Who am I—if I no longer do the things that used to define me?
Does becoming a mother change the essence of who you are?
For a long time before I had children, I had no reason to consider my identity—not whether I was true to it, and not even, really, what it was.
I’d always wanted to be a writer and, at 31, by the time my daughter was born, I had one novel published and another one on the way.
I’d been with my husband for 11 years, so any adjustments to that relationship had long been taken care of.
I had friends and hobbies and a regular yoga class. I’d recently earned a black belt in tae kwon do, which I was proud of, though I admit it makes me sound considerably more badass than I actually am. Mostly I was what I’d always been—what they call in the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer an “indoor kid.” I never came home from school and headed out the door with a bike or a ball. I liked to read. I liked to watch TV. I liked to think about what I was reading and watching on TV.
The thing about those pursuits—and the thing about being a writer—is that they involve mental departure from your actual life, losing yourself in a story that is not your own.
As it turns out, babies and small children don’t consider such departure acceptable.
They want you there, and they want you there right now.
If you don’t oblige, they scream, and it’s awfully hard to think when they’re screaming. When you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time alone, by necessity, and also, I’ve come to think, by inclination.
When you’re the stay-at-home mother of an infant, you spend almost no time alone, and thinking goes out the window, unless you count anxious fretting over when to start solid foods and how to persuade the baby to go down for a nap. It’s unclear to me now why I imagined that this wouldn’t be a difficult adjustment.
In my first year of motherhood, I didn’t write a word of fiction. For years, I’d measured the worth of a day by how many pages I’d managed to produce. Now, I produced nothing. I stayed home with my daughter while my husband worked, and I fed her and rocked her and sang to her. I took her for walks. I photographed her in all her outfits. I went a little bit crazy.
Among the many factors I’d failed to consider while planning my year of stay-at-home motherhood, was what happens to your identity when it’s based largely on doing something you no longer have the time or the energy to do. You’re left wondering: Who am I without this? Who am I at the core?
Among the parents I know, there’s a general consensus that having kids is life’s big before and after. But what is it that changes so dramatically? Is it just your circumstances, or is it your essential self? Of course, that’s a philosophical question that would be difficult enough to ponder even if no one in the room was screaming.
As I attempted, nevertheless, to decide whether I had changed... whether I was now a Mother with a capital M... it began to bother me that my husband didn’t seem to be experiencing the same internal debate.
He got up in the night with the baby. He changed diapers. He became an expert swaddler. But in other ways, he seemed to go on living our old life—working, writing, staying up late to read—while I’d moved far, far away, to Planet Baby. He didn’t seem to feel that his essential self had changed, or that it needed to.
I tried to fight the resentment I felt when he had to work late, when he wanted to talk about politics, when he went to his brother’s house to record music. I envied him his office job, at a place where I myself had worked before my first book sold, a place I’d been perfectly happy to leave. I couldn’t resent him for being unsupportive or failing to respect my career: he watched the baby in the mornings before he went to work, giving me time to myself that I could have used to write, but didn’t. What bothered me was that he was mentally, emotionally able to work when I wasn’t. What bothered me was that for years we’d had the same priorities, and lived the same life, and I wanted that to go on being true.
Whatever had happened to change me, I wanted it to change him, too.
I wanted him to be nothing but a husband and a father, even as I struggled with the idea that I was nothing but a mother and a wife.
I wanted him to no longer want to play music with his brother, to lose interest in his fantasy baseball teams, to stop trying to have a conversation with me that wasn’t about the baby.
It took me about a year to understand that, instead of trying to get him to give up what made him who he was, I shouldn’t have abandoned my own defining interests so completely.
All along, he kept telling me I needed to go back to writing, and all along he was right. For a year I didn’t feel like myself, and then, finally, with him watching the baby in the next room, I sat down at the computer, and there I was again.
There are plenty of other activities from my pre-motherhood days that disappeared from my life, never to return: tae kwon do, staying up past midnight, calling people back in fewer than three or four days. That’s fine; I don’t need those things to be me.
But the writing—that I apparently can’t do without.
So maybe the trick, the way to find a balance between before and after, is to discover what you do that makes you most yourself, and to make sure that you, and your husband, carve out the time that allows you to do it.
For some women, I know that’s work. For others it’s a social life, it’s cooking, it’s an artistic pursuit.
One friend told me recently that she didn’t know how she’d live without the dance class we both take.
In much of her life, she’s a stay-at-home mom who used to be a math teacher, but in that class she’s nothing but a fabulous dancer.
She kicks, she steps, she circles her hips. She does something she’s good at, something she loves, and for the moment her complicated self is made satisfyingly simple.
This, right here, is who she is.
Leah Stewart is the author of several novels, including What You Didn’t Know About Charlie Outlaw (March 2018). She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children, and teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.