The self we lose

That’s my mom.

Young, vibrant, confident, and just starting out in adulthood. I believe this picture was taken before I was born.

In the photo, I both see and don’t see my mother. It’s my mom, yet, it’s not my mom. The simultaneous feeling of the familiar and the unacquainted wrestle and dance inside my head. I recognize her instantly, yet that recognition doesn’t map to my experience.

The feeling’s a bit like the one you had as a kid the first time you saw one of your teachers outside the classroom, walking an aisle of the grocery store, you were like “wait, I know you . . . . but what are you doing here?? and why are you buying Kraft Macaroni and Cheese? You recognize that teacher, but they’re out context.

In this picture, my mom is out of context for me. I think its because at the time of the photo, she had not yet assumed the role of mother. The person in the picture is a purer, undefined by role version of my mom, and that’s what emanates from the photograph — its a version of my mother that I never knew.

Our relationship with our parents is so rigidly defined by role, we tend to see them as mom or dad only, as caretaker or protector only. Parents rarely reveal their true selves to their kids — I’m not sure why. There’s no written rule stating “Don’t let your children know who you were before you became mom or dad”, but that’s what we do — we keep that part of our self, to ourselves, almost instinctually it seems.

The photo made me realize how little I truly knew of my mom; that most of what I knew of her was based on the bits and pieces she revealed to me as caretaker, protector, mother. The rest of her — her core self — her fears, what she wanted for herself, and the things she thought about in the dark of night, remained hidden from me.

The photograph reminds me how parenthood ushers in a new phase and sense of self, distinct from who and what you were before taking on that role.

I think this transformation was more impactful for women of my mother’s generation, many of whom chose to put off careers or ventures that might have fulfilled them in different ways than motherhood.

It’s a risky proposition, becoming a parent. How will the sense of self we lose, measure up to the new self we become? The potential for reward, matched equally by the possibility of regret.

Some find their better-selves as a parents, others struggle, or feel a sense of loss and sadness at the self they left behind. In my mother’s waning years, I can’t help but think she felt some regret and sorrow.

My mom was a good mother. She relished the role – threw every once of herself into it. She instilled in her 3 children a sense of responsibility and a love of learning. And I think she was proud of her effort and the results.

We all get a certain amount of time on this earth. My mother, like many other moms, put her pre-parent ambitions and untapped capabilities on hold, dedicating her time and energy to motherhood. I suspect she felt the impact of that tradeoff.

When you put everything you’ve got into nurturing your kids, you sometimes lack the energy, or simply run out of time, to nurture your self. It wasn’t until later in life that I understood the enormity of that sacrifice, and the love that fueled it.

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