That’s me at 5:30 last Friday morning. It’s a testament to how much I like writing for SpitfireMom that I agreed to post a make-up-free 5:30am gym selfie. Fortunately – because I find selfie-taking to be a little bit awkward – no one was in there while I was taking it; there aren’t a lot of people at the gym at 5:30 in the morning. Those of us who do show up are generally a quiet, keep-to-ourselves, all-business bunch, even though it’s always the same crew, every single time.
I’ve been a pretty devoted gym-goer since high school. I have to be: I know myself. I know that exercise is central to my sanity, that for a mind prone to obsessing and stressing, an hour spent thinking about nothing but The Burn is as good as therapy. (And when it comes to my kids, obsessing and stressing is definitely a source of concern.) If I’m being honest, one of my biggest What Will Happen Next questions during my first pregnancy – aside from how will I manage work and what is the best childcare and all that other pressing stuff – was how I would continue to maintain a workout routine.
My first baby was four or five months old when he began to sleep (mostly) through the night. He would wake up around 4 or 4:30 in the morning, and after a lazy feeding would drift back off until 6:30 or 7. At that time I was back at work, juggling the new daycare schedule, weeping on my way to the train after kissing his little face goodbye. I was a new at this Working-Mom thing, pummeled by competing priorities. But sitting up in my boy’s room in the pre-dawn darkness as he drifted off for his final snooze, I discovered a funny little window of time when I was (for the most part) awake…and alone. Everyone I loved was safe and asleep, with full bellies and a couple of hours to go. Everyone I worked with was offline. There was nothing interesting on TV, no pressing meals to prepare, no urgent milk coming in: just me, and silence, and night.
Chalk it up to exhaustion-induced, new-mom insanity, but I put on my New Balances and a sweatshirt, grabbed my phone, and ran out into it.
In retrospect, this was not the safest of activities by any standard. Even my gym back then – a 24-Hour Fitness a few blocks away – was “open” only in the loosest sense, unattended save for an occasional security guard and some cameras, and one or two homeless regulars who quietly snuck in to use the showers (which I, in turn, avoided like the plague). Walking to and from, I often had the out-of-body thought that a 30-year-old woman alone on the streets – or alone in a big-box gym – in a major city at 4:30 in the morning could be considered something of an easy target. Fortunately, in only a matter of months, that pre-dawn feeding moved from 4:00 to 5:00 and eventually disappeared altogether, meaning I could rise at the far more civilized hour of 5:15.
Which I did. In fact, for the past seven years, I have opened the gym (new gym, nicer gym, with my buddy Ron at the helm and no homeless people) at 5:30 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday save holidays. When people ask how I can stay so disciplined I usually answer with the truth. “It’s the only hour of the day when no one needs me.”
It isn’t discipline at all, anyway: it’s how I choose to spend my Alone Hour.
I don’t always work out during my Alone Hour. When my daughter was an infant and I was on maternity leave and could jog with her during the day, I rose at the Alone Hour and nursed a rich cup of coffee in the dim light of a lamp in the kitchen while she slept next to me, bundled in her bouncy chair. I baked. I turned on the local news. I flipped through a magazine, or stared out the window at the boats and the buses queuing up for the morning commute.
The point isn’t what I do with this time. The point is that it’s mine.
I think as moms we cede our time all too often. Time belongs to our children: to their nap schedules, their feeding schedules, their school drop-off and pick-up deadlines, their late-for-soccer-practice dashes, their homework, their bedtime rituals. Time belongs to our bosses, or to the schools where we volunteer, to the envelopes that need stuffing and the proposals that need writing and the email flag that bings bings bings. Time belongs – toxically – to our iPhones and our tablets, to Facebook and Instagram and the Amazon Daily Deal. We become victims of time rather than owners of it. It eludes us, and we covet it. No, we are starved for it. There is never, ever enough time.
So we owe it to ourselves to take one, teeny-tiny step to take a little of it back. To carve out an Alone Hour.
Here’s the thing I have learned over the past seven years, the realization that so many early morning walks and gym sprints have pounded into my brain: taking this time to myself makes me better.
Not better because I’ve worked out or better because I’m virtuous or anything like that. Better because I am taking some ownership. I can live my days mourning time and resenting the tasks (and even the people) that occupy so much of it, or I can start my days empowered. When the radio comes quietly alive at 5:15, I get to start on my own terms. Tying my shoes in the darkness, I get to choose, to head out into the world with intention. To run my fastest mile. To finally catch up on back issues of Time or listen to Serial on the iPhone. To drown myself in the soundtrack at Soul Cycle. To simply walk outside, following my thoughts and the sun as it rises.
This ritual makes me a better mother. It makes me a better wife. It honors that part of me that needs an hour a day in solitude.
That part of me doesn’t fit very well into a life rich with family and friends and work, but it is nonetheless valid – and in fact, it’s in the alone moments that I most appreciate the close, engaging village I inhabit.
Will I do this forever? I don’t know. Will my days always be so consumed? Will I always feel so busy? Like all of us, I am on this road without a map. But I know that every day has an Alone Hour buried in it somewhere, and we owe it to ourselves to find it.
And who knows: someday, 50 years from now, you may find yourself walking along San Francisco Bay at dawn, and you will see me shuffling past, carrying the memories of a rich life, the rising sun at my back.
Treadmill photo found here