“I’ve come to understand that a mother is not a person, but a service,” I said.
Her eyebrows raised slightly, but she said nothing, so I continued to explain how in all of my encounters since Charlie’s birth, I have been stripped of my personhood and re-summed up in a single syllable: Mom. At the store. Our pediatrician’s office. Even my husband now calls me “Mom” in Charlie’s company. In the months since my since my son came into this world, I’ve felt like I was slowly disappearing from it – dissolving day by day, partly because of the isolation of the stay-at-home role and partly from the very real truth that I am no longer the person I used to be.
I spilled my guts, all the while fearing that I was alienating a new friend I’d made at library story hour. Our children were playing together in the backyard splash pad while we gnawed at pretzels under the patio umbrella. My friend was quiet for a moment and I knew I’d done it. We were so different already (she, a pastor’s wife and me, a… well, whatever I am), I feared I’d driven a giant, neurotic wedge between us.
But then she said, “I never thought of it that way. I guess it’s easier sometimes to socialize through our kids – less chance of rejection, maybe. But I am going to try to be better about that.”
There’s this feeling of relief at being understood suddenly, after ages of shouting into the darkness, that’s so overwhelming it actually feels like grief. I do so much of that – screaming inside my own head – and all that ever comes out is a sigh, to which my husband will say, “What can I do for you?” He means well. He loves me. But he doesn’t understand because he can’t. Everything he had before Charlie was born, he has now. The same social structure. The same career. The same face, hair and pelvic floor. He gets to sneeze without peeing and when he leaves for the day, everyone he meets will assume he has a name. And they’ll call him by it.
But she understood, even if only a little. And I wanted to cry when she closed that gap between us.
I wonder sometimes if my expectations are off. I mean, I know our postal carrier’s name. It’s Paul. It has never seemed extraordinary to know that. To say, “Thanks, Paul!” when I see him on the porch. Yet, my own name gets lost so easily in the parental shuffle. I know it’s there on the chart at the pediatrician’s office, right next to Charlie’s name. No one has to memorize my face and put it together with my name in order to make me feel like a human. They just have to read it. And still, every visit begins, “Mom, can you get him undressed to a diaper?” Even when we lived in the hospital for a month, Charlie and I, the nurses, the doctors, the techs, the therapists – they all had names. I knew them. I used them. But I was always Mom.
When Charlie was born, I was so enamored of him and so thrilled to be a mother – his mother – that naturally I didn’t fight it. Instead, I basked in it. Mom. Mom. Mommy. Twenty months later, I feel completely lost in it, struggling for reasons to *not* wipe banana on my pant leg (who’s gonna see? or care?) or even to brush my teeth some days (what’s the point?).
When I finally told my husband I no longer felt like a person anymore, he seemed angry at first, but I think that’s the initial response to anything he can’t fix. We decided that it was time to end my stint as a stay-at-home mom – something I hadn’t felt like I could give myself permission to do. I was miserable. Dying one small death after another. But my son was so happy and clever and thriving that putting him in day care had always seemed unnecessarily punitive. After all, it’s not his fault that it’s not enough for me. That I don’t love this the way so many other women I know seem to. My sisters. The countless mothers on my Facebook feed, who caption photos of their days at home with, “I love my job!” I love my son in such a deep, wonderful, frustrating and all-consuming way. But I do not love being at home. Admitting that last bit has been enormously difficult. But there it is. Out there.
So a few days ago, Charlie and I took a tour of an early education center we’re considering with the end goal that I can re-enter the workforce, and perhaps, reclaim a little of myself before it’s too late. It’s a nice enough place, if perhaps, a little too structured for my liking. We arrived a few minutes late and made our cheerful introductions with the center’s associate director. I was Heather. This was Charlie. She cooed over him appropriately and then we got down to business. Before we began the tour, she offered to put my belongings behind the counter.
“Here, Mom. Let me take your bag for you.”
“My name is Heather.”
She smiled and blinked. Did I make her uncomfortable? If I did, it didn’t register. And I didn’t care. I was taking back my name and I had to start somewhere.