A few years ago in Southern California my husband and I went to dinner with a couple we casually knew. We were new to the neighborhood and game for making friends. The woman was an author and the man a television producer. Being a writer myself, I was interested in learning more about her career and I soon discovered that the man worked for one of my previous employers. How wonderful I thought, we’d have topics in common. It was a Friday night and the place was full of well-dressed patrons enjoying crudités and martinis. Shortly after polite chitchat the woman directed several questions to my husband. What did he do for a living? What had he done early in his career? Where had he gone to college? Whenever he’d respond, she’d shoot another one at him. The man joined in the rapid-fire banter while I sat quietly looking at a basket full of sourdough bread, fiddling with my hands.
When the talk turned to aging parents, the couple asked Charlie about his mother and father. “They’ve both passed away,” he said and they looked down at their salad plates, nodding sympathetically. Neither of them inquired about my parents, which prompted Charlie and I to silently acknowledge the omission with lifted eyebrows, like wow, really? No questions to her, eh? My parents are living, I wanted to say. And so am I. Right here, right now, available for conversation in real time.
As the evening progressed and I continued to feel more and more like the 1950s homemaker the couple had seemingly pegged me for, my insides roiled. There, there, little one, they seemed to be saying. Don’t concern yourself while we discuss business.
It reminded me of the time a distant relative asked, “Aren’t you glad you’re just a mom?” I felt like I’d been sliced in half, a quick, clean, leveling cut to the midsection. It was a hot afternoon in Los Angeles, the kind that makes you repeatedly lift your hair off the back of your neck. At that particular moment, I was standing in the driveway thanking my cousin for visiting. She’d brought along a friend and up until the comment, the two twenty-somethings had been discussing their jobs: their long hours and low wages, their deadly commutes and ungodly waking times. I was nodding in agreement, like yes, I know, I’ve been there, I worked and struggled and climbed the career ladder for nineteen years. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Yes, I nodded again, smiling, I know, I know.
But they didn’t think I knew at all. Nor did they want to hear me offer insight about the importance of paying dues. What did I know? I was just a mom, a worn-out mom in stained shorts and a sweaty tank top. No really, I wanted to shout: I’m someone! And I can relate! My smooth skinned guests merely offered perfunctory hugs and then walked toward their car while I waved goodbye and shuffled my sandals against loose pebbles on the driveway, absorbing the blow.
Identity after motherhood can be downright destabilizing. Many women find themselves questioning nearly everything, including themselves. In a letter I received from my grandmother shortly after my twins were born, she wrote, “Careful now. It’s hard not to lose yourself once kids come along.” And while I never planned to be just a mom and wife, circumstances pointed that way when my boys were born three months early. They were still in intensive care, hooked up to tubes and wires as my maternity leave expired. I was vice president of marketing and sales at a cable network with a boss I adored and a team I enjoyed, but my husband and I had to make a choice. One of us would have to stay home; due to underdeveloped immune systems our children weren’t permitted to leave the house for one full year except for doctor’s appointments. They would require weekly physical and occupational therapy sessions in our home and numerous visits to a variety of specialists. Between the two of us, my husband made more money so it made sense that I would quit, and for the first year I was fine with that decision. Attending to my tiny fragile children gave me a purpose I’d never before experienced. But then I got itchy and cranky, in desperate need of intellectual interaction. I began pitching newspapers and magazines about articles I’d like to write, and soon that’s exactly what I was doing. Even if no one else viewed me that way, I was more than a mom. I even had paystubs to prove it, paltry though they were.
I managed to make it through the meal with our neighboring couple by fantasizing about cutting and clever remarks, things I’d like to say but never would. Why turn the evening unpleasant for everyone? Once dessert had been ordered I shelved my anger and self-pity and inquired about the woman’s latest writing project. Her face brightened and she actually looked in my direction. She spoke quickly and passionately and while she still didn’t ask me anything I realized that I was the one who had possibly presented a vibe of “less than.” Earlier in the evening when I’d mentioned that I was also a writer, I had ducked my head, as if I didn’t believe it myself. “Not like you, of course,” I’d quickly added. “Not a bestselling novelist, of course,” and then I guffawed and stumbled. “I mean, I just write for magazines. But not for anything you’ve ever read or heard of.”
By the time we finished sharing a mound of raspberry cheesecake I’d had an epiphany. If I didn’t claim my identity, if I didn’t own it, why would anyone else? If I automatically discounted myself, why would anyone think differently of me? The problem wasn’t with others (although I strongly believe in treating others the way you’d like to be treated), the problem was with me. First and foremost, anyway. It made me wonder how many other women sell themselves short, how many others struggle with identity, particularly after motherhood. Is it a confidence issue? A presentation issue? A combination of the two? Or what, exactly?
These sorts of questions lead me to you. Will you share your story with me? About what identity means to you and what you’ve done to own it? And what you’ve had to overcome (or still are)?
I look forward to hearing from you. And cheers to all of us, no matter what we do, or don’t.
Cynthia@cynthianooney.com or @cynthiahnooney