Early last year, I fell apart a little bit.
It wasn’t so much a sudden break as it was a slow and expected unraveling – the kind that surely follows when you neglect yourself and your own needs for so long. In the midst of mothering two little boys, being a supportive and active football wife (my husband is a coach), and having to sacrifice my career and work in order to do those two jobs the way they deserve to be done, I lost myself.
It happened gently, yet swiftly, and I didn’t entirely understand what was happening until one morning, I caught a reflection of myself and couldn’t recognize the person staring back at me. Dark, weary eyes, tired skin, no light or sparkle in sight.
I suddenly became envious of those girls whose faces I saw plastered across Instagram – traveling, building careers, always smiling with fresh faces and rested eyes. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a shell – a shell of who I was, who I thought I would be. How will my boys grow up to know the strength and potential and power of women, I wondered.
All they have as a model is me.
The relentless pressures of motherhood do not afford much time to nurture a personal identity, and it becomes easy to let yourself slip away. In our culture, mothers are told that anything we do for ourselves takes something away from our kids. There’s this deep, unwritten sense if we do something that ignites us, it inherently harms them. (Spoiler alert: it’s not true.)
I love my babies with my entire soul and I gladly let them consume me, but I missed the rest of me. The girl I once knew was somewhere in that mirror, but I wasn’t sure where.
Is this who I am now? I wondered. Who did I think I’d be?
As a born-and-raised beach girl, something I always loved about the ocean is the way the waves hit the shore – soft and slow, sometimes just gently kissing the edge of the beach, and other times, crashing fiercely, recklessly, without abandon. You see those waves and think the end is near; that the ocean will swallow the land whole, and that piece of earth will just disappear.
I loved that about the ocean, but now that’s how I had come to feel, and it was truly overwhelming. It felt like I was just going to be swallowed whole by life – like it would crash before me and I’d be swept away without ever figuring out what to do with all this fire behind my eyes.
When I can’t hold everything up any longer, I thought, what’s going to hold me up?
As it turns out, rock bottom is a great place from which to rise. That crash, those feelings of desperation and confusion, became a catalyst for a complete overhaul. I realized the things I love, the things that made me feel like me, had completely disappeared from my life. The notebooks remained empty, my cameras gathered dust on the shelves, and my books stayed stacked, spines un-cracked.
Art sustains me, and without it, I was losing myself.
What I began to understand is that cultural paradigms take lifetimes to transform, but if we postpone our work and dreams, things will never be different for our kids. They’ll learn from us. As Liz Gilbert says, if you model martyrdom to your kids, they will grow up to be martyrs. If you model creativity to them, they will grow up to be creators.
So, I got creative.
As someone who had wanted to be a mother their entire adult life, it felt shocking to admit to myself that motherhood wasn’t enough to sustain me, that I was still someone outside of that. It felt like, as society had whispered in my ears all these years, being a mom should make you wholly happy and I felt less than for not feeling that way. What no one really talked about was that nothing or no one can make you happy.
I learned that my happiness cannot be dependent on my kids; that is a responsibility that is unfair for them to shoulder. Babies and partners and families bring us so much love and laughter, but happiness is something that comes from within – it’s a true sense of contentment that comes with knowing and loving yourself.
To get there, I’d first have to get back up and find myself once again.
I worked on opening myself, seeing where my heart lies, and coming to terms with the fact that I am not the person I was 10 years ago, and that’s extremely okay. I started working towards becoming the person that I am inside – a writer, a creator, an examiner of women and their stories. I pushed myself to become that person in a way that feels passionate and that can help to support my family.
I knew then that if I didn’t take start taking tiny, manageable steps, I’d never make it anywhere.
Late night Netflix and housework sessions turned into late night Netflix and writing sessions, while the laundry and dishes gathered, undone. I pitched, drafted, emailed, and read rejection after rejection after rejection. And then, I pitched, drafted, and emailed again. Eventually, I published my first article. Soon after, I got my first staff writing job for an online publication.
And earlier this year, a little over a year after my untimely unraveling, I got this one.
I wanted to be a writer, so I made myself a writer. And by juggling work, childcare, home responsibilities, wellness, and everything else that mothers deal with on a daily basis, I’ve learned that – as the doctor on This Is Us says – there are no lemons so sour that you can’t make something resembling lemonade.
