A thirty-something gentleman in a black turtleneck and gray tweed jacket asks me what I do. Well, I'm a mother, I say for starters. But somewhere between the word "mother" and the words that follow, the conversation has ended. He thinks I'm a good person without ambition, knowledge or power.
He thinks of me in a box. Four walls. A stay-at-homemother.
He assumes that if he stands there much longer, I'll start playing peekaboo with him. I want to open my mouth and unravel my tongue into the air like a giant red carpet, and spew, "I know things!" I want to tell him the Nasdaq is up, and his fly is down. I want to humiliate him for dismissing me. Or is it me dismissing myself?
Having an identity never seemed to be an issue for myself. I found an identity in a title, in the eyes of others, on a payroll, engraved on an award. And yet, as hard as I worked to be Somebody, I really had no clue who I was until I became a mother and felt like my identity was missing. Is it because I lost it -- or is it that I never had it in the first place?
I have friends who put their careers aside or on hold to raise children. Some of my friends stayed home for a year, some for three years, and some until their babies went to college. I also know many devoted mothers who went back to work because they had jobs they had worked long and hard to procure, for which they had spent years in graduate school; jobs that offered them tenure, pension, lifelong security, benefits; jobs that meant food on the table, heat in the house and a working telephone. And I know others who went back to work right away because they could not stand the thought of being with the baby all day.
I vacillate between never wanting to work again and feeling oppressed by the thought of never working again. It isn't about a job. It's about the place I go to in my head when I'm not folding kitchen towels into rectangles and making sweet-potato puree and rocking the baby at 3:23 am. I need to peer beyond these walls. Is that necessarily outside the house? Society wants me to be doing something in the labor force on a payroll in order that I may be perceived as a professional. Am I a mother who used to be a journalist? Used to think? To create? Or am I now a woman who procreates?
The baby becomes the focus, the blank canvas (or so we presume) upon which we sketch our stories. Before motherhood, we talked about new jobs, our bosses, our assignments and accomplishments. Now our achievements are tightly swaddled in our baby's development.
Are we doing the right thing for our baby? For ourselves?
What is right? Do we calculate our legitimacy by what other mothers have chosen, by how our child is faring, by how wefeel -- or a combination of all three?
Can I choose and then accept my choice without holding myself hostage by the chains of self-doubt? It's clear to me now. The universe responds to us when we have already chosen -- when we have decided, in a moment of grace, to open ourselves up fully to our own possibilities. When we stop waiting for others to define our lives, to correct our mistakes, to change our circumstances. When we start living our own truth, following our own intuition, mustering courage to live without guilt and find a little joy in the process of our unfolding.
The focus shifts from whether I will work again (or whether someone out there thinks I'm worth hiring), to howI want to work, why I want to work, and what I want to do. Maybe I want to invent something, write a children's book, open a restaurant, design an educational toy, work with parents and children. This isn't about "having it all." It's about making a life, not a living.
Now, thereinlies an identity. Not in the task, the title or the assignment, but in the full investigation of our mixed emotions at every crossroads until, detour by detour, we discover the path to our true self.
My ambivalence has nothing to do with how much I love my child. It's not that I wish for another life or even regret the road taken, but rather that I am coming to understand the staggering complexity of our needs. This is much deeper than a mere choice between home or the workplace.
Before motherhood, I measured my growth by my earnings, my outcome by my income. But on the most successful day of my career, I still never felt like I had truly made a difference. The most prestigious position I have held never once made me feel as though I was part of a larger whole. I never felt eternity as a professional. I never suffered the shameful despair of wanting to quit and the itchy panic of knowing I could not take a tidy little leave of absence or change jobs altogether. I never felt the permanence of being loved. I never cared so much how somebody else was feeling. I never prayed for someone else first.
Sometimes, though, I am wistful, yearning for a time when I felt important in the eyes of others. Then I remind myself that I have never been more important than in the eyes of this small boy. And I was never as important at the office as I might have liked to believe.
Looking at my life before and after baby -- at labor before and after delivery -- I realize now that being a mother has given me an opportunity that I never had in the 16 years I worked before I had a baby: a chance to connect. To commit. To confront myself. To learn how to give without regret and receive without apology. To separate identity from image, and be accountable for who I am, not just what I do.