Before my son was even born, I decided to give him all of me. I was planning on quitting my job, which didn't pay enough to cover the cost of even poor-quality childcare, to become a stay-at-home mom. While it was a move made out of necessity, I was no less dedicated to the idea of my new job as a full-time mom. To me, that meant using all of my skills, all of my time, all of my effort to become the best possible mother I could be.
I read the baby books and blogs. I prepped homemade baby food, researched infant developmental milestones, and arranged then rearranged my infant's nursery. I had spent my teen years working in my mother's daycare, caring for infants in particular, so I felt confident in my abilities. Between a solid yoga practice and reading books to my unborn child, I felt I had nurtured a strong connection that would translate immediately into a real-world bond. I was confident I would excel at raising children, finding joy and passion and fulfillment in my new role that would far surpass anything I had ever experienced before.
In certain ways, I wasn't wrong. Motherhood was fulfilling in ways I could never have imagined. It gave me a deep sense of purpose. It brought joy, unlike anything I had ever known. But it also brought a great number of unsavory emotions and experiences I wasn't fully prepared for.
I imagined my transition to motherhood being seamless and natural. I didn't think I would have trouble breastfeeding or getting my children to sleep at night, or feeding them (especially when I was painstakingly cooking and pureeing my own baby food). I never imagined that my patience and fortitude would reach an end, much less that I would reach that end before 8:00 a.m. some mornings.
The fact that my best was not enough was something I had never experienced before in my life, and it made me seriously question whether I was cut out for motherhood at all.
It's a thought I imagine is normal for many new moms who are struggling to hold themselves together in the face of raising small children. At the time it was happening to me, however, I was beside myself with self-doubt and self-loathing. How could I possibly be failing at motherhood when it was something I had wanted so desperately? Why was each day a constant waiting game for naptime and then bedtime? Why wasn't I better at this? Why wasn't my baby happier? Why wasn't I enough?
I didn't have an answer to any of these questions. I simply had a gnawing emptiness that persisted no matter how much I threw myself into motherhood — no matter how hard I tried. All of me never seemed to be enough.
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The truth was, by throwing myself wholeheartedly into motherhood, I abandoned any previous sense of self. I buried the "Gemma" I had known before giving birth, making room for the ideal mother I envisioned myself to be. I completely sacrificed myself for my children, and let all of my worth become tied to them.
In practice, that meant that if my two-year-old had a hellacious day (as two-year-olds are wont to do), it wasn't simply a bad day — it was a personal failing on my part. When I pushed myself to the limit trying to be mom-of-the-year and came up short, I wasn't able to brush it off and move on to something else. I couldn't separate my self-worth from my kids' emotional whims and unpredictable phases because I didn't feel worthy of time and space for myself.
I didn't feel like I deserved full personhood outside of the caregiving roles I provided.
Eventually, I began writing as a way to supplement our family's income — but only in the off hours, only when they were in bed. I felt guilty over the exhilaration I felt putting my words into the world, for carving out space that wasn't devoted to my role as a mother, but as my role as a writer, as a person. Slowly and surely writing became a part-time job, and then a career — one I was happy to have because it helped me regain my sense of self. "Gemma" as a writer was different than "Gemma" as a mother. I was intellectually involved in my work. Other people were able to see it and value it. All of my worth was no longer hinging on the mood of a toddler or the picky palate of a preschooler.
Over the years I finally came to realize that my kids cannot have all of me, not only because it pushes me into exhaustion, but because I do not want to belong solely to them.
I want and need to save some room for myself, to know that I am worthy of a place in the world without the label of mother (or wife, or sister, or daughter for that matter).
My role as a writer now is not the beginning and end of my self. I read for pleasure. I attend yoga. I hang out with friends. I live. No one aspect of my life defines me. I am a mother and a wife and a daughter and a sister and a friend and a writer and a yogi and a reader, but most importantly, above all else, I am me.