The new year is the perfect time to finally take up ceramics, learn Mandarin, start a book club, try rock climbing, or plant a garden. In 2018, the Cut has practical advice on trying something new. Make bowls, not just resolutions.
A few weeks back, I was staring at a fork with a bit of vegetable lasagna caught between the tines. My toddler’s hand held the utensil, and he was cruising it past his face and back again. If he eats this, I thought with ferocious sincerity, it will be the best Christmas ever. My son smiled right at me, as though he’d read my mind. The bite glistened, poised before his open mouth. He brought the fork closer in, then closer still. Then he swung it away.
The defeat was tiny, just like the victory would have been — a mini-exhilaration from someone with a private score to keep. Still, when I mentioned the lasagna moment to my son’s father a few hours later, he knew exactly what I was talking about. The word “crushing” was used by both of us, to describe how engaged we were, in that moment, by caring for our son. We sounded like people with a very intense interest in a very specific activity, one that’s conducted as a distraction and a distinction from the rest of life. In other words, we sounded like parents — or people deeply committed to a hobby.
With a toddler, we are fairly consumed with parenthood, in a way we once perhaps fashionably denied would happen or was happening to us, but have come to embrace. These days, what delights me the most is not how I’ve maintained the same person I was before, or transformed into some benevolent and graceful mother-being, but how I’ve become more like the person I was long ago, as a child.
A few months back, I was sitting with a group of friends at a bar when the topic turned to hobbies. Is reading a hobby? Is exercise a hobby? No, one friend insisted — exercise is like hygiene. People should do it but never feel the need to speak of it. We went around the table, trying to arrive at a definition. Well, I said when the conversation turned to me, I have a kid. The child-free adults around me nodded, vigorously accepting parenthood as an excuse.
But I’ve come to believe — or want to believe — that’s not quite what I meant. It’s true that the word “hobby” has no place in the life of someone caring for a newborn. Measuring formula is not a hobby, nor is breastfeeding, nor tallying wet diapers. Googling “SIDS” is not a hobby. Weeping while holding an inconsolable baby is not a hobby.
The secret of parenting a toddler, I’ve decided recently, is that their burgeoning personhood opens you up to a world of hobbies. Take, for example, adult coloring books: At the risk of sounding mean, can we just agree these are a bit depressing? The opposite is true of sitting down with a toddler and a box of crayons. Can you draw an oink-oink? How about a choo-choo? When was the last time the outcome of anything you did mattered both zero and so totally?
Consider a trip to the museum. Personally, I don’t love crowded, stuffy places where you can’t really stride free but can’t really sit down either. Going to a museum with a young child, however, is a completely different experience — unless you live inside an early-aughts indie film, you’re not going to find an adult who can turn a museum trip into such bald delight. WOW, a toddler says, jabbing his finger in the direction of a dinosaur skeleton. And you know what? Wow. Those are some old-ass bones that were once inside a dinosaur that lived and breathed and roared.
Other items I’d add to this list: building with blocks, memorizing song lyrics, removing all the couch cushions, hunting for dinosaurs in a half-dark room, walking three blocks to the coffee shop, convincing a toddler to eat whatever’s on the fork.
The secret to a fruitful hobby, I think, is the intensely private joy. The world doesn’t give a shit when an amateur tennis player masters a backhanded serve. No one at a dinner party cares that you finally got good enough at Scrabble to beat your girlfriend. But the tennis player cares, the Scrabble victor cares, and that caring is enough. When my son finally eats gooey, nutrient-rich vegetarian lasagna, my husband and I will be over the moon.
Before I had a kid, I worried about how motherhood would affect things like hobbies. Would I have time for them? Would I become one of those women so into her kid that she was nothing else? It seemed like a legitimate worry: Of course a child could be consuming enough to make you boring. What seems funny to me now is I don’t know what I then considered my hobbies. Drinking at bars? Worrying what other people thought?
It’s true that motherhood means I have limited time to do activities that are just for me. But what’s also true is that it turns out so much of the world is a hobby, if you’re forced to experience the world alongside a very young person.
I don’t think having a child means you can’t have hobbies. I think having a child opens the door for a thousand tiny little ones, a thousand ways to push yourself toward being crushed and being ecstatic in ways mostly visible only to you. This is the way a child thinks about what matters, and this is what my child has granted me. A train is stuck inside a wooden tunnel; its plight, suddenly, matters a great deal. With a crayon and on the back of an envelope, a few circles, two triangles, and a squiggle make an oink-oink. Do you feel that tiny rush of satisfaction? On the ordinary walk home, we pass a string of lights making a tree glow blue. Why not stop and admire it, even just for a bit?