When I was a little girl, my best friend Katie and I used to spend hours pretending. Sometimes we played school (which usually erupted into a squabble over who got to be the teacher), occasionally we were singers (Wilson Phillips, mostly), and we were always cheerleaders on the trampoline (the only place I could land a toe touch).
Most frequently though, we played house. We would rummage through Katie’s mother’s closet and pull out two pairs of high heels and several sparkly evening bags. We put some lipstick on, tucked our baby dolls in their little plastic strollers, then strolled them around the house and down Katie’s front walk. We pretended to go to the store and to lunch, our six-year-old feet sliding in the too-big heels and clumping on the parquet floors in Katie’s foyer.
This idea we were playing at—motherhood, being a grown-up—seemed like such fun with our high heels and lipstick, wheeling around babies who never made a peep. We sipped “tea” (see: apple juice) from plastic cups, our purses dangling from our arms. Our mothers watched us with wry smiles, but left us to our little game. We whispered and giggled and, when we tired of motherhood, we would abandon our babies—and heels—and tear off for the swingset.
Swinging higher and higher, we would attempt to outdo each other, seeing who could pump her legs faster, as if trying to touch the sky. I was taller, with longer legs, and almost always won the contest. Laughing, we would race back down the hill of Katie’s backyard to our neglected baby dolls and drag them unceremoniously back into the house, our cheeks flushed and hair windblown.
“Won’t it just be wonderful?” one of us would say. “When we’re both real mommies some day?”
Then we’d promptly shove our baby dolls into the darkness of Katie’s closet, close the door, and head into the kitchen to grab a snack.
Thirty years and two actual children after my days of dressing up and playing house with Katie, I can confidently say we got exactly everything wrong about motherhood. The only time I wear heels or carry a sparkly evening bag is when I go to a wedding, and that’s about how often I put on lipstick, too. While I have logged a fair number of miles pushing a stroller, I can confirm that many of those were with a squawking, squirming, and—occasionally—screaming baby. There are very few peaceful, leisurely lunches, but there’s plenty of laundry, endless dirty dishes, and enough Goldfish dust to simultaneously coat the bottom of my purse, the area underneath the couch cushions, and the floor of the backseat of my car. Heck, just last week, I had to tell my daughter not to lick the pee off her hands after going potty. Needless to say, that’s not a conversation I ever envisioned needing to have.
There’s joy to be found, too, of course. There are chubby-armed hugs and sloppy kisses and more handprint artwork from preschool than I could possibly have room for. There are movie nights and quiet snuggles and reliving my favorite parts of childhood. But the joy is … different than I thought it would be. It’s louder. Messier. And much more exhausting.
There are few things that feel less like play than motherhood. My children aren’t props, they’re people—people who depend on me for love, safety, and survival. There is no break, no timeout, and definitely no shoving babies in a closet to grab a snack.
Of all of my childish misunderstandings and misconceptions, I think the hardest truth is this—motherhood never ends.
“So many moms seem to lose themselves.”
The words, spoken by a longtime friend, came from a place of love and concern. Her sister, who had once traveled the globe, learned a new language, and trained for a marathon, was being buried by motherhood. My friend watched as her sister’s hobbies and passions went untouched—as though she couldn’t find the bandwidth for more than mothering.
My initial reaction was to argue and defend her sister. After all, my friend might mean well, but she didn’t have kids. She couldn’t possibly know the metamorphosis a woman undergoes when she becomes a mother. We’re not the same person anymore; it’s normal to feel a little lost for awhile, but we always right ourselves again. My friend just didn’t understand. I would make her understand.
I opened my mouth, and then I closed it. I thought about my own life. How infrequently I snuck away to write. How I was once an avid reader, but could count the number of books I’d read in the past year on one hand. The struggle to find time once a month to have dinner with girlfriends. My argument died on my lips, as I realized what I’d refused to believe until now.
She was right.
Being a mother has consumed me in a way I hadn’t even recognized.
It’s a humbling thing to admit; I thought I went into motherhood with fairly open eyes. Shrewd enough to know that “you can have it all!” was nothing more than a myth, I was prepared to make changes in my life. I knew I couldn’t say yes to everything; I would have to choose.
I underestimated the number of times I would choose them instead of me.
What’s funny is I don’t regret choosing them in the big things. Saying no to a career opportunity because it would mean too much time away from them. Eventually opting out of full-time work entirely for a hybrid schedule that offers greater flexibility. I spend very little time revisiting those decisions; I am confident I chose rightly the first time.
Instead, it’s the little things that have been my undoing. I’ve said no to myself a thousand different ways, all insignificant on their own—a skipped date night, a missed girls’ dinner, a library book returned unread. But when stacked up and added together, it’s enough to bury the me I used to be.
The list of things I could be doing as a mom is neverending. There’s always more to do/be/become; someone else always seems “more than,” and I resolve to redouble my efforts. We’re not allowed to put our children in a closet while we go follow our dreams, so instead we put our dreams in a closet while we chase our children. Motherhood is ravenous, and it’s the path of least resistance to let it swallow me whole, simply because “I’m a mom, now.”
In short, I didn’t so much lose myself as I allowed myself to become lost.
It’s a small difference, but a significant one. If it’s my choices that led me here, then I can also choose my way out of it, too. Instead of taking the path of least resistance, I can willingly live in the tension. I can fight for balance, for boundaries, for a sliver (or chunk) of time that belongs to only me.
How does it change things when we believe that the choices motherhood forces us to make can be both/and, rather than either/or?
As my dear friend Callie is so good at reminding me, “You are always a mom. You’re not only a mom.”
I can’t be everything. But I don’t have to be “only” or “just” either. It’s harder work than hiding is, but I can make a different choice. I can hold onto the parts of myself I can’t bear to lose.
I can sit down and sift through what goes and what stays.
Things that go: feeling shame when I ask for help; my belief that if I try hard enough, I can get it perfect; anything that begins with the phrase “don’t you think you should? …”; immediately folding (ever folding?) the laundry.
Things that stay: writing on Wednesday nights at Starbucks, regular childcare, reading a book every month, dinner with girlfriends.
Things that go: sparkly handbags and high heels.
Things that stay: swingsets and running as fast as I can.
Maybe I can’t have it all. But I can choose what stays.
Photo by N'tima Preusser.