When we’re children, our moms seem like know-it-alls. They are the ones in control. The ones who say when we go to bed and how many bites of green beans we have to eat before we get any ice cream and then how long we have to wait after eating to go swimming. They always have sunscreen and Band-aids and snacks in their gigantic purses. They hold all the cards, and they always seem to know what they’re doing.
Imagine my surprise when I became a mom myself to learn that when they hand you your baby for the first time, they don’t also hand you the magical secrets that all moms know, all the instructions for how to know what to do at every moment, and all the answers you’ll need for all the questions your children will ask.
I remember insisting that the first night home from the hospital with our new baby that my husband and I be left alone. I kicked all the relatives that had gathered out of the house with this picture in my head of the sweet little nuclear family bonding all alone together… Let’s just say that night and future nights convinced me of how much I had to learn.
The next morning my mother called to see how things went and heard the sound of my voice. A little while later she called back: Jessica, she said, I’m on my way there. And I’ve packed a bag for several nights. I think you need help, and you just don’t know it.
She was wrong about one thing: I knew it! I was not in control and one night alone with my husband and that newborn baby told me so.
During those early weeks of motherhood I remember trying to stay awake to finish reading all of those baby-care and parenting books that seemed so important at the time – like they were going to tell me all the things I desperately needed to know about becoming a mom.
There were some good tips here and there, but they all came up short of telling me what I was really looking for. I was looking for someone to tell me what it meant to “become a mom.” Not what it meant to schedule feedings, or sleep-train, or plan date nights or locate amazing child care. I wanted someone to explain not just what was happening to the baby, but what was happening to me. This whole identity shift from who I was before to the person I was becoming, mostly without my control or consent.
What did it mean to be the new me? The person whose life now obsessively rotated around a three hour cycle of nursing, changing, sleeping, changing and nursing again. My life was totally consumed. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, and I didn’t really have time to think about it.
The tiny part of me that had a few extra brain cells for self-reflection wondered:
In the middle of figuring out my baby and his needs, when would I have a chance to figure out who I was again? Where had the me gone that I once liked so much and was so attached to, and would I find her again?
Back in my more put-together days, when I could browse in bookstores and leave the house on a whim to go shopping for no reason, or to “run into the store” without 50 pounds of baby gear, I remembered seeing new moms who were venturing out in public for the first time. They were unaware of their smeared mascara and baby spit-up dried on their shooulder, their clothing not fitting them right, their hair thrown up in a ponytail at best, their sense of arriving somewhere on time or making eye contact in a grown-up conversation totally forgotten.
And a phrase that I had heard people use about women in that stage (and other stages) of life came to mind. Forgive me, but I thought to myself: “She’s let herself go.”
When I had a chance to throw my own unwashed hair into the new-mom ponytail and glance for half a second in the mirror to see the spit-up on my shoulder, I wondered the same thing about me. Had I let myself go?
The answer is yes. And in a way, it’s not a bad thing. Because really I cared about way too much in the past that wasn’t really me. Some of those things I’ve lost control of were not the things I should’ve been controlling in the first place. I wasn’t losing myself, just the scaffold of image I had created around the identity that is truly me.
There are things I don’t really have time to care about any more.
Do I have the right haircut to frame the shape of my face?
Have I bought the latest sandals for this season?
Is my purse SO last year?
Have I read all the issues of the magazines that arrive at my house and am I getting the right magazines?
Have I made an effort at friendship or acquaintanceship with the people that it seems important for me to impress?
Do I sound smart to my colleagues?
Are my roots showing?
I mean: Who has time to think such thoughts anymore?
Having children makes me think daily about what’s really important and what’s not. Because there’s not time for both! And because of that, I may not have let myself go after all. I may have been forced to find who I really am. Because there’s just no extra time or extra brain cells left to pretend to be anyone but my true self, not even to pretend it to myself.
I find myself, on the verge of having a newborn again, this time with a bonus toddler thrown in for fun, frantically re-evaluating my life once more. Because I know I’m about to lose myself all over again. My little reflection time is spent thinking again about what is most important for me to do and to be, and how to protect and preserve that.
That’s something I honestly didn’t think about much about when my whole life was mostly dedicated to me – before I lost myself.
Losing something can actually help you find what’s really there. It’s actually a chance to let go of what we thought was important and reestablish who we want to be. There’s just no time any more to invent our identities based on what other people will think of us.
Caring about what other people think is a luxury we do not have time for when we spend our lives caring for others. What’s important now is to figure out who we really want to be, who God has created us to be and who he’s transforming us to be, and grab onto it with a death-grip that will not let go. Because we have to fight not to lose the really important things.
Because all of those details that involve keeping small people alive and nurtured are going to overwhelm our lives and our thoughts, and if we want to have any self left over when they are old enough to keep themselves alive we are going to have to fight for it now.
Who am I now? None of those parenting books had a chapter that can tell me the answer to that question. What part of me did not go away when I stopped caring about the things that weren’t really me in the first place? What part of me do I miss and want to reclaim badly enough that I will go through the gargantuan task of finding someone else to care for my child for a short time while I pursue it?
And where does my relationship with God fit into this picture? Was it so superficial that it was easily discarded when my life became consumed by children? Or is it a part of me that now I long for all the more, especially when I have the least time for it?
Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist said about Him: I must decrease, so that He may increase. As the parts of me that I have less and less time for slip away, am I holding onto the identity of Christ in me in a new way?
Parenting is a glorious opportunity to become more like Jesus through acts of sacrifice and submission that I may never have had otherwise, to serve the Lord while I serve my family. It’s also a chance to see Jesus’ character grow in us in the places where less substantial things have withered away from lack of attention.
The desire to claim a new you that reflects the character of Jesus and the individual, beautiful person he made you to be is emerging as the stuff that doesn’t matter fades into the background. That’s a gift.
Losing what you thought was you is a gift, but only if you use it as an opportunity to find out who you really are with God’s help. You don’t have the time to waste on the trivial stuff anymore.
The desired outcome of parenting for our children can be found in those books that I still have on the shelf. I should probably go back and read some of them again – in my spare time – before the new baby comes.
They tell us how to get the outcome we want for our kids – We want them to be well fed, well rested, well adjusted individuals who love Jesus and contribute to the world in a way that matters.
But the outcome of parenting for us is not in those books. It is something we have to take the time to wrestle with if we’re going to lose the parts of ourselves that don’t matter and find the parts of ourselves that do.
To get a little out of control in order to place ourselves and our children in the hands of the One who ultimately is in control after all.
To let ourselves go.