Motherhood has pushed me to learn more about myself than I’d ever think possible. It stretches your limits in every regard – physically, mentally, emotionally. We want to do the best and be the best for our babies, and though we look to others for guidance and support, it’s important to remember that the journey of motherhood is different for every woman. What I need may not be what another mother needs.
What’s dangerous is to think that all of our experiences are the same. And that the same choices are right for everyone. Though we share struggles and joys, what we can learn from each other’s stories are the true complexities of motherhood – the little nuances that make each experience unique and important in its own right. What we can allow is time for ourselves to be women, complete with dreams, ideas, and talent to give, alongside our incredibly vital roles as mothers.
There are so many layers and juxtapositions within my current worlds – ideals and beliefs constantly being tossed against each other as I attempt to navigate this life. But, I am no longer lost in any of it, and I’m determined to make it up the mountain.
I can commit to it fully because I now know what it means to commit to myself. I’m not afraid to stumble or downright fall apart — I know that’s usually right when you come alive.
And, I’m undoubtedly a better mom for all of it.
Recently, on a trip to the neighborhood playground, my 5-year-old was complaining that he’d only have fun if there were other kids there to play with. “No one else is responsible for your happiness, baby,” I caught myself telling him, without even stopping myself. I explained how friends and family enhance our lives, fill us with love, and bring us joy, but they don’t complete us.
“You are responsible for your own happiness, honey– you have to find it in you,” I urge him, quietly, but firmly, because I now know that it’s that important, and because, as I’m learning, most of parenting is not wanting your kids to make the same mistakes you did.
He grabs his brother’s hand and runs off to climb a tree. I know he doesn’t get it – he’s only 5, after all. I’m 33 and just beginning to comprehend what it means to be whole within yourself. But, I tell him because he needs to know.
And, I tell him because I need to hear it.
If you’re feeling a little lost, here are a few tips on how to start finding yourself again.
Do something that makes you feel strong.
I knew a lack of exercise had to do with how I was feeling, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to work gym time into our busy lives. So, I started small; I started doing pushups before bed. Once I got stronger, I found that my motivation to exercise started to increase, and I took up boxing. Having an athletic outlet not only made me feel stronger physically but mentally, as well. I started to feel more purposeful and sure of myself and began behaving that way, too.
Check in with someone who knows you.
When I talked to my husband about my funk, he asked when the last time I read a book was. What was the last thing I wrote? I was annoyed, because, hello, when do I have time for these things, but I knew he was right. Once I started putting some time back into the things that make me me – like reading, writing, and sitting outside for a few minutes just to watch the trees sway in the breeze – I started to feel like myself again.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s true. But, it also takes a village to raise a mother. Your ride-or-dies – whether that’s your partner, siblings, friends, neighbors, parents, therapist, or any other combination – will lift you back up. But, you have to take the first step and talk to them. And then take the second step and let them lift you.
Make time for yourself.
It’s not easy. There’s always a million things that need to be done before you feel like you can make time for yourself. But, you have to do it anyway. Take it from someone who knows where the alternative can lead you. It can be small (like chocolate dipping some strawberries for yourself after the kiddos go to bed) or bigger (like hiring a sitter for a day and taking yourself to lunch, the movies, or just aimlessly wandering the city). Do something just for yourself. And, make it a habit.
Let something (or many things) go.
This one comes from a famous J.K. Rowling quote:
“People very often say to me, ‘How did you do it, how did you raise a baby and write a book?’ And the answer is – I didn’t do housework for four years. I am not superwoman. And um, living in squalor, that was the answer.”
Mamas, you cannot do it all. You have to let something go. For me, that means that one of our couches now has the sole purpose of holding all of the clean, unfolded laundry. Don’t try to sit on it when you come over, because there’s no room. Also, don’t come over, because the house is never visitor-ready. Yes, it bugs the hell out of me and yes, I wish I could be one of those moms that has it all together. But, that mom is a unicorn, and I am just me.
Writing this to you fills me up much more than folding yet another endless pile of laundry, so, for now, I let it go.
Rediscovering who you are after motherhood takes time. And becoming who you will be is a lifelong process. Recognizing that is half the battle, and the other half is knowing which battle to pick.
Sorry, laundry, you lose.