The day I moved my sons’ sticker- and snack-encrusted art table from our dining area to our basement symbolized a profoundly important shift. As I built the small bookcase that would take over the vacant spot and stocked three of its four shelves with my cookbooks and culinary plating supplies, I realized my true intent: reclaiming some space for me as Emily, the woman who is a mom but who is also much more.
Before I had children, I’d survived heartbreak, disordered eating, and unexpected moves. I’d aced graduate school, traveled abroad, and managed to afford my own (exceedingly small) apartment in New York City. I was goal-oriented and energetic to be sure, but strong? That wasn’t a self-descriptor I used.
It wasn’t until I became a mother and had to define and assert myself against the needs of dependent others, that I really flexed the muscle known as strength. I didn’t know that doing so required such determination or that it could feel at odds with the role I’d so eagerly taken on.
In short, caring for self in the role of mother is an entirely different ballgame, and one I wasn’t sure how to play.
With each of my sons, I relished the newborn stage and months that followed. Though I was always tired, rocking and nursing my babes throughout the nights was a joy. I was high on love and oxytocin. Neither of them cared about my dreadful singing voice any more than I cared about the spit-up smell that accompanied me back to bed.
I fed and played and covered the outlets and applied sunscreen. I described and read our way through the days, and as I watched them take everything in, my own relationship with the world around us deepened.
And yet, something went missing during all of this enthused tending, and that was my own sense of self. An identity I was certain would be completed by donning the mother mantle was actually somewhat hidden by it.
I became aware that while being addressed “Jack’s mom…” or “Oliver’s mom” by their tiny classmates or bigger folks like the shoe saleswomen made me smile, it also made me pause. Wasn’t I Jack’s and Oliver’s mom but also Emily? Wasn’t I their mother but also a wife, daughter and woman who created recipes and volunteered and loved crosswords?
Yes. As the days passed, the desire to more fully inhabit the being I once was other than Mom grew increasingly urgent. I think it was self-preservation trying to scratch its way to the surface.
This longing was confusing and worrisome: “I’m a stay-at-home mom. How do I alter the mother-children dynamic to be more balanced but not make the boys feel rejected? How do I ask for more time for myself when I’m not contributing financially to the family?”
As is often true, the answers rested within my own heart. I only needed to listen to and trust the voice urging me to tend to myself. Emboldened, I relocated the boys’ art table. Started my blog. Turned the wooden playhouse the kids abandoned into a peaceful writing studio just for me. Began teaching cooking classes.
It is all too easy to subordinate our self-love to that we feel for our children. But what is the cost? What do we have left for ourselves if we give everything away?
Having pushed back against that tendency to let the scales swing out of balance, I recognize the strength that I’ve derived by choosing to care for myself as I do for my kids, husband, extended family, and friends. Maintaining equilibrium on a daily basis is challenging, but we are all works in progress, and so I soldier on.
My hope is that as my sons see me fulfilled by being their mother as well as all I am beyond that, they will reach for such equilibrium and encourage it in others. Doing so requires vigilance and effort but the reward is a choate self. I can hardly think of a better lesson to share.