No matter how much you enjoy having children, it’s inevitable that you’ll look back enviously at your pre-parenthood life. Maybe not all the time, but there are moments.
It’s okay, you can admit it. We all do it. Being prodded by a toddler at 6 a.m. will make you long for the lazy Saturday lie-ins of old. And while changing diapers is hardly a big deal, I doubt anyone would really say the experience is enriching.
By the time my daughter was well into her second year, I was becoming more acutely aware of what I missed from the old life. I was reading fewer books (fewer books without pictures and talking animals, that is) and watching fewer movies — things from which I derived great pleasure and satisfaction way back when. I’d begun work on a novel in the months before my daughter was born, and while I am to this day making gradual progress on that book, I’ve blown several self-imposed deadlines following her birth.
But my problem wasn’t so much that I had less time and energy for these activities — I didn’t exactly miss them; it was that they were always part of how I defined myself: I was a guy with these interests and these ambitions. Despite the new joys and satisfactions of fatherhood, I now felt like part of my identity had diminished.
Two unrelated events last year nudged me toward a solution. My sister, after months of training, completed a full IRONMAN triathlon, in which 2.4 miles of swimming and over 100 miles of cycling are capped off by running a full marathon.
Around this time, a small fitness center opened in the building where I work. It’s not much — few machines and some weights — but it’s convenient and the price (free, to tenants) is right. So, with my 35th birthday approaching, an accomplished sibling to inspire me, and no viable excuse to avoid the effort, I started jogging every day. It was the first regular exercise I’ve gotten since high school.
It was slow-going at first; I would jog half a mile and walk another mile. Soon I was jogging a full mile, then two. Laziness and inertia still beckoned, so I signed up for a 5K race so I had a goal to motivate me. I didn’t have a particular time goal, I just wanted to jog the whole distance without walking.
And so, early one brisk October morning, I drove downtown, watched the sunrise over the harbor, and ran my 3.1 miles in just over 40 minutes. My wife and daughter came down to watch, and I spotted them right as I was crossing the finish line and the fabled “runner’s high” was kicking into high gear.
It was a modest achievement, as running goes. But, for a few minutes, the swirling cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins and free granola bars made me feel like the baddest motherf***** in town — and I live in Baltimore, so that’s a pretty high bar.
I ran my second 5K in December, knocking seven minutes off of my previous time, and I’m training for a 10-mile run in June. I spend time on the treadmill almost every weekday, then do a longer run every weekend. So far, so good.
All this has produced a lasting, restorative effect on my faded sense of self. Running is something that I can do just for me; I enjoy the time by myself, either with my own thoughts or listening to my podcasts or (when I’m on the treadmill) watching my TV shows on a tablet. It’s mine.
Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t thrilled to share that first moment at the finish line with my wife and daughter, or that I wasn’t delighted to see my daughter wear my crab-shaped finisher’s medal around the house for the rest of the day. And I’m delighted that when the child sees me stretching before and after a weekend run she joins in, trying to balance on one foot and bend her other leg behind her. I saw many parents jogging with their young children at my first race, and I hope she’ll want to join me for a 5K in a couple of years.
So much of the time I spend with my daughter involves me coming into her little world: reading books meant for children; playing with her toys; assuming a role in her imaginary world (these days, for example, she likes pretending to be everyone’s mommy).
With running, I feel like I’ve created my little world. My daughter is welcome to come in when she’s ready, but for now…it’s mine.