I adore my children fiercely. I cannot imagine life without their precious, precocious, hilarious antics every day. And the moment I blogged about yesterday, in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, was certainly not the worst or the craziest thing my kids have done or will do. It wasn’t the worst diaper or the worst fit I had faced; Noelle threw a bigger fit about taking a bath that night.
The frustration I felt was at a deeper level, triggered by, but not really about, my children’s diapers and fits that day. I framed my frustration in terms of identity, which is something that has stood out to me over the years in the many moments I’ve felt that way. In the Cracker Barrel parking lot, I didn’t think to myself “I can’t believe they’re acting this way” or “I hope those people don’t think I’m crazy.” I thought, “I don’t want to be this girl.”
I was in what is one of the most difficult periods of new motherhood, in my experience. The baby was four months old, which meant I had lost some of my baby weight, but not most of it. I didn’t look like I expected to look when I saw myself in the mirror. I was in the middle of a maternity leave from graduate school, which meant it had been months since I’d felt like an adult in an adult world. For six months with Joy and eight months with Noelle, I moonlighted as a true stay-at-home mom while dealing with post-partum exhaustion. I was trying to stay showered and sane, but there had been times when I had been smart and confident and I felt that girl slipping away from me more and more.
I knew who she was though, the ”girl” I always wanted to be. I summed it up to my best friend a few weeks later, when the baby had not slept for what seemed like days and we were in the middle of the summer doldrums: “I want to be a skinny girl sitting on a plane going someplace.”
I had been that person once, the kind of girl who could pack for an international trip in two hours, who looked forward to train trips because they meant intriguing people, a good book and some coffee. I wore the same clothes I’d had since high school and they still fit. I thought things to myself and wrote them down in a notebook, important and deep observational thoughts. I curled up in a corner of the train seat to take a nap because I was sleepy. I was young, curly-haired, skinny and alone.
I know who I am, what I love, and where I want to go. Like pictures in a scrapbook, I can recount the times I’ve felt most like myself:
–I woke up in an overnight train in Thailand and caught my breath at the wonder of the sun rising over water-filled rice fields.
–Once, after I was married and living in Brazil, I had a conversation with four of my favorite Brazilian girls in the world in which no one listened to each other, and everyone talked as loud as they could, and used their hands as much as possible—I laughed so hard my sides hurt and Portuguese flowed from my lips like honey.
–Also in Brazil, I can see myself teaching twenty children’s home kids, hearing my English phrases repeated back with enthusiastic if horribly wrong pronunciation.
–Every cold day in a city reminds me of the many, many solitary walks I took in Santiago, Chile in the winter when we lived there and Jonathan worked all day. I found an English bookstore once that had a used copy of Francois Mauriac’s compiled writings that I bought and devoured in two days straight.
This picture, from the wikipedia entry on Santiago, looks identical to the view from our apartment–those nightclubs, like the “Boomerang,” used to keep us up EVERY NIGHT. The mountains over the city were gorgous, though.
–My second class teaching at the big university where I work, with the first day jitters behind me, we had a rocking discussion in my class and I began to have some inkling of how deeply I loved teaching.
–Walking across campus every time after I teach is euphoric; I have a sense of purpose and peace I never have in any other time.
That is the “girl” I felt like I was losing—bookish, relational, traveling, teaching, writing, thinking, me.
And then, one winter when my friend Nyssa visited, I added another memory to my favorite identity scrapbook.
–It had snowed, which is rare in Austin, and I dressed the girls in their warmest clothes. We went to meet Nyssa’s new baby at the hotel where her little family was staying while they were here. Waiting for the elevator, without my asking them to, on either side of me, my small girls reached out and took my hands. We held hands all the way up the elevator, through the hallway, to the door of Nyssa’s room.
The simplicity of walking with my children holding hands in the hallway took my breath away. I am also this “girl,” and she’s a mother, and she’s doing just fine.
Tomorrow: I’m not the only one who struggled with identity issues.