on not being her

We were going through photos the other day looking for evidence of a four-month-old Bram to show him that he used to be his brother’s size. That he once wore these clothes. That it was once thrilling merely that he could roll over.

And I noticed this picture of me.

My beautiful picture

I remember this night. We were leaving for one of the last meetings of our natural childbirth class. I had J take this photo to document these new boots, but as it turns out it’s one of the last photos I have of myself before Bram. Which is to say: before children. Which – notwithstanding EE’s powerful influence over my life – is to say: before motherhood.

We had a little gathering at our house the other day to celebrate an old friend coming back for a visit. A handful of friends from graduate school, professors and fellow students. It was wonderful to see everyone. To learn of their successes, to hear the sharp, smart chatter of academics again. But: I felt out of step. For one thing, my kiddos were here. And it was dinnertime. And then of course bedtime. And I’m not sure if B has ever seen so many people in our living room before. And I felt this expectation – not put on me by my friends, to be clear, but put on me by myself – to try to be pre-kid R. But of course: that wasn’t possible. There was so much to navigate. And even if there wasn’t, I’m not her. It was disorienting. It was a little like having forgotten a language that you used to speak fluently. I felt the significance of my choices – to (mostly) leave academia; to embrace a particular kind of parenthood – more in those hours than I think I have to date. I have no idea how my friends perceived me, but I know that I felt awkward and unintelligible. I thought I could slip back into being that woman up there. I couldn’t.

And that got me thinking about how exactly I’ve changed. What the woman I am today would think of the woman I was just three years back. What she would think of me. Do you ever wonder that about two versions of yourself?

We share plenty of traits, of course. Both versions of me are passionate. Fiercely loyal (though to some different people and priorities now). Committed to growth. Grateful. Appreciative of kindness. And also critical. Exacting. Expecting too much.

But that me was so put together. Or at least I remember her that way. Make-up every day. Hair dyed the perfect[ed] shade of red. Body toned from an adulthood-long commitment to exercise. Clothes selected thoughtfully and artistically.

She was also interesting. Like, I remember stringing together really smart, compelling sentences on the spot when talking about Brilliant Works of Literature. That version of me could teach a class that would knock your socks off. She had an intensity that was, for at least some people, magnetic.

And she was also anxious. She would wake up at 1am to pee and recall something she’d said and worry it to death. Which is funny because that version of me said the right thing way more often than this one does.

I feel proud of that pre-kid me, and able to appreciate her in ways that I couldn’t when I was her. And that’s really cool. But I don’t feel too much like her these days.

Sometimes there’s a self-consciousness that comes along with that. Like when someone takes a picture that features my matronly upper arms (phrase credit: the genius Janeane Garofalo). Or when I hang out with my witty academic friends and feel like I can’t find my footing. Or when I think about the cool scholarly stuff my cohort is doing and I sense it getting away from me and I fear regret.

But I like this version of me in a way I never liked that one when I was busy being her. And that’s cool too. Some of it is no doubt just growing up. As Ani says, “If you’re not getting happier as you get older, you’re fucking up.” And some of it is probably just being too tired to notice all the imperfections. But some of it, I think, is a product of the fact that (as a few friends have said over the last couple of years, much to my immense joy) motherhood suits me.

So –  in honor of the work I hope all women, all people, are doing – here’s a list of some of my favorite things about this version of myself. I’d love to see yours. Or if you don’t show me, I hope you’ll at least write one.

