By Lauren Apfel
We have this running joke about our mom, my siblings and I, that she never really knows what she wants. Or it’s not that she doesn’t know per se, deep down, it’s more that she’s reluctant to articulate it amidst the competing desires of her children. Where does Mom want to go on vacation? What does Mom want to eat tonight? It’s hard to get a straight answer from her sometimes, especially when the question involves all of her grown kids at once. A lifetime spent accommodating others, I have no doubt, can render a person opinion-less.
The joke about my mother is not a joke as much as an exaggeration, and it’s funny only because of the kernel of truth lodged at its center. Mom—and I’m sure my mom is not unique here—is so often a conduit for her children’s wants that her own predilections are either obscured or pushed unceremoniously to the back burner. I turn this image over in my mind a lot these days, both in terms of my own parenting and what I see around me.
Some of the most self-assured women I know say things routinely like, it’s all about Ben now. It’s what’s best for him. Where Ben is the child and “best for him” is the abstract superlative that stands as the new goalpost for decision-making, the single index of correctness, as soon as kids enter the picture. Best for him, best for them. Best for me becomes a gauzy, ghost-like relic of the past.
We might rehearse the mantra, happy mother, happy baby, but in today’s culture of intensive parenting, it serves almost as a token, a get-out-of-jail-free card to be used only in extreme cases where a woman needs permission to stop doing something that is categorically running her ragged. Quite the opposite, I have friends who are more likely to throw out the line about how you can only be as happy as your least happy child. Which also speaks to the idea that there is a kind of moral obligation—or perhaps a natural inclination—to subordinate your own needs, your own happiness, to your children’s. That, at the very least, the two are somehow inextricably bound.
And surely this is true and fair, to a degree. Parenthood comes with sacrifice. Of course it does. You don’t have a baby and emerge on the other side of it the same. A large part of the point of having children is precisely this. To change, to grow, to expand your emotional register along with your capacity for responsibility. But how much does parenthood, motherhood especially, necessitate a loss of identity (as opposed to a shift)? A loss to the point that once the children are gone, the person left behind is something less than she was, something flimsier in both substance and purpose?
This is the question that preoccupied me this summer as I spent two weeks on my own. The longest stretch I’ve gone without all four of my children since the oldest was born twelve years ago. The amount of time was significant. Two weeks is just long enough to feel coursing through your veins the cumulative effect of freedom. Not the solo trip to Target or the odd night of binging cookie dough ice cream and How to Get Away with Murder. Not even the girls’ weekend away that feels indulgent but at the same time all too short. No, two weeks is long enough to become reacquainted with yourself, your rhythms, your whims, the big and the small, as distinct from the ones that are determined or corralled by the existence of your children.
It felt like practice, a glimpse into the future. A tentative answering of a haunting question: Who am I without my kids? What do I buy at the grocery store when I don’t have to stuff the cart with vats of full-fat milk and endless bags of cheese strings? How do I choose to spend my downtime when it’s not just filling space between pick up and meal prep? Which aspects of my life sustain me emotionally when I am not distracted by my children’s needs, by their interests?
As I watch friends—who, like the majority of us, have circled their lives around their kids—send those same kids off into the world with a feeling of utter bereft-ness, this practice seems important. This taking stock of myself as a human being instead of a parent. And so, on the brink of 40, I carve out time for yoga and Prosecco nights and the other typical modern-day manifestations of “self-care,” but it’s more than that. It’s about my relationships, my ambitions, my pastimes. I have seven years before the leaving begins, seven years to probe the parts of myself that don’t involve being a mom to see if they are robust enough to withstand the children’s absence.
Because I can’t help but wonder if the sense of loss one experiences upon the children’s leaving is proportionate to the amount of identity given up through their raising.
In her soul-stirring story for the New Yorker, Samantha Hunt conjures this phenomenon with particular clarity, in a way I imagine resonates with many parents:
Who are you? Who will you be when everyone is gone? My children are growing, and when they are done I’ll have to become a human again instead of a mother, like spirit becoming stone, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar. I’m not looking forward to that.
But I want to look forward to that. I want to hold tight to my sense of self, to my spirit.
I asked my mom recently how it felt when we left the house, whether she was ready for the next stage. She said she was, that it was time. That, for her, there was no pining for the past, there was simply a joy at a job well done. I would like to think I will be able to say the same. For as much as my kids consume me now, as much as they infuse my life with meaning, it is my intention to stay a butterfly, even when they go on to grow their own wings.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She’s got seven more years before her firstborn leaves home; she plans to do a lot of yoga and drink a lot of Prosecco before then. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.