“Do NOT call me Vivienne!” my daughter reminded me for what felt like the 35th time this week. “I am STILL Baby. He is my mommy. You are the costume maker. Okay?!”
I had forgotten again that we were still residing in the fantasy world my children created. You’d think that after days of my middle daughter calling my oldest son “Mama” and referring to me as “Costume Maker,” I would get it right, yet still I lapse back into the real world and neglect to acknowledge their chosen reality.
In all honesty, the alternative universe situation is pretty great. Both kids assume complimentary roles: mommy/baby, teacher/student, lion trainer/cub, circus master/clown, fire chief/fire fighter. They seem to have some system of trading off who gets to be in charge, and for the most part, the roles and responsibilities of these characters keeps them from fighting.
For the majority of this summer my children have been members of an imagined traveling dance troupe from Madagascar. They put on daily shows, have multiple costume changes, and while my son’s designation switches from mommy to daddy to teacher to boy ballerina to DJ on the daily, my daughter has firmly remained Baby. This is probably some delayed response to the birth of her sister last summer, but it’s so much easier to call her Baby in public than it is to call her Lion Cub or Ariel, so whatever. We’re embracing it. Except when I forget.
Somewhere in the process of this dance troupe fantasy my children decided that I needed a role. Actually, we had some serious confusion when one of them was being the Mommy, and we know that my daughter cannot hang with name confusion. “UGH! YOU are not the mama!” she declared on a particularly frustrating afternoon when I kept responding to requests for “mom.” Apparently, no one was referring to me (for once!). Clarification ruins the game, so naturally I needed a new title. I am forever switching them in and out of outfits, tying scarves around their heads, making eye patches out of construction paper, fashioning hats out of old (but clean!) cloth diapers: “Call me Costume Maker,” I said.
At first I thought that this new title would last only as long as their chosen titles, and as soon as they left the dance troupe game to become fire fighters, I would go back to Mommy or be assigned a new more appropriate name. But it stuck. They’ve called me Costume Maker pretty consistently for a good chunk of July and all of August. The more they call me Costume Maker, the more it feels accurate and sweet and kind of special.
I’m surprised at how I’ve responded to this new name because the transition to “mommy” really took me some time. Most days I still find it hard to believe that the rest of the world sees me as an actual grown-up, let alone someone responsible for three whole children. Despite the fact that I’ve fostered, adopted, given birth twice, lead a MOPS group, and drive a freakin’ minivan, I still struggle to declare my legit mom status (as if this is something that requires declaration – once I spent the entire day with a smear of pumpkin oatmeal up the back of my leggings – no one but me is questioning my place in the world).
About a year ago, one of our old babysitters texted me to see if she could pass my number along to a family that was interviewing her for a nanny position. They needed a reference, and I was happy to sing her praises. But once I got on the phone with the other mom, all of my insecurities flooded to the surface. She asked about how the sitter interacted with my kids, how she adhered to our family rules, what she did if the children misbehaved. Every time she fired something new at me I wanted to reply “I know she babysat for other families…you should probably talk to a real mom about this.” Of course, I didn’t say that. I answered her questions because as an actual real mom I did have answers, but I was surprising even myself. How did I become someone who had a philosophy on how to help a three-year old through a meltdown? Is this real life?
I’ve spent nearly my entire adulthood waiting for the moment where I’m defrauded, found out, exposed. I got married young, and even down to my very wedding day I still felt like I was playing dress up. Then I played house. Then I worked for a start-up and played entrepreneur. I pretended to be a grad student, and then I acted the part of a teacher. The entire time I waited: The jig is almost up, I thought. They’ll know that I’m a fake. That I only look the part, but it’s just a costume. It’s just a part I’m playing.
Recently a college student who interned in my husband’s office asked me a question about a paper he was writing. He said he thought I might be of help because I was “kind of a teacher and a writer of sorts, right?” Without missing a beat I said “Actually, I am very much both of those things.” As I spoke those words, I could hardly believe it. What was I saying? This was the moment I had been waiting for – the part of the show where the audience declares that they’ve suspended disbelief for long enough. Like that scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz, I have to come out from behind the big talking head and wave my hands feebly – it’s just me.
But here’s the deal with costumes: once you wear them everyday they just become clothes. Somewhere along the lines I just stopped pretending and whatever I had feared was an alternative reality was actually my life.
A few weeks ago, my son wanted me to help him turn some old plastic sheeting into a cape. Then he pilfered random cardboard pieces from the recycling bin, and shoved some newspaper up his nose. He donned swimming goggles for added effect. “Take my picture,” he said. “Text it to everyone you know and say ‘Now Mason works at the dump.’” So he was Dump Boy for several hours.
For my kids, the jig is up only when they say it is. They will correct and instruct everyone around them and declare who they are – who they want to be – with conviction. They embrace each role with reckless abandon, and I love that about them.
As I look at my kids in their wild assortment of bizarre get-ups that they’ve engineered from a plethora of different costumes, I feel thankful that they enter into new worlds and new roles without hesitation. I hope that I can continue to learn what it means to embrace my own identity, in that same way, and I hope together we can live whatever new roles come our way.
Written by Anna Jordan.