Thursday, December 30, 2010

Time Like the Present by Stephanie Anderson Witmer

Tracy Heyman Photography
My house is quiet. Blessedly, gloriously quiet.

It’s four days after Christmas, and I am still in the throes of the four-week winter break (sometimes it’s very good to be a professor). My husband has taken the week between Christmas and New Year’s off, and this morning, he got up with our 19-month-old son and let me sleep the sleep of my former, childless self, unmarred by a to-do list or thoughts of what Benjamin will wear to daycare or the alarm clock of my son’s early-morning calls for me from the confines of his crib.

When I finally do wake up at a luxurious 9:25 a.m., I find the house utterly still. I pad from the bedroom in my new red Christmas slippers, past my son’s closed bedroom door, past the closed guest-room door, and descend the stairs. More quiet. Benjamin had likely just gone down for his morning nap, and my husband and our dog likely did the same in the guest bedroom, so as not to wake me.

In the kitchen, I piece together the clues of the morning I have missed: A container of cinnamon on the counter and an orange bowl on the kitchen table, empty except for the edges, rimed with sticky flecks of oatmeal. A discarded spoon next to it. A sippy cup with a splash of milk still in the bottom. I glance into the living room and see books and trucks strewn across the floor and couch. More toys lined up on the TV stand like a motley train.

There are things I know I should do while I have the chance during Benjamin’s morning nap, like wash the breakfast dishes so that the oatmeal doesn’t form a permanent crust in the bowl or vacuum the rug or put away more of the Christmas gifts. On many days, I would do those things, or I’d decide to grade some papers instead.

But I don’t do any of those things today. Today I pour myself a cup of coffee in the biggest mug I can find, I make myself a bowl of oatmeal with vanilla, maple syrup, raisins and a liberal sprinkling of the cinnamon left on the counter. Mug in one hand and bowl in the other, I make a beeline to my office, and I write.

Sure, today is an example of a day in which I have absolutely nothing planned and can just sort of trot through it without a care. Lunch at our favorite little neighborhood cafe sounds nice … Perhaps I’ll make a cake later … Or soup … I should go for a walk and shoot some photographs with my new camera … Or to the library …

Thoughts like these on days like these warrant the use of the ellipses. But most days aren’t like today, and are punctuated far differently. They are crazy, harried, ultra-planned sorts of days. They are exclamation-point days, and not the good, surprise-party or you’ve-won-the-lottery kind of exclamation points. They are days that are often terse and demanding, like a drill sergeant.

When you’re pregnant and then have a newborn, everyone always talks about sleep: How much sleep are you getting? How is the little one sleeping? Are you sleeping when the baby sleeps? Don’t you miss sleep? Isn’t sleep great? Most definitely, the lack of sleep was a rude awakening for both my husband and me, but it wasn’t that we never slept again—we just didn’t sleep all at one time as long as we wanted to.

But all that talk about sleep somewhat prepared me for the eventual time when I stopped getting it. It was the lack of time that really threw me. I’ve always been one to have lots of projects and ideas living in my head, and some of them would even make their way out of there into actual, physical incarnations of themselves. Now most don’t, and probably won’t.

I have found that after I had a child, I have become much more selfish with my time. First, because I teach three days a week, on the days when I am home with my son, I want to fill every moment with books and walks and adventures and the potential for memory-making, which is my own way of overcompensating for the days he spends with his grandparents or in daycare.  

During the times I have to myself, like right now, I want to fill that space by doing what I want to do. I feared when I first had Benjamin that I’d never read a book or write a sentence for pleasure ever again, but I’ve actually written more regularly since he’s been born than I have since graduate school. I began taking photographs. I started a blog. I don’t cook as much as I’d like, but it’s not uncommon for me to bake muffins or bread on a random Tuesday morning just because I feel like baking. Time has become the most valuable currency in my life.

Part of this is time, but part of it is my fear of losing myself entirely to motherhood and my job. I love both, but they are not the only parts of me. I find myself staying up later than is smart or healthy at night to write, simply because I’d rather forego a bit more sleep than a bit more of myself and my own creative needs. Both of my primary jobs—being a parent and being a professor—require a lot of my time and energy, and both require me to fulfill the needs of others. My son needs me (and his dad) to feed him, dress him, give him a bath, put him to bed, to love him and keep him safe. My students need me to teach them how to write and report accurately and ethically, to grade their work, to give them feedback, and prepare them for the great beyond that is their post-college working life.

Most importantly, both my son and my students need me to show up and be present. So does my husband. So does the rest of my family. So do my friends. And so do I need that of myself. 

Stephanie Anderson Witmer is a freelance writer and an assistant professor in the Communication/Journalism Department at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Her work has been published in national and regional magazines, including Better Homes & Gardens and Susquehanna Style. She has an M.F.A. in creative-nonfiction writing from Penn State University and blogs about parenting and cooking at She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, with her husband, son and their dog.


Jen Erickson said...

There is abundant wisdom in this post. The two wonderful details I loved best were the description of your oatmeal and the exclamation point example. My crossroads are a bit different than yours as my Benjamin, my oldest, will soon be entering his last year of high school and next fall I will be entering (I hope) my first full-time job as a teacher. The adjustments over the past two years as I obtained my graduate degree have allowed me to explore a creativity I had tucked away. Keep making time for yours and thank you for giving me a much needed encouragement. :)

Sheila said...

Gorgeous and thoughtful, Steph. Just like you. :) I always love to read your writing and I'm so glad you are making time for that crucial part of you. Happy New Year to you and your lovely family! (<--the good kind of exclamation point!)xox

Doreen McGettigan said...

What a wonderful post. It really took me back to my Mommy days when I never thought I would ever sleep or shower alone again. I really miss those days now but honestly I never take sleeping late for granted.
Happy New Year!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you all for leaving comments for Stephanie. She is an old friend of mine and such a talented woman. She has books, a baby, articles, you name it! I just adore this woman, this girl. xoox

Anonymous said...

I adore this post, Stephanie! Thank you for sharing such a lovely description of your morning. My husband (professor) and son (college student) also are on four-week breaks, but my college is on a quarter system so I go back to teaching and exclamation-point days on Monday. May the coming year bring you self-presence and ellipses whenever you need them and at surprising moments.

Beth said...

Lovely. So many touchstones for the "everywoman" writer here. I am nearly 60, came to writing late, no kids, step-grandmother to 7 -- a totally different profile from that of Stephanie, and yet, I completely relate to this reflective commentary on the challenge (and sweetness) of being present not only for our family and friends, but ourselves.

Thanks for these guest columns, Rebecca.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

What a lovely comment, Elizabeth :)

Stephanie said...

Thank you all for the kind comments -- and thanks to Rebecca for creating this space for all of us. It's always so nice to hear from other mothers and writers. Wishing you all a happy and peaceful 2011! --SAW

Darlene said...

I just wanted to pop in and wish you a Happy New Year Rebecca but then I got caught up in reading this beautiful piece from Stephanie. What a lovely post - it is important to make time for ourselves and yet be there for those who need us. If we try hard enough, it all fits in.

Wishing you both a Happy New Year!

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Thank you for stopping by Darlene. Happy New year! Much love to you in 2011 :)

Unknown said...

A well-considered timely post to which all women can relate. A lovely way to end one year and begin another. Thank you.


Wonderful write and so that kind of oatmeal treat just like that! So honest of the responsibilities and, yet, that need to be in quietude and allowed free reign to write! Enjoyed this so much!

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."