I’ve always had a strong sense of self. But like many women, when I became a mom, I lost a lot of it.
It’s not because I give my son unconditional love and as much of my attention as I can (and as seems reasonable — I want him to know how to have fun on his own, as well) — that, I always knew I’d do: I’m not particularly extroverted, but to the friends and loved ones in my life, I’ve always given so much of myself. I’d already expected my son to get even more.
No, it was other things that slipped away. For example, I’d always been known as someone who’s almost obsessive about housework. But with my son’s arrival, I found myself slacking where I could. I might still regularly do the wash (although, as I’d been warned, with a growing family, it does seem to get out of hand), but my weekly deep-clean of our bathrooms has been relegated to twice a month, if I have the time. Only the sink areas, floor, and a brief bathtub wipe-down are what I focus on more frequently. I’d always kept up with hand washing the many fragile dresses I own, but now they’ve piled up so much that our laundry hamper is unusable.
Not that I could have worn many of the dresses anyway. After being a chubby kid and teenager, I had spent nearly a decade at average weight, and was disciplined enough to get myself back in gear whenever I wavered into heavier territory. Now, due mainly to stress eating and a lack of sleep, my weight has put me back into the eyebrow-raising borderline heavy category. It’s hard to accept when you’ve grown used to putting on most clothes and looking at least okay, and it’s even harder to love my new self living in Paris, France, where fat shaming is far more abundant than those mythic French poodles. Lately, I’ve been judged by everyone from my mother-in-law, to a new gynecologist (interestingly, neither one of these women is particularly thin — in fact, the gynecologist and I could have shared clothes). I’ve gone from someone who was curtly accepted into the mainstream, to a person who seems like she’s let herself go.
And then, I pulled out my back.
It seems like such a minor thing — something that happens to people all the time. And maybe because of that, you think it’s just a matter of lying on the sofa for a few days, taking it easy. But that wasn’t so easy to do with a two-year-old in my care most of the time. And that wasn’t the only thing. Because whenever I started to feel better, I found myself getting up and doing housework. And when I’d feel bad again and have to lie down, I’d feel upset that I couldn’t continue. I felt frustrated I couldn’t get back to my treadmill runs, which I’d recently started again.
Hurting my back has made me have to strip everything down to what’s essential. I can’t fold the laundry because I need to save up my strength for taking my son out of his crib after his nap. I can’t bend down and pick up toys because I’m going to have to bend down and feed the cat. I used to blame these chores on the life I’d chosen, on motherhood and wifehood. But as I find myself trying to do them even so, I start to remember who I was.
On Sunday, I was feeling better and went into a moderate cleaning frenzy. By Sunday night, I was lying on the sofa, tears running down my cheeks, in severe pain despite the regular doses of codeine I’d been taking. And yet, on Monday, I got up, felt a bit stiff, but still found myself picking up cookie crumbs and feeding the cat.
I’m realizing that who I was — and who I am — is also more than I thought. I’ve always looked up to my mom for how she surpasses pain, not just brushing it aside, but even defying it. When she was here for a visit a few weeks ago, she often had trouble climbing the steep hill to our apartment. It’s understandable: In remission for stage 4 breast cancer, she’s taken her share of blows. But when I’d suggest we sit down on a bench for a while, or, at the very least, that I push my son’s carriage the rest of the way up, she’d shake her head and say, “No. I want to do this.”
I always thought I was the opposite: If I can, the path of least resistance seems like what I’d choose. But here, with my injured back, I have every excuse to stay seated or lying down, and yet, I jump up and try to do everything I can. Maybe there is something of my mother’s perseverance in me after all.
When I think of it more, I guess it’s always been there. From living abroad, away from my family, to choosing a career where it seems nearly impossible to make a decent living and is full of rejection and criticism on the daily, my choices have actually rarely been the easiest ones. It’s just that they seemed right, motivated by my passion, making me forget the difficulty, or brush it aside.
It turns out maybe I’ve also been willingly climbing a hill without help for a very long time.
My back should be better in a few days, at least if I rest. And while I can’t say being unable to do much has been particularly convenient or pleasant (definite “Nope” on both accounts, in fact), I’m grateful, at least, for what the experience has taught me about myself.