parent opinion

HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: "We need to talk about the 'lost years' that come with parenting."

"What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted?" 

No contest. It's 2021. 

I would get on a plane, I would fly to the other side of the world, I would have a cup of tea at my mum's kitchen table, and a glass of wine with my oldest friend. I'd watch my daughter play with my brother's daughter - although, since they've seen each other last, my niece has become too old for playing. Still, I would watch my girl watching his, her eyes full of greedy possibility. 

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I was asked this by a woman I'd just met. She thinks it's a great question to ask someone new, and she's right. If you had time, and freedom and yes, funds, what would you do? 

If it wasn't a pandemic, and we weren't living a locked-in life, and the world wasn't in a state of constant, rolling uncertainty (hello, Victorians), my answer would be very different. 

I would be alone.  

Not all the time. I am a parent, and a partner, and a friend, and I love people and their energy and their stories and their strangeness. 

But, a decade into being a parent, I have long since let go of something I used to adore, something that used to fuel me, and bolster me, and arm me for dramas of varying sizes... alone time. 

What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted? 

I'd spend several days alone, with a choice of brilliant books and nowhere to be. I'd go to the movies, and sit in the dark, by myself, and get lost. The thought of it makes me salivate, just a little bit. 

And I know I am not the only parent who mourns solitude. 

A friend of mine, who would not want me to tell you her name, puts it like this, "I have never loved anyone or anything like I love my son, but he's always, always there. And being alone was my recharge, my happy place - and it's gone, it's lost. I wouldn't change it, it's such a selfish thing to say, but also, I worry about my head, and about resentment."


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It's lost. 

Those words echo the ones a celebrity wrote on social media this week. Jemima Kirke is an actress you might best know as Jessa on Girls, but she's also an artist and a director and a parent. And on Instagram this week she posted a stylish but simple image of her infant daughter and herself, in matching monochrome stripes. 

The picture was taken a few years ago, and Jemima was writing with the wisdom of hindsight in her caption:

"2012-2013. The lost years. If I could pass on any knowledge to new parents it’s that parenting is a perpetual battle with loss. 

"Loss of spontaneity, autonomy, your body, your mind, your ideals, your plans, order, the safety of your baby in your womb, memory, control, the other sock, friends, your newborn, your toddler, your preteen, etc. take lots of pictures. 

"Write some memories down. Stop rushing, clean less and apologise to your kids when you f*ck up. Also don’t read parenting books."


I would say that it's not only new parents who feel that loss. I would say that if parents are prepared to be completely honest, they might share that the relentless nature of parental self-sacrifice compounds the loss over time. 

Every tiny choice that you make that you would not have made before piles up. What you wear. What time you wake up. Where you live. What you cook. What you eat. What you do on a Saturday morning. The TV shows you watch. Where you go on holidays. What kind of furniture you have. What kind of car you drive. What time you go to bed. 

Before parenthood, these very choices are who you are. A night owl. A TV junkie. A traveller. A foodie. 

After parenthood, they're little losses, compromised to the service of another. 

I need to be comfortable. The baby wakes up early. We need a backyard. I have to make something, anything for the family to eat every night. My child hates vegetables. Sport starts at 7.30am. Bluey. Somewhere with things for the kids to do. Nothing sticky fingers can ruin. Something with a lot of boot space. I have to be up at 5.30, nine is as late as I can manage tonight. 

Of course, we have not lost anything we haven't gained in spades elsewhere. 

I've written before about how it's difficult to talk about what having children brings to your life to those who haven't done it, because no-one likes a smug bastard. 

I am not suggesting for a second that I would like to swap my messy, chaotic, love-filled life for a quiet weekend away with a paperback and a pinot. 

And of course, the loss felt by those who crave the chaos but can't hold it, for whatever reason, is more acute than any identity shift. 

But loss is worth discussing. Worth recognising, and mourning. And sometimes, worth fighting for. 

What would you do if you could do anything you wanted? 

Reclaim some pieces of yourself that you've lost in the fog of motherhood. 

Remember what used to light you up, or fill you up. 

Hold on to some "lost years".

Feature Image: Instagram / @wainwrightholly