I have gotten lost in my kids. Not in the vicarious way, whereby my identity is defined by their accomplishments, but more by the lack of “me” time available, whence I can express my individuality. There is a great commercial on the air these days that shows a twenty something young adult, leaving home for the first time, reluctantly, fearing that her parents will wither and die without her around. She believes that their lives revolve around her and so upon her departure, she imagines them sitting depressed at home, doing nothing at all. The camera breaks away to the parents. They can barely contain their glee. They are shown constantly on the go, beaming with joy, their lives finally returned to them.
I started thinking about this in relation to my own life, after a twenty something client of mine expressed amazement at the activities his mother was currently engaged in. He spoke almost as if she were a stranger to him, caught in some mid-life crisis bender of new pursuits. His mother happens to be a friend of mine, and I have only known her to be an active cyclist and golfer. “There is no way she would have done any of these things when I was a kid. Golf? Are you kidding me!” he shared. He looked at the situation as if she were suddenly a different person. I knew better however. She was the same person, but having children had forced her to become a “paused” version of herself, until the glorious day when her children had become self sufficient.
That’s exactly what it feels like. My life is on “pause”. I couldn’t even tell you where on the hierarchy of family priorities my interests lie. Oh sure, remnants of me pop up now and then, as I eke out time to do something for “me”. The problem is, I can’t get a rhythm going ... there is no consistency. After a while, I guess I give up on things, knowing I will surely be interrupted or be unable to finish due to unpredictable changes in events.
The ironic thing about all of this, is that my kids are defining me by this “paused” role. At some point in their future, they will find themselves bewildered by my behavior, as I return to some prior interest with zest, knowing that “me” time will dependably be there. There won’t be soccer practices, PTA meetings, or any other of the numerous obligations parenthood entails. I might even be able to finally drop the extra twenty pounds I’ve been hauling around since they were born.
In wishing for my personhood to become “un-paused”, I risk also wishing away my children’s childhoods. Some would argue, including myself, that this self hibernation is worth it, for all of the rich experiences raising children offers. The cliché of needing to find balance begins to haunt me again. As their mom, I am an example. Giving up on my own interests is a lost opportunity to expose them to my way of expressing my individuality and independence. If I allow myself to immerse all of myself into being just their mom, how can I expect them to become diverse, independent people? Please don’t mistake the previous sentence as a mom slam. Mommidom is certainly a great and challenging role. Consider however, that if our goal is to teach our kids to be whole people, don’t we need to be whole people ourselves?
I have one friend whose children have just left the nest and are off to college. In their entire childhood, this friend and her husband never took a single trip, day or night away from their children. Seriously. NEVER. Bless her; she was the perfect text book mom. She didn’t work outside of the home, she baked, and I am sure she has more than one apron. Will her sons now be searching their whole lives for the perfect “Leave it to Beaver” mom, as they model their spousal choice after her? There isn’t anything wrong with that, but surely there are other characteristics that she could have brought to the table for their and more importantly her benefit.
Who will she be now that her kids are gone? She didn’t just pause her own life, she stopped it dead in it’s’ tracks. Guilted into believing that taking personal time was a mommy failure. Well I’ve got news for you ... it’s not. I constantly rip myself apart with guilt for being a career woman and mom. I never feel I give either pursuit my full attention, and how could I? Both are full time jobs. I lamented to a friend about this constant guilt once and she replied in her patient and eloquent way, “You are such a loser!” She reminded me about how great my family is, how successful I am in business. “You’ve got great, well adjusted kids. Your business is rocking. What’s your problem?” she asked more loudly than I had expected. The problem is we often try to live up to some external script that we or society has created: “If you do X then you are a good mom. If you do Y, your children will be axe murderers.” (Having murderous children is the great mommy fear). I’ve learned that when raising children, you have to write your own script. At baby showers, they have that game where everyone writes some sage mommy advice on a piece of paper that is later made into a handy how-to guide for the mom-to-be. Guess what I write? “Don’t listen to anyone else’s’ advice, do what works for you.”
Unlike my fully vested mom friend, I have not given up all of myself for my kids. My husband and I have gone on trips without them, we take individual trips too, me with my friends, he with his. As they get older, I have started to find time to work out more regularly, write some and I may even get back to painting. I am spending more time with friends and took up golf and joined a bowling league (that might freak them out a bit). The goal is to do all this without feeling guilty, and making it okay to put some of these things at the top of the priority list. I’ve read that teaching children that it is okay to take “you” time, teaches them that they can ask for that too.