Do you ever have a moment, an exchange, an incident that pops into your head over and over again from time to time? Something about it stays with you and strikes a chord repeatedly. You could be buying groceries or getting dressed for an evening out, and suddenly this well-worn memory just shows up and captures your thoughts all over again. I have a particularly stubborn one that resurfaces on weekly basis. I’m haunted by something someone who was once close to me said a few years ago. While I was in throws of infertility, while I was exhausted in every way possible from all the time, energy and effort spent on the mere possibility of having a baby, a friend said something very striking to me. She said: “my child doesn’t define me.”
It was a nothing statement. What I mean is that she wasn’t making a declaration about motherhood at the time. We weren’t discussing motherhood at all, but were instead talking about major life transitions and her need to have someone special in her life. Nothing to do with having children. And yet, this utterance jumped out, grabbed me by my proverbial collar and slapped me in the face. Here I was, at the time, defined by my pain of being without and unable to have a child. And here was this other woman, a dear friend, telling me that the thing I wanted to have most in life wasn’t the defining thing in hers.
No judgments. She was simply expressing her feelings. But her feelings and the way she talked about them come back to grip my thoughts over and over again. At the time, I was simply too emotionally raw to digest it. I really couldn’t, you see, because I wasn’t a mother yet. But I did think a lot about her words. Could this be how I’d feel if I ever became a mother? Not possible! Right?
A few months after this exchange, I was pregnant and a year after it, I was an exhausted and emotional new mom and our friendship was experiencing the weirdest slow death possible due to reasons unrelated to this exchange—I think. During those first few months of motherhood, a time so profound, emotional and all consuming, the notion of not being defined by one’s child kept resurfacing. Usually at 2 in the morning, while I nursed my tiny baby. A new mom, for many big and small reasons, is nothing if not defined by motherhood. I mean, at least that was how it was for me. A tiny helpless baby’s existence depended on me. My everything was this child, with jaundice and small, needy and crying. And, most of the time, I had no idea what I was doing. I simply put my all into caring for her, sleeping when she slept (or at least trying to), crying when she cried, and feeling like I was the best person in the world when she smiled, even if the expression was the result of just gas. I would remember my old friend’s words and I couldn’t fathom the true meaning of what she had said. During those days, I was totally defined by what was happening. The person I used to be seemed to have disappeared. I was utterly incapable of being anyone other than this baby’s mother. Wasn’t this how it was always going to be?
Time went by. My daughter grew, got strong, got big, changed, changed, and kept changing. I waited for the “normal life” to return. I lamented the loss of so many things that used give meaning to my life: reading books, going to the theater or the opera, spending time alone, spending time together with my husband, seeing friends, going out to dinner, going to the movies, or simply sitting in complete peace and just thinking. Life was nursing, burping, playing, diaper changes, naps, and trying to keep my head above water. And the words kept coming back to visit me: “my child doesn’t define me.”
What was I doing wrong, I wondered? How come I felt exactly the opposite? I had once read that in France, women make it their mission to return to “normal life” within 6 months of giving birth. They get their kids to “do their nights” (meaning to sleep though the night), they stop breastfeeding, lose all their baby weight and promptly return to their pre-baby lives, getting their babies to adjust as they go along. So admirable! I had told myself that this was going to be me. Declared it to everyone, including to my husband who still questions me as to the whereabouts that woman who made that promise on weekly basis. And yet, at 6, 7, 8 months and beyond, I didn’t go back to my “normal life”, taking bébé along. I had a new life, a new ever-shifting normal. I was defined by being my child’s mother. I was defined by the daily shifts and changes that she brought to my life.
She’s now 15 months old. She walks and “talks”. A mini little person, blossoming before my very eyes. She has a cheerful disposition and a great sense of humor. She smiles all the time. The happiest kid I know and a true joy. And, as much as I love my life as her mom, I still miss coffee dates, weekend trips, dinners out, concerts, movies and all the other stuff of my old life. But I no longer ask what I’m doing wrong. I no longer strive to be a French woman. Instead, I tell myself that these precious times are fleeting and temporary and that they’ll be gone before I know it. I know that in time I’ll be able to reclaim most, if not all, of my old life and I know that she’ll come along with me as I forge a new life for us.
I miss so much stuff, that’s true. There are so many limits to what I can do right now. But, I’m so aware and thankful of all the great and good things I have in this life that I didn’t have in my old one, just 2 years ago. And that is something that helps to define me.
How do I define life these days? I don’t. Because I am defined by not just one thing like my profession or even by motherhood. I am defined by every experience, every opportunity, every misery, every victory, every sadness, every brave act, every fear and every single moment I am alive. I’m defined by my values, my politics, my culture, my beliefs, my intellect, my boundaries, my limitations and my standards, my failings and, yes, my role as a mother. My child absolutely defines me. But, she alone doesn’t define who I am. You see, I’m undefined because I’m unfinished. I’m ever changing and ever evolving- as a human, a woman, and a mother. I’m defined by this incompleteness. And I’m okay with it. Actually, I’m more than okay with it. I cherish it. This is me and this is my defined undefined life.