“What happened to you, Mama?” he asked, looking from the photo to my face.
The question took me by surprise, and tears flooded my eyes.
It was a picture from my 6th birthday party. I looked pure and pretty in a white nightgown, a barrette tucking my long dark hair back. At the time, I kept the picture on my office bulletin board as a way to remind me to soften towards myself. Towards parts of me that I don’t like so much—the scared and insecure and lazy parts. When I think of those undesirable qualities as part of my little girl self, I find compassion.
“I grew up, Maxie,” I said.
His question—and my answer—hit me with a brute force, and the moment lingered: I’m not sure what I had for lunch yesterday, but I remember this moment two years ago with crystal clarity.
What happened to me, indeed?
And not just the six-year-old me. Yes, life is spinning by. But what happened to the other parts of me?
It’s no secret that I struggle with motherhood. I had post-partum depression and anxiety and am generally a self-doubting, neurotic High Needs Mom.
What happened to me is something that happens to many women when we become mothers. We submerge. The wants and needs that ruled our previous lives go beneath, like the 80% of an iceberg that hovers underwater, unseen.
This may be particularly noticeable for those of us who started having children in our 30’s—I had a good fifteen years or so of the freedom of young adulthood, 15 years packed with moving boxes and road trips and free weekends—a life crafted by my own desires and whims.
What happened to our wildness, the parts that maybe, long ago, used to have a bit too much to drink and ___. The part of us that would hop in the car, spur of the moment, and drive to ____. Book a flight to _____. Get a tattoo on your ___. The part of us that had time to fantasize about ____ing _____ and sometimes liked to ____ in the morning (you are welcome to use this as a potentially frisky Mad Lib).
Some of these parts of myself, of my past, I don’t miss. I don’t miss the little one-room apartment I rented when I was 23, where I had to squat down in a dank tub to shower because the shower head wasn’t mounted. I don’t miss working 9-5 in a cubicle beneath sickly yellow fluorescent lights. I certainly don’t miss the desperate baby fever that hit when I turned 30, the humid ovary days, the days when I was sure I would never get pregnant.
But there are parts of that life that I do miss. I miss them with a nostalgia, with a tug, with a melancholy chord.
Here is the thing about little kids. They come with all this oxytocin and milk breath and they expand our hearts. They sprout these little learning minds and ask questions like five-year-old Max did the other day in the car, apropos of nothing, “I’m wondering if when people die, do they become babies again?”
But these lovely little creatures—they don’t see us. Not anymore than we saw our own parents, when we were our kids’ age, as people who existed solely to fill our needs. People without dusty dreams or saucy pasts, and certainly without sex drives.
This morning, when my husband headed out for an early meeting, I sweatily sprinted between the upstairs and downstairs: “Mama! I’ve got poo on my thumb!” “Mama! I wan’ get dressed!” “Mama! Can I play Angry Birds on your phone?” “Mama! I wan’ milk!” “Maaaammmmmaaaaa!”
I felt myself grow cranky and resentful. I heard myself sigh audibly as I responded, a pinch too loudly, to their demands with “What?!?!?”
These are not fun duties anyways; nobody likes a Poo Thumb! And relinquishing my iPhone—my connection with the outside world. But a deeper part of my agitation was this: These little people, who fill my chest with love like a balloon that expands daily, who I pray will outlive me—they don’t see me. Not the biggest part of me, the submerged part.
This is okay. They are not supposed to see all of me yet. They are supposed to be self-seeking and see an eclipsed version of me. But what is not okay: when I stop seeing myself.
Six months after my brother died at 21, my mom and I drove my car from Maine to Washington State, where we ferried back to Alaska. Along the way, we stopped at the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. As we descended into a rocky world of slippery beiges and browns, of things dripping and growing from below and above, a hushed reverence fell over us. Never had we needed so much to believe that other worlds existed, that there was somehow more to existence than what we saw on a daily basis.
This is what my old life feels like sometimes: underground, shadowed, unseen. Cavernous.
I was never quite sure why the term stay-at-home-mom rubbed me the wrong way, but I think partly it’s because the phrase completely suffocates me, submerges me—the me that used to exist and is still here, quiet and waiting, and, over time, coming up for air more and more often. It’s the part that is here right now, writing these words.
The term bothers me the same way the question, “What do you do?” bothers me. As if our jobs, whether paid or unpaid, are our entire lives, the only parts that bear reporting. There are other things that sometimes submerge us besides becoming parents: physical or mental illness, grief, addictions, an overwhelming job…the effect of the submersion is the same, though none of these come with the same love and expansion that parenthood brings.
Slowly, slowly, I am taking myself back. Going too long feeling unseen feels withering, evaporating, suffocating.
I have come a long way since the early days of parenthood, of full submersion, when I couldn’t take a shower without my baby screeching for me.
And I will never completely be who I was before. I don’t want to be. The love I have for my children, the meaning that they bring to my life (studies have shown that having children doesn’t make us happier, but it does help us make more meaning of our lives), the focus that I have now, when I have time to focus—these are lovely parts. The way they say, “Mama!” with their thick, syrupy voices when I walk in the door, and for a moment, I see myself as they might see me—a tempest of love, the sun to their planets. Imperfect, but shining.
This is who I am, and at the same time, it is not.
With time and practice (and therapy), I’m learning to braid myself now with who I have always been, the writer, the nature lover, the compulsive reader. The Mama. No one else is going to do this for me. I have to do the hard work, the one step forward, two steps back work of weaving myself together.
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Editor: Travis May
Photo: elephant archives