Somewhere along the line, I gave up on myself. The things that once so clearly defined me as a person are now just long-distant memories, and I seem to have forgotten who I wanted to be. Once upon a time, I was a person, a woman, an artist, a lover, a great conversationalist, a daredevil, a writer and a thinker.
And then I had kids.
And all those things I used to be coalesced into this giant ball of melted brains and exhaustion called "mom."
I have four of the most beautiful boys you could ever wish to see. Ranging in age from four months to seven years, they resemble nothing so much as one of those posters showing the evolution of man - four versions of the same face: baby, toddler, preschooler and elementary age. Blue eyes, blond hair, pale skin and dirty faces. I look at them and see my greatest contribution to the world. What else could compare?
Certainly not my old paintings. The ones that were so dear to me once upon a time. The ones that I spent hours or days completing, back when I was childless, living thousands of miles from home in a foreign country, bathing in deep pools of depression which only art could see me through. Several of them I ripped up in a fit of anger as a sleep deprived new mother. Others were thrown into the attic and left behind when we moved from England to Florida. Some survive, buried in a box somewhere in a cold storage area in our basement. But when I last dug them out, I could only shrug my shoulders and admit that they were worthless. Just some amateur watercolors that some other person did. Some person who wasn't a mom. The me before I created the truly magnificent art that is my children.
Then there are the stories. Dig through any of my old hard drives and find pages upon pages of half-finished novels, character descriptions and outlines for stories. I have a dozen old archived blogs filled with emo poetry, short stories and children's books that I once was convinced would make me the next JK Rowling. In the same box that stores my old art, you can find childish scribblings and illustrations from my elementary school days, proof that I have wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to hold a pen. But that was then. Now, my stories are reserved for bedtime. I can't remember day to day the crazy fables I've made up for tired children. My five year old begged me to re-tell the story about the monkey who didn't like bananas and the tiger who had spots instead of stripes. I had no idea what story he was talking about, but he swore that it was his favorite. I only wish I'd written it down.
Before kids, I was proud of my body. It ran the gamut between excessively fat and occasionally too thin, but it was strong and sturdy and could do anything I asked of it. Now it is flaccid and tired. I can't bend or stretch or run or even walk all that well. Four pregnancies have given me a permanent belly and sagging skin, and my constant stress keeps me from sleeping or eating well. I don't recognize myself when I look in the mirror. I am made of back pain and cellulite. But this body gave me four strong and sturdy children, so in motherhood, I guess I have proven my strength and endurance once and for all.
Once upon a time, I was fearless. I started conversations with everyone I met, I never said no to an adventure, and I loved to explore. Now I look at each step I take with fear and uncertainty, worrying myself about the dangers it may present to those tiny souls I love the best. "Be careful!" has become my battle cry, and I am equally worried that I'm too strict and too lax. Am I teaching them good skills for being safe, or am I coddling them and making them afraid to go out and live their lives?
In everything, I am a mother. I put off writing the stories and painting the canvases and meeting the people because there is always a child to cuddle or feed or help with homework. I am at war with myself, wanting to be more than "just" a mother, while simultaneously feeling ashamed that I want to be anything else.
I find myself wondering what I'd do if my kids were all safely at camp for a day (an idea I hesitate even fantasizing about due to that all-consuming fear that overcomes me when presented with the thought of my children being looked after by anyone but me). If the kids were happily occupied and my husband was otherwise engaged, what would I do with myself? Who would I choose to be in those minutes or hours or days? Would I paint or write or go shopping or take a long bath or go to the gym or see a film or take a class or invite a neglected friend for a drink? I admit that I have no shortage of ideas of things I could potentially do for a short while. There's a million things I miss doing, and I'm sure I'd jump at the chance to do them.
But the bigger question is what will I do with myself when my kids are safely grown and out of the house and don't need me day to day? Who will I be then? I don't want to be the mom that calls every day or insists they come home for every holiday. I want to be the mom who encourages them to get out and spread their wings to fly. I want them to explore the world and see all that can be seen. I want to encourage them to love unconditionally and often. I want them to think with their heads and their hearts. I want them to think too much but to also be spontaneous. I want them to know who they are and whose they are.
And this is how it hits me. For all the things I want them to do and be, I have to lead by example. I have to be a little selfish once in a while, taking the time I need to be the me I like the best. I need to wake up early on a Saturday and drive to Starbucks with my laptop and write for hours. I need to lock myself in my craft room with a bottle of wine some evening and allow myself to CREATE. I want to jump on the treadmill and power walk through episodes of some cheesy sci-fi show that no one else likes. I want to play with makeup and hairstyles and shamelessly take duck-face selfies because DAMNIT I AM THE ONLY WOMAN IN THIS HOUSE AND I WANT TO FEEL LIKE A GIRL ONCE IN A WHILE. I want to not be afraid to bundle the kids in the car and drive three hours away to go see some ridiculous roadside attraction that would make us all laugh just for the memories.
The truth is that I can't separate who I am as a person from who I am as a mom. Being a mom is the biggest part of my identity, but it's not the ONLY part. I am a mom who writes and paints and laughs. The woman who jumps on the trampoline because it's fun is the same woman who will pee her pants while doing it because she has birthed four kids, and that's just how it is now.
The me I like the best is the one who doesn't feel a need to separate her womanhood from her motherhood. I don't just happen to be a mom - I am a mom who happens to be a woman worth knowing.