I recently met up with a former classmate whom I hadn’t seen in five years. We chatted, taking turns talking about what we’d been up to since grad school. She’d lived in various places, completed a masters and was about to begin a Ph.D. program at Berkeley. She'd also published a children’s book, danced and modeled. She lit up when she talked about her thesis and some of the works she’d studied. I told her how much I admired all she had accomplished in such a short amount of time, and how I envied her drive. Then it was my turn to tell her about my life over the past five years.
“I had kids,” I said.
I didn’t realize how entirely I’d thrown myself into motherhood until someone from my past reminded me of who I once was. It often takes someone from the outside the realm of daily existence to help us see where we are in our lives. As I listened to her talk about all of the places she’d been, and her devotion to her studies, it made me realize just how much my role as a mom had become the core of my existence.
Most of my close friends are moms. We talk about mom stuff, like what to do when you kindly ask your three-year-old to pick up the carrot she threw and she retorts, “No! No way!”
When people ask me what I do, I say, “A few things. But I mostly stay home with my kids.”
Everyone warns you that your life as you know it will end once you start a family. But for a while, losing myself in my kids was OK. When my first daughter was born, I took her for long walks in the carrier. When she got older, we went to story time at the library, music class, apple picking and the zoo. I didn’t mind that she became the core of my existence because I was eating up every second that we spent together. For me, a new life began.
While I was losing myself in her, though, I didn’t realize how I’d become disconnected from my other self, the one who, like my friend, craves answers to questions that are unanswerable and devours books; the one who loves to study, to learn, to travel.
Since high school, I have imagined a life as an academic, a writer, a teacher. I love the way writing and thinking about writing sometimes feels like solving a puzzle, the way you have to fit the pieces together that seem at first separate from one another and disconnected, to make something coherent and whole. I want to wear a tweed jacket and a scarf, drink coffee and walk through the quad on a cool fall afternoon with my bag of books slung over my shoulder, a student chasing after me after class to discuss Thoreau. Before having kids, I started to go down that path.
I have also always pictured myself as a mom. I imagined two girls who looked like little mini me’s. I knew I wanted to do crafty projects with them, take walks with them and hold their hands, hear their little voices playing in the yard, go trick-or-treating with them and stand on the sidelines at sports games cheering them on.
But it was just beyond my grasp to imagine both of these parts of my identity coexisting at the same time. And now I see how difficult it truly is to have both in my life — because I feel like I need to lose myself completely in either endeavor in order to feel as though I’m doing it justice. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes mourn the loss of my other self, however.
Yesterday, we took a thirty minute drive to an outlet mall to buy fall clothes for the girls, and it was a journey. It was pretty— there were mountains, and the air felt sort of fall-ish. I was itching to talk to my husband about life, because it is hard to find time to check in with each other since we’re dividing and conquering right now—I nurse the baby, he gives our three-year-old a bath. He takes the girls to the grocery store, I teach yoga. I watch the girls, he goes to work.
On the drive to the outlet mall, we had a small opportunity to connect. I tried to tell him everything that I am now saying to you, but I could not get in a word, because our three-year-old wanted him to talk to her in his Southern turtle voice (she was pretending to be a mouse). Every time I opened my mouth to speak she yelled, “Moooommy! Daddy! I want you to talk like this! (Low voice) Hellooo.”
She is hilarious and so creative, and there’s something to losing myself in play with her. I have so enjoyed the last three years, having these kids be my main focus. It’s just that there is more to me. Why do I feel guilty about that?
Right now, I have three pairs of cotton shorts in rotation. When the baby starts crying or when the toddler calls out for me in the morning, I put on the pair that is closest to the top of my drawer so I am at least wearing something other than my pajamas when I go downstairs. I once had time to shower in the morning because my mom was visiting, and when I showed up at library story time wearing something other than the shorts, with my hair down and not in a haphazard knot on the top of my head, the librarian said, “Well, isn’t someone fancy today?”
Last night, both kids were awake all night—one at 2 am, the other from 3 to 4:30, and the first again at 5:45. I am sitting down to write now, but that’s because the toddler was up all night and is sleeping late, and the baby happens to be napping in the car seat next to me. I know the clock is ticking and any second one of them will wake up.
“The thing is,” my friend told me, after I told her I admired all she’d accomplished since grad school, “I sometimes feel like a paper bag in the wind. I don’t have anything tying me down.” She’s 32 and single, and her mom recently passed away. She told me she admired me for raising these two girls.
There will be time for everything in life, I tell myself. I have no doubt that my friend will find someone to share her life with because she’s young and smart and beautiful, inside and out. Now is her time to go after her goals. And I will one day find space and time to travel, to write lots of books, to read and think critically about what I’m reading, to teach others, to wear my tweed jacket and scarf and walk through the quad with books slung over my shoulder.
Last night, my daughter was grasping me tightly around my neck in the middle of the night saying, “I want you to stay too long, Mommy.” I was so tired. I really wanted to get back to sleep. But most of the time, she pushes me away and says she wants to do it “all by myself,” so I bask in these moments when she still needs me.
At six months old, our baby needs me more than anything. She does this panicky little cry/laugh thing when she sees me walk into the room like, oh thank goodness, my food, my comfort, my mama is here. I want to be their rock, their comfort, their mama all day long.
Maybe I do want it all—to spend as much time with them as I can while they are little because they are the most interesting creatures in the whole world, and to live my life. I want to lose myself in my work, but I also want to lose myself in them. Motherhood was a part of myself I didn’t know for thirty two years, and now that I know what it is like to have children, I want to embrace it—embrace them with all that I am.
We’ve made choices, my friend and I, since we left grad school. We traveled separate paths. I appreciate having her there to remind me of who I once was—and of the person I hope to one day discover again. It just might not be possible to have it all—at least not all at once—and so all we can do is make the most of what we have.