Mothers are experts at the art of reinvention

Seven autumn colored leaves hanging upside down on a piece of raffia

By Laura Pochintesta

If my daughters see me as anything, it is intelligent. I read voraciously, write with passion, and speak my mind with clarity. As a kid, I was smart in school, their grandmother has shown them a treasure trove of proof of this. Yet, as a grown up, I have been an underachiever. I make a fraction of what my husband does. I have never been a committee head or a board member. I am not a sought after authority on anything. Even Google would agree that I am rather unaccomplished.

It’s not as if I’ve never tried to make more of myself. I have been an aspiring writer all my life. I tried my hand at children’s books and greeting cards (back in the days when manuscripts were mailed from the post office with SASE). I have written a complete first draft of an entire novel. I self-published a book of poetry (my mother placed the largest order and wrote the sole effusive review). I got a graduate degree in education, though I only worked part-time, tutoring and teaching at hours that were most convenient for my real life as a stay-at-home mother.

As a woman with three daughters, I am hyper-conscious of how my life choices might influence their decisions. When my middle daughter graduated from college recently, she wasn’t sure what to do. Though she wanted to find a job right away, I pushed her to consider law school, even if that road seems more challenging (and costly). Perhaps because my own decisions leaned toward practicality and convenience more than personal advancement, I want my children to tip the scales in the opposite direction.

My daughters have grown up knowing many accomplished women with impressive careers. I know they have wondered why I am not one of them, calculating my potential with their mental math skills. “No offense Mom,” my oldest said to me a few years ago. “But you could have been so much more.”

It’s hard for my daughters—and for me—to do an accurate cost benefit analysis of the years I have spent manning the fort—the actual one made of piled up sheets and blankets on stormy snow days, and the figurative one, too. Drinking my coffee inside the plastic playhouse that occupied the corner of the dining room. Making breakfast in my pajamas and hanging out in the kitchen as the girls watched morning TV and played with Barbies and Legos. Walking to the library and the playground, and eventually to the little town preschool at the edge of the park. Staying in the schoolyard where the girls played on the swings until dusk. Driving them wherever they had to go, singing along to Kids Bop CDs. They still talk about how I tapped my fingers to the beat on the steering wheel, and how they thought my tapping thumbs made the car go. 

I am warmed and satiated by these memories. I would never trade them in. But now that my daughters are approaching adulthood, how will their lives as women play out? What impact, if any, has the example I have set affected their paths?

When I think of tiger moms, I burn with jealousy. I couldn’t have been a successful one. I lack that temperament and motivation. Instead, I let all three of my children try things and then give up on them. Dance, musical instruments, various sports, tying their shoelaces correctly, even solving difficult math problems if it caused too much distress. And yet, my daughters have turned into capable, strong and assertive young women.

When my youngest was in middle school, I went back to work full-time teaching English. It was a sound, practical decision, yet I lost sleep for months when another woman casually asked if I was worried about my daughter walking home from school to an empty house, becoming a latchkey kid. For most mothers, I think there’s often a nagging sense of self-doubt that  prompts a continual reassessment. Am I going about things in the best way? Should I be doing something more? For my children? For myself? For all of us? No other role a woman plays causes her to second-guess herself so much.

Nowadays, with two kids recently graduated and the youngest away at college, I don’t need to rush home from work anymore. Time has suddenly opened a window. I joined a writing community and, after a long hiatus, have started to put pen to paper again, or at least to tap at the keys on my laptop. When I find myself at an impasse, confused by how or whether to proceed, it is easy to lapse into looking back rather than forward, to cast a critical eye on the forks in the road I have taken that I may now regard as mistakes. But then I catch myself. And I come back to the here and now, where I am not constrained by the same day-to-day parenting responsibilities and circumstances of the past. 

Mothers are experts at the constant art of reinvention. I’ve had no choice but to redefine my own goals as my children have moved on to new phases of life, and different degrees of needing—and not needing—me. But these natural shifts come with as much certainty as the seasons or the tides, or the contractions of labors long ago. Sometimes we can brace for them, and settle into our new roles with as much grace as we can muster. At other times, they take us by surprise, and make us feel a little lost. Regardless, I’ve found it’s never too late to start again, to embark on the journey ahead and to ask what is it that I want to do next?

Laura Pochintesta is a teacher, wife and mother who writes from her home in Connecticut.

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