Missing My Identities beyond Motherhood

In the February 1, 2021 edition of TIME, there is an essay, “Missing My Identities beyond Motherhood”, by Lynn Steger Strong.  It is a short glimpse by the author of how the pandemic has affected her sense of who she is – her identity.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but think, yeah, that fits.  That makes sense.  I’ve noticed that.  I’ve begun doing that (in ways).  I felt more connected (with others) in my disconnect with myself (my former identity).  Check it out below….

I went on a walk with a friend not too long ago.  He’d come to meet me during a three-hour break I had while my kids did “sports” with a couple of other kids in the park.  When he got there, I was still watching the kids play, and they ran over, asking where I was going.  They’re 8 and 6, but after months of lockdown and remote schooling, and as all my jobs have gone online, they’re no longer used to being separate from one another-and they clung to me, wanting to know how long I’d be gone.

On the walk, I kept dipping back into mentions of my children:  we were talking about a book, and this somehow switched to a sad thing my 6-year-old had said about first grade.  We were talking about teaching on Zoom, and I began comparing it to online third grade.

When I teach, I sometimes tell small anecdotes to relate what we’ve been reading to more concrete occurrences:  a conversation overheard on the subway, an interaction or observation I had or made getting my coffee on the way.  None of these experiences exist for me any longer; instead, when I reach for some moment to convey to my students, I more often than not come up with something about my kids, comparing existentialism to my daughter’s struggle with the seam in her sock, relating a novel’s frantic narrator to a tantrum.

I have a sense memory of feeling that I used to have every weekday morning.  At our kids’ school, the pre-K and kindergarten classrooms were in a basement; I would extricate our younger daughter from my leg, hand her off to her teachers, and then climb up the stairs and out the door into the day.  The way my body felt then:  I was often going to teach, going running, meeting a student.  Sometimes I would see a friend.  I was moving through the world as something other than a mother, even, of course, as my children were somewhere in my brain.

And yet it feels right now that that way of being in one’s body, separate from one’s children, able to pretend at least a little while that we are more than just their mothers, has largely disappeared.  There is not full-time in-person school for many of us, but also, there are not dinners out with friends or with our partners.  There are not commutes, sitting on the bus, in the car, silent, not quite Mom but also not quite the person you are when you get to work.

One weekend morning, I left our apartment early and ran over to a friend’s house.  He put his mask on.  We walked around his neighborhood.  About an hour in, I started to get anxious.  I hadn’t been that far from my kids in months.  “I feel like a nursing mother again,” I said, “the way my body gets confused when I am far from them.”

Physical space gives us more than a shift in location; it also, often, fives us the opportunity to shift the way and what of who we are.  With so many fewer spaces accessible to us, we’ve also lost hold of parts of ourselves that depend on them for ways of being, for ways of breathing, for feeling at least a little removed from the obligations that we always have.  I am never not my children’s mother when I am in my home – looking around to see if there’s laundry that needs folding, looking ahead to the next meal.  I am never not worried about their schooling now that their physical school has been taken from them.  I can still hear the questions they ask their teachers.  I remember suddenly that they need a Flair pen and run out to hand it to them, even as I try to talk to a student, teach a class in the next room.

We’ve lost a lot in the past year.  So much of it concrete and quantifiable.  But we’ve also lost all those spaces that function as release valve, as opportunities for being something other than the person we are in our domestic spaces, even as we continue to pretend, as we continue have to perform as if we’re still those other people too.