Today I am sharing the piece I read in Listen To Your Mother Boulder 2016; it’s a story of my single parent years and my identity crisis as a mother. If you haven’t heard the news, this is the LAST year for Listen To Your Mother, and I am thrilled to be co-producing the grand finale Boulder 2017 show with Ellen Nordberg this spring. You can watch the video of my reading last year, and read my piece below.)
I roamed the parenting section of the library, searching for the perfect books to take with me on my upcoming vacation, if you could call a flight with a two-year-old a “vacation.” I skimmed the titles anxiously, not knowing exactly what I was looking for. I was looking for answers, I suppose, more specifically, answers to two questions. The first of which was, “Why do I suck at this?” and the second, the one that was clearly more shameful was, “Why don’t I always like this?”
I’d been a single mom since my two-year-old daughter was a baby, and in just a few days we would board a plane to Texas along with my boyfriend Shawn, whom my toddler called “NaNa,” to meet his parents for the first time.
It seemed important that I bring just the right reading material for a trip of this magnitude—after all, it’s not every day you meet your boyfriend’s parents with your two-year-old in tow. I selected the books, “Mother-Styles: Parenting For Your Personality Type” by Janet Penley and “I’m Okay . . . You’re a Brat!” by the late, great Susan Jeffers.
I will never forget reading the first few pages of “I’m Okay . . . You’re a Brat!” the first night we arrived in Texas. I cried as I read, tears of relief, because it was the first time I’d ever read anything that affirmed that it was okay not to enjoy motherhood all the time, that you were allowed to miss the person you once were. I devoured the book like a starving woman, which I was: I was starved for knowledge that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t defective, that my great identity crisis and subsequent discontent didn’t mean that I didn’t love my daughter.
The mother-infant dyad had been a relatively blissful stage of life for me. My baby and I were entwined in such a way that, although my life had transformed remarkably, I still felt relatively intact. As she grew into a toddler, she became a baffling creature who wanted to do everything “her big-girl self” and said my name no less than a hundred times a day—but wait, Mommy wasn’t my actual name, was it? She was a mystery to me. And I was becoming a mystery to myself, too.
I dreaded sundown daily, as it meant the onset of my daughter’s convoluted and highly unpleasant bedtime routine and the possibility of yet another middle of the night visit to Mommy’s bed. It was the time of day when I felt my parental ineptitude was most greatly magnified. I had so many questions about parenting: What do you do when your toddler dumps out every single toy bin in her room after you tuck her in? How much TV is too much? Does my kid need mood stabilizers? How many sweets are OK?
As an overachieving, lifelong perfectionist who graduated summa cum laude, it had never occurred to me that there would be moments in parenting where I literally had no idea what to do. And as a woman who had always dreamed of motherhood, it had also not occurred to me that sometimes I might not like it.
Our trip to Texas exemplified all that was challenging about parenting for me: difficult bedtimes, tantrums, not to mention the fact that my daughter was newly potty-trained, and our trip caused a textbook toilet regression. Most of the pictures of my daughter on that vacation feature her wearing pajama bottoms with her regular clothing, as she had peed through every pair of pants in such quick succession we hadn’t had time to wash them.
One day, Shawn’s father and stepmother took us shopping. We parted company at a large discount department store where we found ourselves in the midst of yet another potty accident. I looked around frantically for a restroom, and, finding none, began to quickly strip my daughter of her wet bottoms in the deserted shoe aisle. Shawn handed me the backup clothing, but before I could hastily slap them on my toddler, it became clear that her business was not quite finished. A look came over her face, a familiar expression, a straining, her cheeks turned red. Dammit.
“Hand me a wipe!” I hissed, and draped them over my hands, which I then cupped beneath my daughter’s undercarriage like some sort of digestive midwife waiting to catch her creation. As there was also no trash can in sight, I handed the mess off to Shawn, who dashed outside with it as though we were participants in an ill-advised fecal relay race.
That was the moment I knew he was in it for good. A little known fact is that baptism by poop is even more effective than baptism by fire.
That trip was the pinnacle of my identity crisis as a mother. I was parenting a toddler, mostly on my own, and also dating, exploring a more committed relationship. I had one foot in the land of single young adulthood and one in the vastly different landscape of parenthood. It’s no wonder I had no clue who I was, and no wonder I felt resentful at times and longed for respite.
The years ahead brought not only my marriage to Shawn, the memorable day when he adopted my daughter—and the evolution of NaNa into Daddy—but the birth of a second daughter, the birth of my writing career, and even thoughts of having a third child. Life evolved, as it does, and my identity crisis began to resolve itself a bit as well. My daughter is nine years old now, her baby sister is four, and nobody’s poop has touched my hands for some time.
Reading Dr. Jeffers’ book that spring evening in Texas awakened something in me. During a time when I was so thoroughly “in the trenches of parenthood,” as they say, I was given permission to struggle with my identity, and permission not to be perfect, permission not to love every minute. I began writing about parenthood shortly after we returned.
The identity of “Mommy” and Mommy alone has given way to something new, a life of my own creation. I am mindful of the moments when I would prefer to shed my children’s company for a brief time and embrace solitude. But I no longer feel destroyed by guilt in those moments.
In fact, as the paradoxical parenting pendulum tends to do, I now find myself swinging to the other side at times, feeling desperately anxious that they don’t need me as much. Those quiet weekend mornings I used to long for when dragging my bleary-eyed self to turn on Sprout for an early-rising two-year-old will happen before I want them to. I can see a future where friends and social outings are more important than the constant presence and comfort of Mommy. And it hurts.
It seems we can’t ever win in that sense, mothers. We crave our space when our babies cling to us without reprieve, and we long for them when they are gone. My name is Mommy. It will always be Mommy. And my name is Stephanie. It always has been, even when I forgot it.
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