During a recent team-building exercise at my new job the group leader passed out little slips of paper that read simply, “I am …” We were all given 30 seconds to complete the sentence with one word that summed us up. After rejecting “detail-oriented” because I wasn’t sure if it counted as two words, I just stared at the paper, trying to think of something. Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but it really can drag on longer than you’d think. Finally, as the leader started to count down the last few seconds, I just wrote “Mom” and passed it in.
Mom. It is absolutely true that that is one of the main ways I identify. I adore my kids and think and worry about them and delight in them constantly. And from as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a mom – an artist/acrobat/singer/mom when I was 5 and a vet/writer/mom when I was 10 and a journalist/editor/mom when I was 13 to … well, now. While everything else changed, that never did. So it isn’t really that weird that “Mom” was the one word I picked to define me.
But still. A few months ago, at a first birthday party for the son of a friend of mine, I met a woman my age with two daughters roughly the same ages as my two daughters. Our girls immediately became fast friends, and so did we. We talked for two hours about schools and different methods for teaching reading and potty readiness and cloth diapers and poop and pregnancy cravings and our birth experiences and pediatricians and vaccinations and sleep and so on. Two weeks later, we were surprised to find ourselves seated next to each other at a media lunch; we had no idea that we worked in the same industry. We had talked for two straight hours and never once mentioned our careers. It just hadn’t come up. I am sort of OK with that – I mean, we were at a kid’s birthday party with our kids, not a business networking event. But I still was a little disturbed that motherhood has become so much my primary identity that I didn’t even mention in passing what I do to earn money, nor did I ask her about her career, even while we were discussing other extremely personal matters.
To be honest, though, I’m really just too tired and busy to have an existential crisis about the whole thing. Right now, Georgia is pushing the same button repeatedly on a toy so that it keeps making this god-awful noise in an unceasing loop, and Ruby is skating by me with one foot in a My Little Pony car and a too-full cup of root beer mixed with milk in her hand. I started to tell her that milk-plus-root beer was a bad idea, but then I figured, “What the hell; it’s almost like a root beer float, and anyway, I’m not going to fight this particular battle because even if it’s gross, it won’t hurt her.” I have just finished Googling “dry drowning” and scaring the crap out of myself because the baby swallowed a mouthful of bath water earlier. Ruby’s sheets are still in the wash with bedtime looming. A basket of clothes needs to be folded, and even though I make a constant vow that I’ll do one load of laundry, start to finish, every day, I never do; I just wash and dry the clothes and then pull them, wrinkled, out of the basket as needed and fold them all on the weekend. There are dominoes and Cheerios scattered all over the floor and half-full bowls of cold spaghetti on the table. By the time I get everyone to sleep and drag the house out of squalor and safely back to just basic mess, I’ll have enough time to choose between shaving my legs or reading one chapter of a bad novel before I fall asleep (I’ve been working my way through James Thurber’s biography of Harold Ross since November but have somehow managed to read approximately 27 terrible mystery novels in that same time span). The existential crisis will just have to wait.
I didn’t know, all those years ago when I wanted to be a mom, just how all-consuming this “parenting” thing was. When I was pregnant with Ruby, I remember complaining bitterly on a trip that “when you’re pregnant, vacation apparently just means a new toilet to throw up into.” Little did I know that “vacation” would soon be a foreign concept altogether.
The closest I get to vacation these days, ironically, is days at work when I’m not too busy. Those are the times I can take my time drinking a cup of coffee, have a long lunch with a friend, chat with coworkers about real issues that require a lot more thought than just answering a constant stream of “Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!”
And yet, in the end, even if being “Mom” isn’t all I want to be, it’s all I ever wanted to be. Of all the words I could pick to describe me in an impossible exercise that has zero real world applications, it’s probably the most apt. And for the people who matter most to me, I know it’s the word they would pick to describe me.
“Who am I, Ruby?” I ask her when she skates by me again with her root beer-milk.
“Mom,” she says, wrinkling her nose at me like it’s the stupidest question in the world. “You’re my mom.”
And I really couldn’t ask for anything more.