Ha – Made ya look! No, I was never cool. I was a chubby arty geek girl with a flair for the dramatic. I worked very hard for very little money and spent most of my time scheming how to get more theatre work, to make more theatre, and how to make more people pay money to see or support my theatre. I was focused on my little corner of the performing arts world, and that was where I felt I belonged.
Then, I had a kid. Also, I had some health problems associated with having that kid. My world became a radically different place. In our family, the responsible kid-watching choice was for me, the person who had never earned enough to pay for childcare, to stay home and keep that baby safe from dragons and cheap plastic. It was not a natural fit for me, temperament-wise. I had heard the constant parenting refrain that having children changes everything. In a physical sense that was true, my daily activities did not much resemble the life I had lived for the previous ten years. But on a deeper level, “motherhood changes you” was a complete crock, in my experience. I was still the same arty geek girl, albeit now I was an obese one (thanks, child-bearing hips!) but had no outlet for my dramatic flair. I was a person who built her identity in her work, and by having a child I had chosen a lifestyle that made those long hours and late nights for minimal pay impossible. The reality of that sunk in over several hard months. I was still the same drama nerd but I had forfeited my world for a tiny screaming person. I was losing myself.
In many ways, it would have been great if “motherhood changes you” was true, because then I wouldn’t have been so mad.
If I somehow stopped caring about all the frivolous creative work that had animated my entire life, then I could have better focused on the real challenges of making little babies into good people. But I felt the loss of my work keenly. I wanted to be back in a studio, working with actors or re-learning my craft through teaching. I wanted to be writing compelling conflicts that had nothing to do with diaper rash.
The further I was immersed in the story of being a mother, the more boring I found it.
It shook my feminist belief that all “women’s work” is valuable – for me, there was nothing interesting or significant about looking after kids. It felt so completely meaningless. I had a daughter, and I would do my best to help her grow up to be a smart and independent person. Then one day she might have a baby, and she would throw all that smartness and independence out the window so she too could be absorbed into the monotony of childrearing, distracted by inconsequential “mommy wars” and wondering where she had taken the wrong turn. It seemed like a horrible cycle of self-denial.
I say all these things now, from the safe distance of seven years later, after the storms of baby life and very early childhood have subsided. I still don’t think motherhood has changed me. It changed my circumstances. As with any change in circumstances, one learns to adapt – and more importantly, to rebuild. I no longer see child-rearing as completely pointless. I’ve slowly expanded my sense of self to include being a parent. But that was a long process.
How do you hold onto your own idea of self when you add an offspring to your world?
You find a pocket of “you” and hold onto it for dear life. I’ve seen this play out time and again with the mothers I know. Some parents double down on the activities and ideas they use to define themselves. For some people, this can mean renewed religious devotion, increased commitment to social causes, or new zeal in their workplace. Me, I was composing directing pitches while breastfeeding, and writing grotesque clown shows loosely based on the lunatic mothers I met at the playground. We each hold onto the core idea of who we are, even when it feels like that very idea is slipping through your fingers. But it is not just a matter or maintaining your self – it is also about growing that person into someone even stronger.
What I discovered was that the flexible identity of a parent it is not just a question of holding on to who you were before – it is about building someone new on that foundation.
Some people choose the maelstrom of new parenthood to launch a new business. Others focus on their physical self, train for marathons or become fitness instructors. It is surprisingly common to meet new parents returning to school to develop new skills or retrain. It seems incredible, given the very real hard work of caring for tiny humans, but parents often seem compelled to do something new.
My “something new” was unexpected, and a little weird. I became a recreational novelist.
When my daughter was six months old, I was hit by a bolt of crazysauce and decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. This is an annual writing game, a writer’s marathon to complete the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. This quasi-contest runs every November, and writers around the world congregate virtually on the website to track word counts and offer encouraging support. Writing long-form fiction was completely new to me, and I am still not sure why I decided I had to do this. In order to “win”, you need to write 1667 words every day. At my writing speed, this means about an hour and a half each day has to be focused on novel writing. I had to do this around the sleep/eat/poop schedule of a six-month old. I honestly have no idea how I did it that year. But I did.
It was the stubborn sense of “I refuse to give up because I am exhausted and have no idea what I am doing” and the sheer joy at doing something for my inner nine-year old self who dreamed of writing books that kept me spitting out words.
That was the first year I completed a novel. I have participated almost every November since, writing one “to be destroyed in the event of my untimely death” first draft manuscript after another. It has become a strange touchstone in the new identity I am still slowly building for myself, the self that includes being a mom.
So now I am a fat arty geek girl with a flair for the dramatic, who has two crazy kids and writes novels for fun.
I have come through the crucible of the earliest child-raising years by adding to my definition of myself, not subtracting. It didn’t always feel like that would be possible, and if you are struggling with feeling that loss of self I want you to know you are not alone. If it helps, consider that you are not just building your child, you are also still building yourself.