After my first son was born, there was one question that loomed large before me. It permeated every second of every day. This question impacted my decisions, and clouded my judgment. It pressed down on my shoulders and, like a shiny silver object, stole my attention. This question seemed to be at the essence of every aspect of motherhood, especially those parts that were hard, uncomfortable, or scary because every struggle, doubt, fear hinged on that one question: When will I feel like me again?
I asked that question when my husband left for work each morning, and I’d wonder when I would feel like the professional me. I missed the quiet of my office and interesting conversations. I even missed the small talk and water cooler chitchat, which had previously annoyed the crap out of me. And I missed feeling productive and accomplished, knowing that I had succeeded in completely a job well done, because there was very little about motherhood — with its endless cycle of diapers changes, feedings, and naps — that felt productive or well done.
I asked that question when I couldn’t manage to take a shower that included shampooing my hair, let alone shaving my legs, and I wondered when I would feel like the feminine me. I missed plucking my eyebrows without a baby strapped to my chest. I missed putting on makeup and trying on different clothes before going out to work or to dinner. I missed exercising and going for long morning runs. I missed feeling fresh and pretty, because there was very little about motherhood — with its leaky boobs, spit up, and diaper blowouts — that felt clean or pretty.
I asked that question when I heard about my friends’ dinner and happy hour plans, and I wondered when I would feel like the social me again. I missed spending three hours at a long dinner party talking about absolutely nothing and everything at the same time. I missed going to book clubs and have lingering phone conversations with my BFF. I missed adult conversations and comfortable silence with good friends, because there was very little about motherhood — with the piercing cries, nonstop shushing and baby talk — that felt adult or comfortable.
I asked that question when my husband and I went days without talking about anything other than feeding schedules and diaper changes and pediatrician appointments, and I wondered when I would feel like the romantic me again. I missed Friday night dinner dates and Saturday afternoon matinees. I missed staying up late dreaming about the future together. I missed last minute vacations. I missed sleeping in and unscheduled sex because there was very little about motherhood that was sexy or unscheduled.
I missed my old life, and I missed the old me.
The old me was fun and confident and smart. The old me didn’t nag about socks on the floor and bottles that weren’t rinsed. The old me was social and friendly and always up for a night out. The old me was, well, me. I had known that person. I liked that person. I felt comfortable with that person. And then all of a sudden, with this new moniker of Mom, the old me that I had known and loved was gone. Someone else had taken her place.
But it was more than just a longing for my old way of life; it was a lack of internal space in my life. Like a jar filled with big rocks, there were empty spaces between my various roles and identities — wife, friend, sister, daughter, professional — and I was able to breathe deep in those empty spaces because they provided a certain freedom and independence. It was in those empty spaces that I felt like me. The birth of my first son poured sand into the jar of my life, filling every open space between the big rocks with tiny grains of sand. And if there weren’t any empty spaces anymore, how would I feel like me?
I kept waiting and waiting and waiting, but the old me never returned. My baby turned 1 and then 2 and then 3. Then we had another baby. Rinse and repeat. I kept waiting and waiting and waiting.
This question — when will I feel like me again? — became answered in a series of when/then responses. When my son is sleeping through the night, then I’ll feel like me again. When my husband and I can get away for a weekend, then I’ll feel like me again. When I can go out for dinner with some friends, then I’ll feel like me again.
But although these things happened — there were dinners, vacations, and sleep — I still didn’t feel like me again. Well, I never felt like the old me again. But these days, I feel like a new me; a better me. I am Me 2.0.
Becoming a parent changes a person in many ways — big and small, obvious and obscure, expected and surprising ways. And quite simply, it’s impossible to go back to feeling like the person you were before becoming a parent. That person is gone, for better or worse.
For a long time, I wanted so badly to feel like the woman I had been before becoming a mother — this person that I had thought of as “me” — that I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the woman I was growing into might be better version of me. If I put the two versions of myself side by side, I’m not even sure I would recognize the old me anymore. And even more importantly, I don’t even want to feel like the old me anymore.
Slowly, over time, I have learned to not only accept, but love, the realities of motherhood and the me I was (and am) becoming. I’ve learned that what it means to “feel like me” is ever-evolving. I might be more tired and wrinkly, and I still can’t seem to find the time to pluck my eyebrows, but I feel more comfortable in my own skin, and more confident, than ever before. I might not have the exciting social life I did back then, but I’m happier spending a Saturday night in my pajamas on the couch with my husband than I would be in a crowded bar with loud music. I might get stressed about battles over homework and screen time, but overall I am more open-minded and less judgmental than ever before. Becoming a mother opened my mind, along with my heart.
It used to bother me that, even when away from my children, I could never take off the motherhood cloak. I could never not be a mother. They were always there, in the back of my mind somewhere like the grains of sand filling in the spaces, and I worried that I wouldn’t feel like me again without finding those empty spaces again. But over time, I’ve realized that the grains of sand are precisely what make me me.
Motherhood fills the empty spaces with obligations and worries and fears, no doubt. But motherhood also fills the empty spaces with love and compassion, purpose and meaning. My jar no longer has big empty spaces in which I can inhale deep breaths of independence and autonomy. But like magic, the jar has expanded, changed shape, and evolved, so that it can hold it all and somehow hold open space as well.
I might never feel like the woman I was before kids, but that’s okay. Because motherhood isn’t just about helping our children grow, but giving ourselves the space to grow as well.