  • I’ve lost the high femme yet I feel more feminine than ever. With a baby on my hip and a toddler at my knee. In no make-up (except red lip gloss because some things should never be abandoned). And hair that’s too thin to grow long but I’m doing it anyway. And Good Will skirts and hand me down shirts that always smell sweated in because it’s been 2.5 years since I washed our clothes in anything but basically lavender water. Even though sometimes the afternoon still finds me in the boxer shorts and t-shirt I slept in the night before. And though my haphazard exercise routine has allowed things to soften. Still. So feminine. It is cool. It makes me regret all those years (and all that money!) I spent on Stuff That Was Supposed To Make Me Feel Like a Woman.
  • I’m a lot less worried about messing up. Of course I still feel icky when I say the wrong thing. Drop balls. Miss deadlines. Hurt people. Mishandle something. But I’m also more forgiving of myself. I was a perfectionist. 4.0 graduate career. I would have been crushed by a “B.” Criticism stung. Now I’m learning how to hear it. Because: yes. I am deeply flawed. I mean, I regularly mishandle things. But I am trying with love. And I believe in kindness.
  • I am learning how to be in the moment. Or more truthfully, my kids are teaching me how to be. Because little kids live there. So to live with (really with) little kids, you have to live there too. And I do this more and more. Today I even napped. And woke up happy because it was okay that missed some hours in the day. Some housework. And when I came back up the stairs from switching the laundry, I could smell the Bergamot in the tea I was brewing and it brought the biggest smile to my face. It was enough. And the quinoa and roasted carrot salad I made last night might have been the most richly pleasurable thing I’ve ever made because I took the time to notice the indulgent color of the spices coming together, and the smell of the roasting vegetables, and the crispness of the cabbage as my knife sliced through it. The moment. It’s nice.
  • I’m learning how little I really need. Pre-kid me had ambitions. Like, you know, for an impressive career, and a bigger house, and the kind of dress and boot collection that someone might envy. And maybe a car of my own. Even post-kid me has longed for these things. But the further into this I go, the more confident I am that most of that stuff is a distraction. We were at a party a few weeks back and someone said they couldn’t have more kids (they have two) because they couldn’t afford them. The camps, they said, and the lessons. Things just don’t look that way to me, and I’m glad. I think having less (but still, to be sure, having enough) has been good for me. None of the things that have brought me the most joy have cost anything. Or maybe the price of a deck of cards or a new toddler puzzle. Bram thinks our backyard is a freaking paradise. Louis has dimples when he smiles really deeply. We have some really good books. We are super rich.

 

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3 thoughts on “on not being her

  1. Lovely list, R, and as so often happens, I feel like we are living parallel lives in so many ways.

    Here is mine:
    1. I have made it through a very difficult year fraught with criticism and judgment from unlikely places. I have, for the first time, really seen what it is like to be on the wrong end of judgment. This year has made me stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and a better parent. I can stand tall, face my critics, and know that the choices we have made about how we live and raise our kids are deliberate, conscious, and, at least for now, exactly right.

    2. I miss my academic life, but I am writing my own homeschool materials for my kids and it is far and away the most fulfilling, interesting, important, and best work I have done. As an added bonus, my kids seem to enjoy it. I used to work on papers and my book project with a full awareness that the writing I did wouldn’t really matter. Few would read it and even fewer would care. This work that I am doing now…it matters. Maybe I will find a way to pull it together and sell it some day…maybe not. In any case, I spend bits and pieces of time learning about fractals, making sense of proper music notation & complicated theory, learning about the morphology of leaves, building circuits, making maps, painting, and discovering some wonderful classic children’s poetry that I had never read.

    3. I love the fact that I am happy. I used to think that I was happy, but it really doesn’t compare. Every moment is not perfect. I sometimes get “yelly,” but I am working on it. I have SO much on my plate, but I manage, and I do it all pretty darn well. I finally (I mean since I left academia) have people in my life whom I can call real friends and apart from them, my kids are delightful daily companions. This is a life that suits me well.

    • The motherboard on our only computer died this week, which is why it’s taken me so long to respond to this. Because: I am so sorry about the judgement. And it just saddens me because you are one of the moms I’m most inspired by, out there knowing and trusting your instincts and making bold, kind, generous, inspiring choices. If you want or need to talk, I would be glad to listen. And in terms of your homeschooling materials: I am blown away. I can already tell you that I would not have that capacity. Though maybe I could buy yours…?… Finally: yes. Happy. Happier. Different happy. Yes. Love to you.

  2. This is a really well-written post. I’ve compared two versions of myself many times in the past, with mixed feelings. I am guessing that someday in the future, when your little ones need less of your time and attention on a daily basis, you’ll be able to create the new you with the best aspects of both of these versions of you. Maybe you’ll be able to pursue more of your personal academic interests with a more motherly lens. :)

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