It's OK To Be "Just A Mom". I See That Now.

Em Unravelling

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I used to joke that I couldn’t finish an academic endeavour unless I was pregnant or breastfeeding a small baby. I had my first child during the Christmas holidays in my final year of high school. I sat my A-level finals wearing a nursing bra under my sweatshirt, as my baby girl played at home with my parents and my classmates glanced at me curiously.

From school, I went straight to university to begin my law degree in the autumn of 1999 when my daughter was nine months old. I finally finished that degree in the hot, sticky summer of 2003, a few weeks after my second child was born. He was a sickly baby and we spent a lot of time in the hospital. My memories of that time include, always, the ring-binder full of Criminality revision notes, which I took to the hospital with me so that I could study when the baby was sleeping.

My postgraduate degree coincided with another baby, too. I was pregnant throughout my finals and my youngest child arrived three weeks after my last exam. I remember logging on to get my exam results early one morning with my new baby girl swaddled and tucked under one arm.

By the time I was twenty-six years old I was a mother of three. But I was a trainee lawyer too. And apart from my maternity leave (six months with each of the younger babies), I worked throughout the whole time that my children were small.

Yes, I worked part-time weekday hours to fit in with the school run, but I still worked every day. I didn’t get to live all of my life on toddler time, drifting from nap to snack time with them, in the way some of my friends did. That life was only mine in the afternoons.

I love my children fiercely, but I never saw my role in life as “Mother”. My Twitter bio did not describe me as such; nor did it list my children, neatly in age order, as proof of my fecund validity. I cringed when I was referred to as “Mum” by doctors and teachers who were speaking about me to my children. I didn’t seek out playgroups and playgrounds to find like-minded women with whom to discuss nappy rash. I had no time for those things.

Now that those years are drawing to an end, and one by one my son and daughters move away from my orbit to live their lives away from me, I find myself periodically seized by deep sorrow, a mourning for a bygone experience that I never appreciated was mine to lose in the first place. I miss my past life, when I was the sturdy maypole they all twirled the various ribbons of their life experiences around.

These are things that I miss: the utter trust of hot little hands gripping mine urgently. The incessant chatter of a five-year-old who so enjoyed his day at school and needs to relay every moment. The weight of a baby in a carrier on my front and the solid warmth of the little head within as I bent to kiss it. The intent, serious concentration on the face of my eldest daughter as she learned her ballet routines. The pure joy in my son’s loud laugh whenever the lights went out and the candles were lit on his birthday cakes.

I’ll never get any of that back, and the knowledge of this fact is so sharp that sometimes I have to stand still and breathe through the pain of it, like it’s a labour cramp.

I can’t understand why this should be, though. I don’t know why it hurts now, when that side of my existence felt so hotly constricting in the years I was living through it. On some days I felt literally stifled by motherhood; I would prise those sticky little hands out of mine at the school gate and run to the car in dizzy relief. I went to work and felt free there.

Sometimes after I had tucked all of the children into bed after their stories and their baths I would go and lie on my own bed with my eyes closed because all of my energy had gone and I couldn’t take another step. I don’t miss those times at all.

If I think hard about it, I do know the answer really.

I miss being bathed daily in the easy happiness that small children have in such abundance. I miss being the centre of their world, the MVP, the keeper of all of their big and small secrets. I miss a life where I could sort out anything with a damp cloth or a change of clothes or a snack. The mind-numbing repetitive routine of life with small children might be wearing, but there’s a comfort too in its daily ebb and flow and the fact that most of its crises are tiny.

I didn’t think that motherhood defined me, but of course it defined me. How could it not? It’s all-encompassing by definition. The baby takes your body over and the children take your life over and…it’s lovely, really. I see that now.

I thought that by retaining an identity outside of parenting, I wouldn’t be consumed entirely and perhaps I wouldn’t feel the same pain when my chicks became fledglings and began to fly the nest. I was kidding myself. All I did was create a space where, now, I sit and sometimes wonder why I didn’t devote more of myself to the children while I had the chance.

I still wouldn’t list “Mother” on my Twitter bio, but it’s coming. I can feel it.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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