The worst kind of identity crises (I just decided) are those that you don't see coming. My unexpected mind-melt hit three days before my wedding in a fast-food parking lot. Everything -- the seating chart, the mason jars, the guest gifts -- was organized ahead of schedule. And, intellectually, I felt more than prepared to say "I do." Nevertheless, one minute I was ordering tacos and the next minute I found myself sobbing uncontrollably as I reflected on the last ten-years of my life. Lily, my 11-year-old daughter, was sitting in the passenger seat scrolling through her Instagram account. She rolled her eyes at me because I'm "always so emotional." I laughed at her incredulity and the way she is practicing being too cool for me these days.
What I could barely explain because I could barely understand myself was that I felt ready to be married, but suddenly felt very unprepared to give up being a single-mom. Sharing my life with another person would permanently change me, and it would permanently change things between me and my daughter. (Also, what was I going to call myself?) Identity. Crash.
The first level of identity in Los Angeles is all about who are you are (actor, writer, director?), and where you fit in (Santa Monica, Silver Lake, the Valley?). But the second level, ironically, is all about how unique you are in between all the clichés. My life isn't glamorous, but I was very proud of being a single mother, and I valued the way it set me apart despite the myriad challenges. It earned me looks of admiration for the smallest achievements, it justified the bags under my eyes, it made people feel sorry for me. It made me feel sorry for myself too, which can feel good in its own way. Perhaps most of all, being a single mother validated that tiny voice in my head that said I was different from everybody else and would never perfectly fit in anywhere. It made me the underdog. People love the underdog. I love the underdog.
Whenever I meet a twenty-two-year-old, I can't believe I was pregnant that young. Whenever I'm with a three-year-old, I can't believe I decided to move to Los Angeles, away from my family, with a child that size in my arms. Looking back on those first years, I know they were factually, objectively difficult, but that's not what I remember. Instead, the memories of single-motherhood feel like a cool washcloth on our foreheads because our first apartment didn't have air conditioning. They are the sounds of dancing music, which used to be Disney movie songs and this one tape of Halloween rhymes that she couldn't get enough of and were always stuck in my head. We faced life in Los Angeles as a superhero duo who ate boxed tomato soup from Trader Joe's, and made special trips to McDonald's for ice cream sundaes with extra hot fudge (the trick is to ask them to put a pump of sauce in the bottom, before the ice cream).
My identity as a single-mother made me feel special, because our life was special; it connected me to my daughter and our life together with an untouchable bond. Marrying the love of my life means that our era of Team Just Us is coming to an end. Having a third member might make us stronger -- no, it undeniably has made our life stronger, better, fuller in all ways -- but it is a difference that made me feel off balance and unsure of myself in a way I didn't expect.
The truth is, letting go of my single-motherhood might mean that I have to admit and accept that my life is pretty wonderful, and that I'm not the underdog anymore. Just as my life is moving in one direction, the lives of people around me are also changing; a number of our friends are divorcing, and others are pregnant for the first time. Roles have flipped, and I'm trying not to feel guilty.
Instead of wasting energy on needless remorse about nice things in my life, I'm finding that I can be grateful, and more helpful. Surviving as a single mom would have been impossible if it weren't for the help of friends and family. With a husband to share the workload of life, and my daughter slowly growing more independent, I have more time to give back in ways I couldn't before. Over the past few months, I've roasted a chicken, I've offered to help plan a baby-shower, and I dropped off a collection of shoe-boxes for a preschool project. This past weekend I cut out hundreds of paper hearts for our friends getting married in two weeks. Now I am in the position to be of service and give a whole lot back to the people and the city that took such good care of me, and that feels nice, no matter where it puts me in the greater social scheme of things.
My daughter and I will always find ways to be a team as I change into a wife and she changes into a young woman; for now, McDonald's isn't going anywhere. If I really need to, I can find other ways to be an underdog. (Go Browns.)
This Post Was Originally Published at A Practical Wedding.