Motherhood and My Real Younger Self
October 18, 2020
I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.
In fact, I said I would not become a stay-at-home mom. I often used the well-intentioned yet (let’s be honest) condescending phrase “there’s nothing wrong with it of course” in conjunction with my assertion that I did not, in fact, want to end up at home with my kids.
I viewed stay-at-home momhood as an admirable path, I suppose, in the abstract way you might when you don’t really understand something. And yet, I knew it wasn’t for me.
Once, when I was maybe six or seven years old, I was playing out in the front yard with my sisters and some of the neighbor kids. Somehow, a splinter lodged itself into my finger. I don’t remember how, but I do remember feeling a sense of absolute panic, of thinking its extraction was going to cause me excruciating pain. I immediately ran inside to my mom. She was so calm as she gently coaxed the tiny sliver of wood from my finger using a . . . safety pin? Tweezers? You know, I don’t even remember how she did it. I just remember how I felt—relieved, at ease, cared for, validated.
I have a wonderful mom. She gets distracted easily, and she doesn’t always remember things I tell her. When I am in a rush, she seems, maddeningly, to slow down proportionally. And yet, I can’t remember a single instance when she has judged me . . . ever. In high school, she legitimately didn’t understand why every boy I liked wasn’t madly in love with me. She told me to “let it out” any time I needed to cry. Now that I’m an adult, she revels in the opportunity to make me cinnamon lattes in little china cups whenever I visit her. She loves me wholly and without condition, and I have never doubted it.
My mom stayed at home with my two sisters and me until my parents divorced when I was eleven. My dad moved into an apartment nearby, and my mom, having left college after two years when she got married, went to work. Over the next two decades, she worked a series of jobs, many of which she didn’t much like, and earned just enough money to be worried about money all the time. She sold jeans to “juniors” at a department store, frosted cakes at a bakery and did data entry at a big corporate office. She drove an ancient Honda Civic hatchback with over two hundred thousand miles on it and put mortgage payments on a credit card. My mom, a superbly talented artist and singer by the way, spent her days doing work she didn’t like and feeling stressed.
I didn’t see my mom then as I do now—as a brave woman who worked hard for her girls and sacrificed pieces of herself along the way. Back then I simply thought, “I can’t let that happen to me.” I wanted to go to college, start a career I loved, become independent, find the love of my life, get married and have exactly two kids by the time I hit my early thirties. I didn’t know what career I would have, or who I would marry, but I knew I would be a working mom.
For as much as I wanted to be a career woman, I spent impressively little time productively exploring careers. Part of that is because of an American schooling system that prioritizes blanket adequacy rather than personal exploration, but the fault lies with me too. I spent a lot of time looking outward for fulfillment, rather than looking inward.
It occurs to me in this, my thirty-sixth year, that instead of wondering what specific job might make me happy, I might have asked simply, “What makes me happy? What in this world makes me feel authentically me?” Instead of thinking about what I wanted to become, or not, I might have thought more about who I wanted to become. Instead of , “Do I want to be a lawyer, a writer, a stay-at-home mom?” maybe, “I know I want to be trustworthy, genuine and kind.” Who do I want to be, as a professional, a sister, a daughter, a partner, a friend, a mom . . . a person? These are questions I didn’t ask often enough earlier in life.
Not coincidentally, my professional history is a bit scattered. Some jobs I liked, some I loathed, most were somewhere in between. Still, I have had fulfilling professional experiences, and I hope to have more. For now, I have a job—a really tough one. I’m a stay-at-home mom.
I’m not sure I ever truly viewed motherhood as a job, but I sure do now. In fact, I have often said out loud, “This is the hardest job in the world.” Now, I am always perplexed by moms who prioritize their husbands’ sleep because “he has to work tomorrow.” And I have to . . . what? Soak my feet in bath salts and sip champagne? We both have to work, and we both need rest in order to be our best and most productive selves.
