When you become a mother people warn you about sleepless nights. They warn you about your heart suddenly walking around outside your body. They talk about worry, they talk about body changes, they talk about hormones and breast milk and diapers. They talk about first days of school and last days of school. They talk about organic foods and safe television. They talk about Net Nannies and real nannies. They talk about “putting your own oxygen mask on first” and valuing time spent on your own.
But what they don’t always talk about is guilt. When your heart is walking around outside your body, how can you put yourself first? When the tiny humans running amok in your house need to be protected and nurtured and carefully introduced to the world-at-large, how do you make them happy and make yourself happy? How can you be their nest, their star system, their home base, and not lose your own view from the trees, your own energy, your own touchstones? How can you be you and Mom?
One day you realize you don’t recognize yourself anymore. Sure, you’re happy in the day-to-day. Kids can be hilarious, parenting is often rewarding, the rat race is in full swing, there’s take-out on hard days, margaritas and TV to relax… but who are you? When you’re out somewhere and a stranger who doesn’t know you’re a mom starts up a conversation, what happens when you don’t talk about the kids; when you don’t talk about school or your commute or laundry or dinner plans. Underneath the layers of Mom, who is the woman lying dormant? Maybe she isn’t dormant, but she’s looking for a way to claw through the shell, like a scuba diver trapped beneath ice. The sunlight is there, but how do you reach it?
Who is this woman? This person under the ice? How can she surface? And when she does surface, what happens if the shattered ice keeps shattering, the cracks snaking far and deep until suddenly the surface and everything below are one? The scuba diver bursts free, but everyone else loses their footing. The people closest to you are plunged into this new world of Mom vs. You. You’re there to keep them afloat, but you also must keep yourself afloat. And you must trust that they can tread water while you take the first breaths of fresh, new air you’ve had in years, in decades. You must trust that they not only can see you as You and Mom, but that you can be You and Mom.
So, yes. Guilt. By allowing your own self to finally surface, you plunge everyone else into an unknown world — a world where suddenly Mom has a name and feelings and desires. When Mom becomes a fallible human, does she lose her ability to protect and nurture? Of course not. But it can feel that way.
After a particularly challenging seven months, I got a Mother’s Day card from my almost 14-year-old, and it said, “Thank you for teaching me to value my own happiness above all others.” At first, I was taken aback. My thoughts went immediately to, “Oh, God, he really is angry with me about the divorce. He feels abandoned by his selfish mother. If he’s old enough to articulate these feelings, then what does that mean about the little ones? They must feel like I’ve just tossed them in the deep end. What have I done? Mothers aren’t supposed to put themselves first, not really. Mothers make sacrifices. Have I not made enough sacrifices? Does he really think I value my own happiness above all others? Am I a selfish, horrible person?”
So I did what you do… I casually brought up the card a few days later, mentioning that it might be possible to interpret it as a kind of dig… an expression of anger. His eyes went wide and he laughed. “What?!” Was his incredulous answer. “That’s so funny! I’m glad you get to be happy. I want you to be happy. Knowing that it’s OK for me to find happiness… that’s an important lesson, Mom.”
And so it is. It doesn’t fully assuage my guilt, but it does tell me that the conversations we’ve been having, and the openness I’m trying to convey might actually be working. One of my worst fears as a mother is to traumatize my children. The idea that in order for me to be happy, I have to make others unhappy, is so unpalatable I was unable to even bear the thought — until suddenly, it was the only thought I had. Then, being able to muster the courage to find myself, extricate myself, and not ostracize myself took even more time.
Even writing this post makes me feel squeamish, as if I’m putting my selfishness on display. Society seems to have no room for mothers who are also women. (Society seems to be reaching a point where it has no room for women at all, but that’s another post.) It feels important, though, for me to acknowledge that yes, I am a woman and I am a mother. Yes, I get to be happy, too. And I can only fall to my knees, prostrate, and hope that by reaching out, crying out, trying to achieve solid footing and a way to be happy and fulfilled within my own self, that everyone else in my family will some day be more happy and more fulfilled their own selves, too. At 14 you can kind of see this. At nearly 10 and nearly 8, it’s more difficult. You don’t want two new houses, you want the old house. You don’t want separate and emotional parents, you want unity and solid footing. You want things to be the way they were. But maybe, hopefully, over time you will understand why temporary discomfort is often the way to greater peace. You will see that when the adults in your life find happiness, everyone finds happiness. Can that be true? Will it be true? Can my children find peace from turmoil?
I am thankful for the years of conversations I’ve had with other mothers-other women-about how to soothe a teething baby, how to treat a tummy ache, where to find shoes that don’t fall apart, which dinner plans work and which ones don’t. But what I want to bring to the conversation now that I am older and possibly wiser is an unwavering voice that says, “Don’t suppress who you are because you are so busy creating new humans. Being a mother and being you isn’t an either/or prospect. You are a human, too, and you deserve the love and attention you share with others. You deserve to be nurtured and protected. You deserve to be loved and respected.”
And as difficult as it may be to accept… you deserve to be you.