A few days ago I had a rocky night that was the result of a painful conversation. Though there were several too-long-to-explain things that upset me about this entire exchange, a few things stood out in particular as being especially bothersome. For instance, toward the end of the dialogue, I heard this: “you’re just a mom.” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as a compliment. I’m pretty sure it was intended more as a “that’s all you’re good at” assessment of my whole character. And, initially, this comment did really hurt me. Not because I don’t love my children, because I dearly do. Not because I don’t love being a mom, because I clearly do. It hurt because, whether it actually was or not, it felt like a degradation of my femininity as a whole.
See, being a mom is not sexy. Being a mom doesn’t give you a lot of time to solve the world’s problems, like cancer or making sure naughty countries get their toys taken away. Being a mom isn’t glamorous. Sometimes I’d rather wear the same pair of beloved workout pants all week long instead of looking in my closet because that then reminds me I have no clothes because all my money went to buy my children clothes. Or food. Or experiences to create memories for them. Or gas to get them to the experiences. You’re more likely to find me at some playground (look up: sitting on the top of monkey bars is a favorite hide-out spot for me) than you are to see me at Starbucks. I’m more likely to have paint smears on my elbow than my fingernails. My mind holds distant memories of leisurely, full-plated dinners that encouraged relaxation but spend a day as my shadow now and you’ll discover I rarely eat a meal of my own; rather, I eat the leftovers from my kids’ plates (and, let’s be honest: I’ve caught myself on more than one occasion cutting chicken that was on my own plate up into tiny bites automatically, just from sheer habit). My point is that sometimes being a mom has shifted my focus from being feminine to being functional. Can you really play on a playground in high heeled boots? I’ve tried it and, although I didn’t kill myself in the process, it was difficult. My point is that sometimes it does feel like I’ve exchanged being a woman for being a mom and, even though I’d make the same exchange every day of every year, sometimes it feels like I’m a second-class woman because wiping noses and coupon-shopping for groceries doesn’t involve much femininity. Moms patiently and joyfully spend hours building things out of a million Lego’s even though, in a previous life as a woman, they hated puzzles. Moms answer the same question every five minutes without losing their minds. Moms have books like The Giving Tree and Goodnight, Moon memorized because she’s read them more than any other book in her entire life. Moms know they could walk outside at any moment and find their mailbox colorfully decorated in crayon, like mine currently is. Moms knows a child may, at any time, decide flushing her panties down the commode is a science experiment. Moms mourn the day kids figure out the game Quiet Mouse, Still Mouse, Go is a trick used to get in a full minute of silence. And none of that defines womanhood, or femininity.
According to culture and society, the essence of womanhood is this image of an independent, sensual female whose time is made up of friends, boyfriends or husbands and a stellar nightlife (whatever that may mean for her: the point is, women aren’t too exhausted to breathe come 10:00 p.m.). Womanhood is advancing a career or making that lifelong dream of a wedding come true. Womanhood is about traveling the globe or earning your advanced degree. The “perfect” woman looks flawless (despite her flaws) and showcases her exceptional intelligence by embracing all that life has to offer. She’s in the middle of life instead of on the edges. The ideal woman can’t be contained, or bound. She can’t be described as “just” anything because she isn’t “just a professional,” she has hobbies she cares about, like art or dance or exercising. She isn’t “just” a student because, at my age, those women who are still studying for advanced degrees also work full-time jobs to pay the bills. She isn’t “just” sexy; she’s also a “no-nonsense boss” of many. Such are the characteristics of a “real” woman. Moms, though, have blinders on. Though a mom may be in the workforce, may be a great boss of many, she’s a mother first: she’ll call home during the workday to check on her child. Though a mom may be in school to earn a degree, she does her work late at night, after she’s cooked and bathed and read to her children. Though a mom may travel, she’ll never do so again without considering the safety risks involved for her child. Though she may have a husband or boyfriend, relationships can become centered around the children quite without thought; bodies can become too emotionally drained for an active sex life. In other words, whatever else she may be, at the root of it all, lie her children. She is, then, “just a mom.”
