper, “Shhhh, they don’t know you’re in there!” before the strangers grab what they need and hustle away.

Enjoy. I will read a book, I will binge watch almost anything, I will start writing my book—or at least write a measly little essay.

In short, I will attack the metaphorical closed door basement room that builds up in my mind whenever the kids need water and food and stories read and butts wiped and rooms picked up and princesses played with and fights separated. Mostly, though, I plan to pick up and then sit in my clean house and look at it—and breathe.

But every time it actually turns out like a conversation I had with Vivvi recently:

“What are we doing today?”
“Going to the zoo.”
“Then what?”
“Having lunch.”
“Then what?”
“Quiet time.”
“Then what?”
“You’ll go to your friend’s house.”
“Then what?”
“Eating dinner.”
“Then what?”
She pauses to process, and then exclaims, “That was fast!”

Just like that, the hours tick on by, and I accomplish one-fourth of my plans (if I am lucky). I often feel disappointed in myself, in the ticking of time, in my inability to accomplish the impossible to-dos. Even though I knew all along that the list was not possible—I cannot watch an entire season of Parenthood because that would be 24 hours and the kids would only be gone for 12 waking hours—I feel, when it is time to pick up the kids from a grandparent overnight, like I did not get done what I had planned.

Freedom Back to SchoolAnd now, with Wally’s first week of full day school in the books, I anticipated a great freeing up of time. And I did manage to wash the kitchen floors, which had not been washed since yesteryear and took 8 Swiffer pads and, in the end, still did not look clean. I did spend copious amounts of time playing Mermaids with Vivvi and reading to her and not yelling at kids to stop fighting. It was wonderful, and easy to fill that time with stuff, and yet still feel like I did not get to it all.

But what if I were looking at this all wrong? Not just on the days when my kids are gone, but every day? What if life is more than an endless to do list? What if, instead of going to bed every night thinking of everything I did not get to, I saw the things that I did?

I don’t want to look back at every day and say, “That was fast!” Because a day is certainly more than a collection of boxes to be checked that I am mostly not checking. It is not just the rooms uncleaned or the books unread or the work unfinished. A good day can’t be measured by which won on the sliding scale of done versus undone. Better eyes than mine would see it as a collection of moments—chances to laugh or cry or feel, opportunities to see and connect with the people that I love—the exact amount of time every day, regardless of what needs to be done, to chip away at what the world is showing me is real in order to see what is actually there. Because when I go to bed every night, the world is patting me on the back for check marks and shaking its finger for empty boxes. And that is not working for me now, when I am working and caring for relationships with my husband and family and friends and raising these little people who are loud and sometimes infuriating and sometimes so, so funny.

I am working on getting there—on trying to let go of the daily checklist. Our first shot at full day school feels like a great opportunity to work on flipping this perspective. Because, when I think about it, life actually does deliver itself—its joys, its glory, its opportunities for love and friendship—it delivers all of these things pretty abundantly, every day. (Today, for example, Vivvi and I had an entire car-ride conversation in strange voices. And after school, Wally V broke my heart telling me he didn’t play at recess with his new friend because instead of playing tag, the new friend was playing kickball and Wally didn’t know the rules. So we marched straight to the backyard and set up a diamond and I gave him a 15 minute rundown of what I could remember. These are the things I did today. My messy house or uncalled cable company are not.) I want to shake my finger back at the world to say, “You are wrong. Today I did the things I did, and didn’t do the things I didn’t do, and none of that matters. Because today I experienced joy and sadness and felt things. I learned more about being human. I loved the people that I love. I took a deep breath and looked at the beautiful and ugly life that was happening around me. Today I did the only one thing that does matter—I lived.”

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