Motherhood is work, yes, beautiful work. My infant daughter went through a phase where she took four naps a day, and I held her for at least two of them. For hours each day, I held my daughter in a dark room, holding in my pee, ignoring my aching arms and savoring every fleeting moment. I felt and feel such immense gratitude because, the thing is, I could hold my daughter for naps because I was home. It’s my job to lie in bed with her when her tummy hurts, take her to osteopathy appointments and go to the Apotheke for violet root when I think her gums might be aching. And to experience joy with her! My job is to take her to my favorite bookstore and spend summer days exploring the many playgrounds of Berlin in search of baby swings.
It’s not lost on me that working moms have those same jobs, in addition to their careers, and they face a set of challenges only they could fairly articulate. I think part of the reason I aspired to be a working mom was because I viewed it as incredibly challenging and rewarding. I saw working moms as superheroes, and I still do. The point here is not to make a case for one version of motherhood over another. Indeed, the point is that motherhood is an awesome role, however it looks. Stay-at-home moms, full-time career moms and everything in between—you are superheroes. To my own mom, who went back to work amid the breakup of her marriage—you are my superhero.
If I could speak to my younger self, and if I was okay with offering a massive cliché as my grand futurely wisdom, I might tell her: Never say never.
Many times in my life, I have done things I thought I wouldn’t do, and vice versa. I didn’t think I would move from Chicago to San Francisco with my boyfriend of five months, and not only did I, but I ended up marrying him. I didn’t think I would ever adopt a cat; now I have two. I didn’t think I could live without chicken wings, and two years into vegetarianism, guess what? It’s absurdly easy for me to live without chicken wings. I live in Germany, and I stay at home with my baby daughter. How’s that for a doozy, younger self?
I might also tell her: It’s hard to plan for the future because you don’t know who you will be in the future. You will be you, of course, but perhaps quite a different version. You will always be evolving and, hopefully, growing. You will never be done becoming who you are.
For a long time, I operated under the belief that there are certain inalterable things about me, a few fixed traits that go to the core of who I am. For example, historically I have been very Type A. I like to plan, take notes, and I am almost physically incapable of being late. It’s who I am.
In motherhood, however, this compulsive need to plan has been a blessing and a curse. My daughter always has the right size clothing and plenty of clean diapers, but I have also experienced crushing anxiety, worrying about and trying to plan for every possible occurrence, big and small, good and bad. My therapist only recently pointed out it’s okay to look at something fundamental about myself and evaluate whether it actually reflects me anymore. To look at one of these traits and say, “This has served me well to this point, and I am grateful, but it doesn’t serve me anymore, and I can let it go.”
I used to be a person who made a plan and stuck to it, but at some point I realized I don’t know how I’m going to feel a year from now, a month from now, or even tomorrow sometimes. And that’s okay. I can change my mind, pivot, let things go. I changed my mind about San Francisco, about eating meat, about how my experience with motherhood would look. My younger self thought she knew what she wanted. My older self is content with the knowledge she actually knows very little, and it’s okay for her plans to be fluid.
Advising your younger self is a useful exercise, but if I could actually talk to the more youthful me, I would probably tell her not to change a damn thing. Every decision she made—from a transatlantic move to what she had for breakfast one day last April—led her to her daughter. If I could do things differently when I was younger, I wouldn’t, because if I had, I wouldn’t have my girl. The real advice to my younger self is advice for her, because in a way, my daughter is my younger self.
To my daughter, my sweet baby,
Never say never. Keep growing. Spend time thinking about who you want to be and find things that make you feel authentically you. I don’t know if I’ll always be home with you full-time, but I do know who I want to be as your mom.
I want to encourage and support you in your lifelong journey toward becoming yourself. I want to listen to you, get to know you, solve your problems alongside you and help you learn to solve them on your own. I want to read you books and push you on swings and shower your chubby cheeks with kisses for as long as you’ll let me. I want to be your biggest fan, a person who will never, ever judge you, a person with whom you can be your most authentic self.
I want to always get your splinters.