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Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh Headshot

Before the Children

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We should have eaten out. At fancy restaurants. With waiters. And candles. And silverware. We should have realized Panera and the drive-thru Subway would be our only out-of-home dining options for the next five years, and we should have gone hog wild with the Zagat rating book, hitting every classy joint in town, downing appetizers and adult beverages galore. We should have ordered crab claws, and blue cheese, and Brussels sprouts, and all the other foods our children flatly reject.

But we shouldn't have stopped at chow. We should have gone ballooning, gotten ourselves on sailboats, speedboats, and maybe a helicopter or two. Parachuting. We should have jumped out of an airplane while the baggage we carried could still fit on our backs. We should have driven to the mountains more, to hike or ski, or just to stand dangerously close to rocky crags and precipices, worried only about ourselves.

We should have traveled. To Spain. And Costa Rica. And Australia. And Egypt. And China. And the half dozen other places we said we wanted to go. Of course, we couldn't afford it back then. Not on starter salaries, with our one-bedroom apartment, its futon, and plastic trashcan. But we should have charged it and boarded those flights anyway, realizing it would be many, many years before we'd have that energy and freedom again.

We should have hit museums and opera houses, pondered more paintings and endured Wagner. We should have seen every movie that opened, no matter how smutty, and every play that came through, no matter how long. We should have gone salsa dancing. On Tuesdays. Because we could. We should have attended authors' readings, political rallies, and panel discussions with Nobel Laureates.

We should have leased a convertible, a zippy and impractical two-seater, with no trunk room for a stroller, and no child-friendly back seat. We should have bought white furniture and a carpet to match. And displayed crystal knick-knacks on a shelf two feet off the floor.

Because we should have known that they would put the kibosh on everything.

When I list the things we should have done before we had children, I sound like someone who's dying. I remember reading such a list written by Erma Bombeck. "If I had my life to live over, I would have talked less and listened more...." It was all regret and popcorn. Indulgences she denied herself. Opportunities she let pass. The thing about her list was that she actually was dying. I'm not dying; I'm just a parent.

I know children are a blessing. We are so lucky to have them. And lots of the time, I feel blessed and lucky. But sometimes I miss myself. And my spouse. And the people we used to be before the kids. I have lost control of a life that once was mine. Even my body has rented out space to the children. My hips, my boobs, my bum... these have become almost unrecognizable to me.

I calculated recently that if we wait until our youngest enters college to pick up and start living again, I will be fifty-six years old. Certainly young enough to travel, to dance, to attend the opera. But do I really want to wait that long?

So I have a solution: I'm starting now. So what if I'm tired? And cranky. And in debt. And have kids. All that is stopping me is me.

I recently took my daughters, ages two and six, to the ballet. The curtain rose at 7:39 PM, moments before their accustomed bedtime. The six-year-old grew sleepy. The two-year-old nearly got us ushered out. Her candy wrappers were noisy and her chatter irksome. But eventually, they both rose to the occasion. They sat still because everyone else was. They shut up (sort of) because everyone else did. We made it through, and successfully moved an activity from the "Can't Do It" to the "Yes We Can" List.

Last week, I banned children's music in my minivan. If I had to listen to "Chicka, Chicka Boom Boom" or "Banana Phone" one more time, I was going to throw someone out the window. No more Radio Disney. We are listening to grown-up music these days. And you know what? After the initial bellyaching, they even like it. My two-year-old serenaded Walmart with a Lady Gaga tune today. I heard my six-year-old singing Katy Perry's "Firework" in the treehouse. Sure, two little girls shrieking "Pour Some Sugar on Me" in the produce aisle will get you some wacky looks. Let 'em look. I've ceased to be a prisoner of my car. Getting back a little control has me, both literally and figuratively, back in the driver's seat.

Take your three-year-old skiing. Take your infant to the movies. Risk the public stare downs that accompany the presence of children in cultured places where kids don't usually go. And go anyway. Children are only our jailers if we hand them the keys.

I want my next list to read something like this: I took my daughter sailing yesterday. For lunch, we shared the salmon. We met some friends at the art museum, and finished the day planning our upcoming white water rafting trip in Canada....

Here's hoping.