Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
I am four years now a mother.
I have learnt a huge amount. About the limits of my patience, Emma Wiggle, pureeing vegetables, holding small hands, holding small hearts, the power of the Band-Aid. I have developed my own “go to sleep” shush, met a small but bloody brilliant group of likeminded parents, increased my coffee intake threefold. Grown, held, kissed, rocked, walked, giggled, skipped, climbed. I have two beautiful kids.
And yet, I often feel lost in myself.
I am a food lover who rarely eats out. I am an ambitious career woman who works part-time. I am a world traveller for whom a day trip is now a big deal. I am a morning person who craves a sleep in.
I was a foodie. I was ambitious. I was an adventurer. I was a morning person.
So much has changed in the past four years. And I now wonder, What is it time to let go of? What of these things I held dear are now past Jess? Which are just on hold for a time when my kids are bigger? Which are gone forever, to be replaced? How much space do I give this new identity, that of Mum?
I see women I admire forging ahead like nothing has changed since becoming a mum. They might share the the occasional remark about smeared Weetbix on a work shirt, or childcare guilt. But from the outside, not much seems to have changed. They still exercise, travel, work. It seems like now they just also go to the zoo on the weekend.
For me, so much of my old self doesn’t seem to fit anymore.
The dreams I had of what my life would look like are out of focus now. I was to be a high flyer, make a splash, take risks, climb mountains (literally). I used to run marathons, work long hours, cook Ottolenghi. Now I go to the park, do a decent-ish job at work and buy kids’ detangling brushes on my lunch break.
In many ways my life is richer with kids than without. I delight in new words, first steps, big eyes. I sit under a tree with my girls on a sunny day and there’s nowhere I would rather be. I eat spag bol and talk about cement mixers, my past, and how ceiling fans work. I laugh more than ever before. I feel bloody lucky to tuck kids into bed, to run behind a scooter, to play a role in gently, haphazardly shepherding two people into the wide world.
I am not sure why I disappeared so fully when I had kids. Some people seem to keep themselves and their children discrete, like trains on parallel tracks. Not me.
Partly, I think I fell for the “mother as everything” fallacy. I tried so hard to have some control over this thing that is so out of my control that I became smaller, tighter, more rigid. I was so tired. I am so tired. My confidence fell out from under my feet in the early months of parenting. I strode to make something solid to hold on to yet that solid thing became too hard, too narrow.
Partly, becoming a parent was such a shock, such a contrast with life as it had been, such a deep dive into love and responsibility and selflessness that it has taken me a few years to emerge again.
Partly, I struggled to see where to find the new, parently me. I scrolled for examples of what motherhood was on Instagram. It either looked like women being exactly the same as they were before kids, or like floaty dresses and wooden toys and home schooling in Byron Bay.
I read a lot about parenting. Too much. Grasping for models of me. I read that I should get a Mum uniform, take time to make myself feel beautiful, spend time with the partner, co-sleep with my kids, encourage independent play and every other piece of conflicting, maddening advice available to us as parents.
The other day I heard the end of an interview on the radio. They were talking about a study that looked at the recovery of people seriously injured in car accidents. The study found that people who found a way to understand what had happened to them recovered much faster than those who didn’t. Even if the explanation was that aliens in flying saucers caused the car to slam into them that day, that was better than not having a way to make meaning and sense of this upending of their lives.
And this is where I land, for now at least. I have spent the last four years, in part, mourning my old life. Mourning my independence, my freedom, the ability to think only about myself. My question, however, has been the same one I have been asking for decades, “What is my legacy? What is important?” My struggle has been in not knowing how different the answer to this question is now I am a mother. I haven’t even found the aliens and flying saucers to make sense of what is different and what is the same.
So that is my task. To take time to answer these questions for myself. And to talk to others about these questions, among the surface stuff about sleep and two-year-old molars and breastfeeding hair loss.
I agree in part with Hugh Mackay, who says that you don’t find yourself—or the meaning of your life—by looking in the mirror, but by looking in the faces of the people who love you. I don’t want to be always happy; I want to have character, be joyful and be of use to others. But in this season of looking after others, I think there is need to also answer these questions for myself, and really take in the faces around me—not those on my phone screen or the anxiety inducing pages of a baby book.
I need to find some answers to these questions so that when I do have time to myself I don’t spend it scrolling Instagram. I need to know what stuff is so important that I need to do it, kids or no kids. How do I want to be remembered? The answer to this question is not static. It would and should shift in relation to any big life event. It has taken me more than four years. I imagine it will take me longer still. Out with Ottolenghi, book an overseas trip, keep the passion for fairness, sub in walking for running, add in a love of the kids cartoon Bluey. I am making up the new me.