By Ann Cinzar
I had all the stuff. The loot bags overflowed with candy and toys. The cake was iced. The balloons hung in colored bouquets around the room. My mother had helped me with the setup and now all that remained was to wait for the pint-sized guests to arrive for my son’s birthday party. He was turning five. It was a big year.
“Well, I’m going now,” my mom said.
“What? What do you mean?” I asked.
“Everything’s ready. You can take it from here,” she replied.
“But . . . ” I said, my voice trailing. “Who will be the adult, then?” My mother tilted her head and gave me a look that denoted either slight amusement or pity. Perhaps both. Then she walked out the door.
Was this happening? She left me in charge? Nine little boys, and I’m the adult? Not for the first time since I became a mother, I was struck by a feeling: This is crazy.
Back when I had a professional life, I suffered from a pervasive case of imposter syndrome. It was as though I was play acting and any day, someone might walk into my office and say, “Okay, Ann. The jig is up. We’ve figured it out—you are not equipped to do this job.”
I assumed being a mother would be different. By the second trimester, the nesting instinct had set in, and I had immersed myself in the preparations: decorating the nursery, buying the crib bedding, ordering diapers. I had no doubt I would fall instinctively into my role of rearing these children who were connected to me. Wasn’t motherhood the most natural thing in the world?
It turned out, for me, the physical day-to-day of being a mother was easy. But the mental part proved more difficult, the part where you try to reconcile the fact that life is no longer about where to go for dinner, but about ensuring another human being doesn’t starve for lack of one. Because now, you are the adult.
When my kids were quite young, I took them on a transatlantic flight. As we settled into our seats, the flight attendant came over. She smiled in that friendly yet assertive manner flight attendants have and asked, “Are you in charge of these children?” I looked over my shoulder, searching for an older, better dressed adult in the next row. Certainly she wasn’t speaking to me? I turned back to find her eyes still trained on mine. “We’re going to have to move you,” she said. “These kids are too young to be sitting in an exit row.” I stared back at her, stunned, and thought, So am I.
I waited until my thirties to have children, so I was well into adulthood when they came along. Yet, there continue to be moments when my feelings and actions don’t match my age. The times when I enter a parent-teacher meeting and start wise-cracking about a wayward art project on display in the class. Until I realize I am the parent—I’m here to have a serious discussion with a teacher about my child (who quite likely created that art project). Or when an impromptu dance party erupts in my kitchen, and I’m the one playing DJ. Or when a few families come over for dinner and the kids finally track us down in the living room to say, “Don’t you guys know it’s eleven o’clock? We need to go to bed!”
Intellectually we know, before the kids arrive, we are becoming parents. We’ve read all the books, watched the shows, gone to the prenatal classes. But the reality that you’re no longer the child doesn’t really hit you until your daughter falls from the swing set and you rush her to the Emergency Room. It’s then you realize: this is on me. There is no one else to rely on. The funny thing is, my mom was younger than I was when she started her family. I wonder whether she ever had feelings of being an imposter—of being responsible for children and yet still feeling like a child? If she did, she never expressed those feelings, at least not to me. She always seemed so competent, so self-assured. Did she ever let her mother façade yield to the girl who wants to cut a rug on the kitchen floor?
Nine little boys made it through that 5th birthday party, surviving with—or despite—only me for adult supervision. There have been many more birthdays since. At times, I look at these beautiful little creatures, growing before me, and think: Who is responsible for you? Other times, I look at these squabbling creatures, yelling and fighting with each other and think: And where is she? Because someone needs to get you guys in line. And in both cases, even now, years into this journey, at times I am still shocked by the answer: Me. I am responsible. I am the parent. I am a mother.
Women often talk of how they lose themselves in motherhood. How their sense of self gets lost, blended into the homemade baby food, or swallowed up by the diaper genie.
Sometimes I’m more shocked by how I haven’t changed. Even with the parent-teacher conferences, the trips to the ER, the stretch marks, I haven’t fully embraced the persona of an adult. We sometimes say that having children allows us to see the world through a child’s eye. More and more, I’m inclined to believe we never let go of the child we were in the first place.
Because despite all the external markings of an adult life, the undeniable evidence that I am the parent, underneath, in many ways, I am still the same girl. I’m that carefree kid skipping down the street, her head in the clouds. The girl who wants someone to brush back her hair and place a cool washcloth on her feverish forehead. The kid who does not want to share her piece of cake.
The daughter who wants to hear her mother say, “Of course I’m staying for the party, honey.”
The above is an adapted excerpt from So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real about Motherhood, a new collection of essays from The HerStories Project.