Except when she’s smart enough to know that band-aids cure anything: then she’s a famous doctor. Except when she turns the car around without question and backtracks to the grocery store because her child left a beloved stuffed animal in the cart: then, then she’s a hero. Except when she sits still for little fingers to cut snips of her hair off, then smear blobs of orange and blue makeup all over her face. Then, she’s a Cindy Crawford-level model. Except when she eats the peanut butter and catsup sandwich her child proudly made for lunch: then, she’s cool. Except when, instead of getting angry, she laughs at the crayons on the wall: then, then she’s an artist. Except when the Tooth Fairy comes. Then, then she’s a magician. Except when she sings her child to sleep. Then… then, she’s a world class musician. Except when she knows just what to say to make her sad child laugh. Then, she’s a counselor. Except when her child sings the ABCs, counts to 100 or drives a car by herself for the first time. Then, she’s a teacher. Except when she knows just how “burnt” the bacon must be in order for her child to eat it. Then, she’s a chef. Except when she carries you all over the park or the zoo or the museum just because you don’t want to walk anymore. Then… then, she’s exactly what you need. Except when she’s taught her child to share without being prompted. Then, she’s a world class diplomat. Except when the dark is scary and little ones need late night snuggles. Then, she’s the only comfort that will do. Except when her child has been deliberately bullied, or wounded: then, she’s a protector, a lioness. In other words, she’s just everything to someone, even if that “someone” is a child.
Twenty years from now, Breathe will be twenty-nine. She may have married, may have children of her own. And many of the values she’ll be teaching them will be the same ones I’m trying to teach her now. In fifty years, Breathe’s children will be grown with families of their own. They’ll be teaching their children values that Breathe taught them, which were similar to the ones I taught her. In seventy years, a hundred years, the cycle will repeat itself. The time spent playing, instructing, caring and loving today is about more than a career. It’s about more than a hobby. It’s a legacy, the effects of which will be felt for generations and generations. My girls are learning how to respond to frustrations and anger from how I handle frustrations and anger. My girls are learning how to respond to triumph with grace hopefully through my guidance. When I read the same book a dozen times, it’s teaching my daughters that I have time for them, and that their likes are important. When I let them make dinner for us, I’m teaching them that they are capable, and that I believe in them. Deeper values, like faith and self-esteem and family, will influence the people they become and the impact they have on the world at large. It can be convincingly argued that the single most important characteristic in life is self-esteem. If you truly believe your ideas matter, you are more likely to pursue them. If you truly believe you are worthwhile, you will question injustices. Self-esteem starts developing at birth and does not stop, ever. It is constantly evolving. Moms don’t get weekends or holidays off. Perhaps I’m not a beautiful model. Perhaps I never spend time with anyone but children. Perhaps the most joyful thing in my life really is motherhood. Perhaps all the cliches you’ve heard about mothers, I prove. Maybe I’m not a “real woman.”
Maybe not. But my house is full of love. Love so strong it helps make us resilient and courageous. Maybe I am “just a mom.” But we practice gratitude, compassion and servitude here and that makes us happier, and fuller. Maybe I am “just a mom.” But every day I remember that and use it to guide my words and actions is a day my daughters learn lasting lessons about purity and the value of family. Perhaps a lot of my femininity is gone. Maybe I am “just a mom.” But this doesn’t fill me with uneasiness anymore. Instead, it fills me with pride, joy and peace. Just a mom means I’m everything to someone. Just a mom means I’m needed. Just a mom means I matter. Just a mom means I have the unique opportunity of watching a life from its beginning unfold. Just a mom means I fall in love a little more, both with my children and with God for the gift He’s entrusted to me. Just a mom means I don’t have to stress over anything but my daughters’ happiness; it has taught me to be a giving person. Just a mom means I’m creative and cloaked from head to toe in love. The essence of womanhood is love… love of children, love of spouse, love of life in general. And mothers…. mothers have an over-abundance of love. I recently watched a video where moms were asked to describe themselves. They all mentioned their flaws. Then their children were asked to come in and describe their mothers, and they used words like “angel” and “hero.” Not even the most sensual, beautiful woman on earth could ask for more meaningful or beautiful praise. Yes, I am “just a mom.” And “woman” or not, I can’t think of anything more I’d rather be.