The Mommy Vortex: Identity Theft by Minivan
I was having coffee the other day with a young friend of mine, who is in her late twenties. She is a bright, caring woman who also happens to be a wonderful elementary school teacher and an avid writer. The subject inevitably turned toward children—both her students and my own kids—and she very brazenly declared to me that she had no intention of having children of her own. I think, for a moment, she thought I would be shocked.
In fact, I was intrigued at her reasoning: she explained, without hesitation, that she didn’t want to lose her identity, and she believed having children would rob her of who she really is. I hesitated for a moment before realizing that I honestly couldn’t fully contradict her statement or her fears.
I had lost pieces of my own identity long ago. Eight years to be exact, when my first child was born. And I have spent countless hours trying to reclaim them.
I think other mothers might disagree with me on this point; I do understand both sides of the issue. There is a part of me that has been enhanced by being a mother; a part of me that I didn’t know even existed came alive when I had children; I found a new capacity to love, I discovered more patience, and I still learn new things about myself every day. And I really love my two little people. I couldn’t imagine life without them.
Yet, I couldn’t honestly tell my younger friend that she was wrong. I was not the same person I was before I had children. I was inexorably changed, and frankly, I was completely unprepared for that change. I still mourn the loss of my former self: that person who did superficial things like shopping for completely impractical high-heeled shoes to just-match a new outfit; that woman who was always fashionably dressed, latte in hand, ready to conquer the twelve-plus hour office work day; that girl who got to chat with her friends without the sound of whining, things breaking, or screeching wails in the background; that person who didn’t count two bites of a leftover chicken nugget and a handful of Goldfish crackers as a balanced lunch; that young woman who rolled her eyes at all mini-vans.
And more than that, I miss the person who had so many options, who could do anything she wanted whenever she wanted, from accepting a promotion to attending a World Series game with her work colleagues without worrying about childcare. I miss that young girl who never heard the words “work-life balance” or “extended day care.”
I remember people asking me when I was pregnant how I was going to handle being a “working mother” (that oxymoron still infuriates me; don’t all mothers work ?). I found it pretty ironic that no one ever asked my husband how he would handle working and parenting after the baby was born. That should have been my first clue that the parenting journey was going to be different for me as a mother.
Children change us, especially us moms, with the very basic reality that they need to be cared for constantly. Twenty-four/seven. And that responsibility can be a crushing weight on your time. And on your dreams. After my first child was born, I never felt like I could do anything 100%; work, the baby, the house, my husband—something always suffered in my quest to meet all my obligations.
My lofty dreams—the ones like writing a novel or going back to school for my PhD—were no longer on the horizon. Worse, they weren’t even on my radar (which was often covered with spit-up).
That is not to say that all the things I wanted to do or accomplish are forever gone. But I have to be honest with myself—most of those things are not going to happen now, at least not all at the same time as raising a family. There is sacrifice in that. I can’t think of one mother who has not sacrificed something in pursuit of parenting. And not to be too dramatic, but I think a little piece of my identity does fall away with each small sacrifice that is made for the greater good of raising well-adjusted children who I hope will one day be productive citizens.
So maybe my identity has not completely changed; perhaps it has just been modified. But I am absolutely not the same person that I was before having children. That person did not have the heavy weight of responsibility of raising two little people. That person had the luxury of time, and, for the most part, the selfish right to make decisions only for herself.
So as I listened to my friend, I had to agree with her. More than that, I had to commend her. When I was her age, it never occurred to me how different my life would be with children. Maybe it was naiveté, maybe it was too many cute diaper commercials. But I never, ever thought that I’d have to make small (and sometimes significant) sacrifices in the pursuit of being a mom.
I do wish the older women in my life had been more honest with me about how difficult it is to juggle, balance, and twist yourself into a pretzel in order to be a good parent, wife, partner, employee, friend . . . all at the same time.
And of course, no one forces us to have children. But I sincerely believe that there is so much beauty and value in having children and raising a family. So, no, I don’t think I’ve completely moved to Betty Friedan’s camp about “is this all?” for us moms, however, I do have to agree with her that we, as women, to be productive and happy, have to know ourselves as people through our creative talents and goals—and not just simply identify ourselves as moms. We are more complex than that. I think, then, if we can at least openly acknowledge that our identities are changed—or are at least challenged—after having children, then we can do something creative to maintain a little piece of who we are underneath all that diaper cream and spilled fruit juice.
I would hate to tell my own daughter not to have children on the premise that having her forced me to lose my own identity in some negative way. That would be unfair and not wholly true. But I would want her to first fully embrace who she is as a person, and understand that if she one day has children, she will undeniably have to modify who she is—maybe for just a little while. More so, I’d want her to embrace the fact that the essence of her being did not have to fall prey to car pools and bake sales forever.
And if she told me she didn’t want to have kids, I would respect that. Not every woman does. But for those of us that do, we owe it to our children to know ourselves—to recognize our sidelined dreams and goals—so that we can (eventually) reclaim our full identities, making us better parents, better people, and better examples for the next generation of moms.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.