For 16 years, when asked, “What do you do?”, I knew the answer. I’m a teacher.
Recently I resigned. I’m confident it was the best decision for me, and for my family; but now, without a profession or title, who am I?
I conjure up images of myself cooking well-balanced meals, wiping dirt from small hands, and explaining how to multiply fractions to a skeptical tween-ager. Oh, I know! I’m a mom.
I picture my husband and I, in the beginning, crammed together into 600 square feet with two cats. After we married, we schlepped oversized backpacks through foreign countries, choosing destinations with giant maps and train schedules spread over wooden pub tables. And now, toggled between parenthood and coupledom, we steal date nights to sip whiskey and hold uninterrupted conversation (usually about our kids) over a meal prepared by someone other than me. I’m a wife.
Now, when I am asked, “What do you do?” I’m overcome with either waves of panic or contented fulfillment – depending on the context or situation. I can think of no simple answer because parenthood brings a duality to one’s very identity. “What do you do?” has become synonymous with, Who are you?
Without a title, my purpose becomes slippery, open-ended, undefined.
The simple answer is, “I’m a mom.” Even though anyone in the business of raising humans knows there’s no such thing as being just a parent, I feel the need to belong to a category, so Mom is the one I choose.
In childhood, labels abound to describe us: we are daughters and sons, BFF’s, jocks, bookworms. The centrally defining question is one we answer with rapid-fire ease, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Declarations burst from our tongues: doctors, firefighters, astronauts, teachers. This is who we want to be.
In college, the defining question changes “What’s your major?” In a sea of pseudo-adulthood, we’re sorted and grouped again, this time into easily identifiable piles of like-minded peers. We find comfort in our label, in belonging to a group. We are marine biology, business communications, liberal arts, psychology. This is who we will be.
Over the years I’ve been shuffled and re-dealt into new stacks and groups – labeled with helpful monikers telling me who I am.
I’m a grad student. I’m a teacher. I’m a wife.
And then I became a mother. It was lovely and strange and new and everything. It filled me up. This is who I am.
“Mom” may now be my sole job descriptor, but I am more than a label. (We all are.) Balancing parenthood and womanhood and adulthood is a messy business, so my answer to the question of who I am is a messy one.
I’m a woman who wants to be the best, most productive version of herself– walking my dogs, doing Pilates, and drinking kale smoothies with flaxseed oil. But instead, I usher my kids out the door for school, do a cursory sweep of the disheveled contents of my house, and hunch over my laptop until noon in my PJs. When the clock demands it, I change from pajamas to fancier pajamas more suitable for outings – with things like paisleys or tiny owls on them. I throw whole grain bread in the toaster and rush out the door to pick up kids who like the paisleys on my ‘pants’ and accept me for my shortcomings. (This, I think, is because I always put whipped cream on their waffles.)
I am a mom who wants to be the best version of a mother, playing games and enjoying her children. But often our games of Go Fish or Hide-and-Seek devolve into a cacophony of fighting and tears because one sibling ‘peeks’ at the other’s cards, or another doesn’t take long enough to count to 20 before shouting, “Ready or not, here I come!”
In these moments, I want to be The Fixer. But more often I’m The Yeller. I lose my patience, banish them to bedrooms, and find disbelief in how slowly the minutes drag by until bedtime.
I am a wife, who by the time her husband gets home from work, is tired of talking, and answering, and thinking, and serving, and doing, and being needed constantly by the two little humans we made together, so I’m not nearly the wife I meant to be. But I’m an excellent chooser of husbands, and somehow I’m forgiven.
I am a night owl who stays up too late because nighttime is my sanctuary of quiet. No longer on the clock, I can read, write, or binge watch shows the Y chromosomes in my house do not fully appreciate. It’s in the stillness of night when I release all the worry and hopes and fears for my family I’ve been gripping tightly all day. At night, we are all safe together in one place, so I can let go the slack.
When my children are asleep, I forget about eye-rolling and yelling, and the 47,000 snacks I prepared and served (between meals). When I’m alone in my refuge of noiseless calm, I imagine my children are perfect. I fight the urge to race upstairs and brush their unruly thick hair from their beautiful dreaming faces to whisper, “I love you,” into the moonlit silence of their rooms.
I’m caught between my yearning to reaffirm my love for them, and my desire for them to remain asleep, allowing me to savor the tranquility I’ve longed for all day.
I am in constant flux.
I don’t have an answer ready when someone asks, “What do you do?” because it changes from day to day. Motherhood has not brought certainty of what my path should be, but it has brought acceptance that detours are part of the adventure.
Free of titles or monikers, I know who I am – I’m a work in progress, and that’s an okay thing to be.