I’m sitting on my horse at 8:55 on the first really cool morning of fall in northern New Mexico, getting ready to cast out with the hounds. Horses are milling. Hounds are sending up their joyful, anticipatory howls. And I’m on my cell phone, calling home to check on my 11-year-old son. He’s fine, I tell myself, even though he’s not answering. Even though he’s home alone—my husband is out of the country, my daughter is at a sleepover. Even though I left the house before he was awake and a fire could’ve started or he could’ve slipped in the shower or he could’ve choked on his cereal. He’s fine, I tell myself again as I hang up, mute my phone, put it in my pocket, and set out at a brisk trot behind the field master.
He’s fine has become a sort of self-soothing mental tic I’ve developed over the last decade-plus of motherhood as I’ve worked furiously to carve a life for myself outside of my children. As anyone who has kids knows, this is harder than it sounds. Yes, being a parent is an amazing gift that teaches us about the wonders of childhood and how to be fully present as we watch these small creatures transform from drooling, wailing infants into soccer-playing, science fair project-doing, poetry-writing human beings. But what the Hallmark card doesn’t tell us is that being a parent is also an all-consuming, often draining, often soul-crushing gig that can leave you feeling defeated and deflated, staring in the mirror at the end of the day, wondering when you started getting wrinkles on your neck.
This is especially true for me, who was never really sure I actually wanted to be a mom. It was never my life’s calling. I’d see other women get pregnant the second they got married—anxious to start their life as “mom,” because that’s what they had always, always wanted. And then there was me: uncertain on the best of days. Part of my ambivalence was due to the fact that I worried having kids would mean giving up horses. This is a scary prospect for any die-hard equestrian, but for those of us who came to the sport later in life (I didn’t start riding until I was 26), it’s even scarier. How could I give up this thing that I had only just discovered and that made me happier than anything else I’d done in my life? That was the first thing to get me truly excited to get up in the morning in, well, forever?
While I knew women with young children who rode, they were few and far between—and they would be the first to tell me that horses take a back seat the second children come along. Add to this a career, and you’ll be lucky if horses have a seat at all.
But I had a great husband who really wanted children—and I knew would be an amazing father—so, despite my misgivings, I pushed my ambivalence aside and jumped off the cliff, becoming, at the age of 32, mother to a son and, 16 months later, a daughter. As I jumped, I promised myself that it would be different for me. I would not be like those other women. Horses would still be part of my life.
Imagine my surprise when these children appeared and sucked every single second out of my day? I still managed to ride, but it was infrequent, and competing in eventing ceased to exist entirely.
Still, I was nothing if not determined and managed, by the time my youngest was 18 months old, to start riding regularly again. I even became a working student at an eventing barn in Maryland for a while (made easier by the fact that I had hired help and, as a writer, my schedule was my mostly my own).
Every year, the kids got older and more independent, and I got to spend more time with my horses. Then, we moved from the Washington, D.C. suburbs to a small mountain town in northern New Mexico, where people let their kids (gasp!) walk themselves to school and go to the movies by themselves and stay home alone—all of which meant the small piece of time I was able to eek out for horses kept getting bigger and bigger…until, here I am, at a hunt, with my son by himself at home, while I set out to run around the high desert foothills like a crazy person for the next three hours.
But with more time for myself comes more anxiety. Should I really be leaving my not-yet-teenage son home alone for the better part of the day? How many hours of video games will he play? What will he find on the Internet while I’m not there? What junk food will he eat? When he’s an adult will he be sitting in a therapist’s office, recounting how abandoned he felt by his mother when she would go foxhunting?
In truth, I don’t know any mother who doesn’t have these worries when she’s away from her children for any length of time. (I want to be egalitarian here and say that fathers have them, too, but, honestly, I’ve never heard a father express them if they do.) It comes with the territory. As much as we want to be able to have a life outside of our children, the reality is, they’re always with us, in the backs of our minds, both our greatest source of joy and our greatest source of anxiety standing side by side, holding hands. When you’re a parent, there’s no moment when you stop thinking about your kids—even as you gallop after a pack of hounds with the cool fall wind whipping across your face, causing your eyes to tear and your nose to run.
At the tack check, I pull out my phone and see that I have a missed call and voice mail from home. I listen to it and hear the still-small voice of my son, “Hi Mom. I saw that you called, but I missed you. Okay, bye.”
I call him back. “Hi, sweetie. I just was checking in on you. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he tells me. There. He’s fine. I gather up the reins, squeeze my legs against my horse’s side, and gallop on.