Before the first day of the rest of my life, my youngest daughter started preschool. She and I barreled through the side door entry of a suburban church that day, swinging our hands up in triumph like Mary Tyler Moore without hats, eager for what lay on the other side: for her, a world in which she was more than a stage prop in her two older sisters’ lives and for me, a childless existence for the first time in a decade, if only for two hours and fifty minutes twice a week.
Later that morning, I logged onto my computer to find that my husband had already updated the countdown widget on our iMac, the one we had programmed earlier in the summer to help our daughter mark time to the start of school. It now read:
Days until Ally starts Kindergarten!: 1,008 days
My stomach lurched. 1,008 days? The number seemed both too large and too abstract to process. Besides which, days were my least favorite unit of measurement, apropos of ‘the days are long, the years short.’ Yet there it was, the sum total of Ally’s preschool existence, the equivalent of three calendar years give or take, staring back at me in backlit bold, san-serif type.
Eventually, I saw the countdown for what it was: a gesture of hope from my husband. After a restless ten year nap, he knew how viscerally I craved the idea of long, uninterrupted days to myself while the kids were in school. A relic of the opt-out generation, I yearned for my big comeback, pinning my hopes on using the hours between 9am-4pm to become a bona fide writer.
That’s all the countdown was meant to be: a reminder that someday, 1,008 days from then, nothing would prevent me from opting back in.
One morning, weeks later, I stood chatting with a mom at the elementary school bus stop, watching Ally out of the corner of my eye—she had a reputation for traipsing uninvited into other peoples’ homes. She busied herself instead that morning by fashioning our jogging stroller’s canopy into a catapult. It was cute, brilliant even, until she switched from launching acorns and pine cones to house keys and iPhones.
“How long until she starts Kindergarten again?” my fellow mom asked wryly. And though I knew she asked it rhetorically, I happened to know the answer.
“936 days.” I replied.
We both laughed at the absurdity of my knowing, much less counting that number of days, then sighed and shoved our hands in our jacket pockets as we waited for the big yellow bus to take our other children away.
It didn’t end there. Before long, I fielded that same question—how many days until Ally starts Kindergarten—from people I both knew and didn’t know. They had all heard about the countdown from someone or another and wanted to hear me answer as if I were an idiot savant counting toothpicks in a box.
Usually I played along, happy to be of entertainment value. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the notoriety. No longer was I just another complacent stay-at-home mom; I was the quirky mom bold enough to count down the days to her liberation out loud. It wasn’t until the end, during the final year, that the joke began to wear on me. I still answered with the requisite guffaw, but would sometimes lie to see if anyone noticed. Most couldn’t care less. The difference between 183 days and 138 days was beside the point. The point was hearing me deliver the punchline to the joke that had become my life-in-waiting.
1,008 days later, it was over. My youngest daughter started Kindergarten and I braced for the obvious follow-up question. The words ‘what’ and ‘now’ came to mind.
“Today,” I preemptively told the group of parents assembled at the bus stop that sunny September morning, “is the first day of the rest of my life!” Then I bid them adieu and took my car in for a long-overdue oil change across town. While waiting, I jaywalked across a divided highway to buy bedding for our guinea pig, Elvis Parsley, and picked up the last of the school supplies. I arrived home to an eerily quiet house feeling less liberated, more aimless.
I remember thinking, What if this really is the first day of the rest of my life?
A pattern emerged as the days wore on: I’d enjoy an adrenaline spike in the morning hours, followed by a sense of despair in the afternoon. Simple things, like selecting what to eat for lunch became stressful. I wasn’t used to having so many choices, and yet so few.
I felt underwhelmed and overwhelmed in equal measure. And misled too, because full-day Kindergarten is a misnomer. It’s six hours, give or take depending upon volunteer commitments, school calendar and sick days. And though I no longer had a child in tow, banal responsibilities persisted, like laundry and grocery shopping. The biggest difference was that I could tune to NPR whenever I wanted, except before long listening to stories about war in Iraq, cancer, and our losing battle with climate control seemed less prize, more punishment.
Worse, after dedicating thirteen full years of my life to raising human beings, sitting down at a computer to string words together for the sheer hell of it felt silly. Was being identified as a writer, or any professional moniker for that matter, as important as I thought it had been all those years? Or did I just not have as much ambition as I thought? Maybe I simply was not as destined for greatness as my convenient excuse of not having time had led me to believe.
Most of all, I missed my countdown. Those 1,008 days had provided me with a sense of purpose: a beginning, middle and end. I wanted to return to that hopeful time, to that certain identity, when I didn’t know that it would only lead to more waiting, like nightfall on a cold winter’s night.
Now, when I think back to that morning all those years ago when I saw the countdown for the very first time, I think maybe it was less the absurdity of it that struck me, but it’s futility. Freedom isn’t in the before or after but in the right here, right now. So guess what? Today isn’t the first day of the rest of my life. Today is my life.