If you had asked me who I was the day I turned 28, I could have told you with clarity - book reader, cheese eater, runner, writer, the loudest person in every room and a good pizza crust-maker.
Four months after my 28th birthday, I became a mother, giving birth to the chubbiest, happiest little baby girl I'd ever seen. A couple of weeks after bringing my baby home, my mother came to visit. "How does it feel to be a mom?" she asked.
I began crying. "I don't even know how it feels to be me anymore."
Pregnancy creates a crisis between the woman within and the woman without. French writer and psychotherapist, Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, wrote in The Dividing of Women or Women's Lot, "Pregnancy is a narcissistic crisis ... because the ego-ideal, the specular image, is massively altered, putting to the test the she-narcissus who wants to remain the same, unchanging and outside of time."
And yet, we all change. Some of us lose the ability to hold our pee, others lose the ability to watch crime shows - the careful become careless, the once careless are now fastidious. Whether physically or internally, motherhood creates irreparable wounds and shifts the core of ourselves that are both astounding and earth-shattering.
Change, I insisted, was a choice.
When I first became pregnant, I was told that pregnancy would change me. It's a narrative I resisted, even as I found myself doing things I would have never done previously, like eating caramel or reading internet message boards for hours. Change, I insisted, was a choice. You could always stay yourself. But after two births in two and a half years, I wasn't myself - I lost my ability to read. I don't mean I became illiterate, it's just that, I couldn't consume books at the rate I once had. I had once read Bleak House in two days. I'd read Unbearable Lightness of Being in a matter of hours. Even while giving birth to my daughter, I read the entirety of two New Yorkers and Chris Adrian's novel The Great Night.
"Read while you can," said a nurse. I rolled my eyes annoyed that everyone said things would be different.
After that, however, everything was different. When I came home from the hospital, I was too tired, too busy staring at the pink-skinned creation before me. I had made myself a meticulous reading list for the late-night nursing sessions, but it took me six months to muddle through Cutting for Stone. I tried reading to my baby during the day, I picked easy stories like fairy tales and my favorite children's classics. I barely made it through A Bridge to Terabithia, not from sorrow, but because my mind was filled with the detritus of motherhood. I became obsessed with things I had never even thought about before, like the size of the carpet fibers, and the number of people who didn't take their shoes off in our home.
Sitting down to read took a focus I no longer had. After one sentence, my mind was already gone: Was the baby okay? Could she eat that grass? Did I have something thawing for dinner? Had I answered all my work email? Would she fall and smash her face on the concrete? Did she need a sweater? Did I need a sweater? Why did my back hurt? What was that wet spot on the floor? Could she swallow a carpet fiber?
If you had asked me at the time if I felt different, I would have told you staunchly that I felt like myself only a little fatter. It was important for me to claim this. If I didn't admit the truth of my lost identity, it wouldn't be true. Claiming I was still a person I no longer was, was prosperity gospel promise for my soul. I would name it and claim it, and surely that essence would return. But I no longer made pizza, I was a lot quieter in rooms, cheese made me feel sick and I didn't read. I still wrote, but not as much as I had before. The only part of my previous identity I could still claim was running. Running was the only thing that could quiet my anxious mind.
I found myself staring out of windows a lot, imagining myself running away down the tree-lined street. But then, I would need to put on shoes and perhaps grab some money, but I wouldn't get too far before my milk would come in and someone would need to be fed. I didn't even recognize myself in my own daydreams. My nose made grease spots on the glass panels. I didn't think I would ever be the same.
In Wuthering Heights Catherine Linton goes mad from pregnancy - the dissonance between who she wanted to be and who she has become overtakes her mind. Staring in a mirror she is unable to recognize her own reflection. "Don't you see that face?" she asks.
Even after the mirror is covered she cries out to Nelly Dean, the main narrator, "Who is it? I hope it will not come out when you are gone! Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted! I'm afraid of being alone."
Both literally and metaphorically Cathy is split in two. After giving birth, Cathy dies. A body divided against herself, she could not survive. Some days, I felt as if I too had suffered a death, as if a self or an idea of a self was gone forever.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I took our children on vacation. I brought my usual stack of books, a futile promise since I was averaging a book every two to three weeks. I armed myself with toys, iPads, snacks and surprise candy for my children, now six and three, to ease us along the 18-hour car trip. We had taken trips like this before to visit family in Denver, a 12-hour trip. I knew the misery. I knew I would be staring out the window, imagining my family living in different houses as different people, unable to focus on the book in my lap because of the constant barrage of demands for crackers, blankies, cars, a different movie, a different game.
But something happened on this trip: My kids handled their sh*t. By which I mean, when they wanted a snack, they reached into the snack bag between them and retrieved it. They entertained each other, compromised, swapping toys and screens. They played games, laughed, asked for music and napped. I read one full book in a day and began another.
Elated, I read another and another. I could focus. My kids were fine. They played with friends, they grabbed cheesesticks, they snuggled by me on a towel as we watched the waves. I put the books down and we went on waterslides and swam in a wavepool. I picked the books up again when they played games of mermaids. I didn't worry about sweaters or shoes, they could manage those. If they were hungry, they'd tell me. If they needed to use the bathroom, well then, they'd just go. By the time we came home from the vacation, I had read five books in seven days.
When we got home, I read two academic books in four days. Looking in the mirror was like coming home. I wanted to kiss that dumb face with her dark circles and the shadows of sags around her neck. Maybe she'd always been there. Maybe she had never left. Or maybe she'd left and had only returned out of force of will. Maybe I was a faster reader now. I wondered what I had ever been worried about in the first place.
You laugh like it was nothing, because it was once everything.
The tides of parenting are the hardest to explain. They can immerse you and pull you out to a foreign and flailing sea, or they can toss you up on a warm familiar shore. Some things are so hard and then in a year, they are suddenly easy. Easy things quickly become insurmountable and then, one day they are simple again. And you wonder if it happened. Did you really cry and clean up poop off the walls? Were you really googling "pink underarm rashes" or "can my toddler be a serial killer?" for hours after you should have been asleep? Surely not. Years become small fleeting moments - turning midnight terror into funny stories that you occasionally remember and tell your partner, "Oh remember when I took her to the ER because I thought the marker on her skin was meningitis?" And then you laugh like it was nothing, because it was once everything.
I can read now. I run. I'm loud again. I still need to pace myself on cheese. I'm not making pizza, but maybe soon. Maybe I'm who I once was, or maybe I've just managed to fuse together whatever fractured when I divided myself and became a mother.
This essay originally appeared on Boomdash, a shopping site for parents.
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