Two people are allowed to call me “mom”: my 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. (And even these two still call me “mommy,” which I treasure and will mourn when it disappears.)
But this doesn’t stop people who aren’t my children from calling me “mom.”
“Hey, fit mom!” I’ve heard when I walk into the gym.
“Woohoo, mom’s night out!” a friend’s husband says when he sees me and my female friends headed out to dinner.
Moments like this make me think of the closing line of the classic “Saturday Night Live” skit “Mom Jeans”: “I’m not a woman anymore … I’m a mom.”
Being labeled a “mom” in an environment that has nothing to do with kids sets my teeth on edge. My friends and I are a group of successful, talented, complicated women. And when I’m at the gym, I’m a hardworking CrossFit athlete who out-works people half my age. Yet in that moment, I’m being defined by my relationship to my children.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy #momlife ― I just don’t want to wear the T-shirt.
When my daughter was born in 2005, I put all my focus into her. Despondent over the idea of leaving her in day care from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., I left my full-time job and found a part-time gig as a writer for a nonprofit. When I wasn’t working, I was either taking care of my daughter or thinking about taking care of her. All of my passion and energy went into my role as a mother.
Before I had kids, I had competed as an amateur boxer. I’d learned to surf and spent eight days living in a hut on a beach in Mexico with my husband, surfing in the warm water for hours every morning and early evening.
I wasn’t fearless ― many of the things I did terrified me ― but I was adventurous.
Then, once I had a baby, I became aware of the consequences. Being responsible for a tiny human turned on my brain to all the terrible things that could happen. My priority became safety and security. I found beauty in putting another person’s needs first and learned so much in those dark nights and quiet early mornings. It was healthy for me to focus on someone other than myself, but in the process I lost sight of myself.
This lasted for almost two years. Around my daughter’s second birthday, I began to step outside the baby fog. I became interested in music other than Raffi and Laurie Berkner. I worked out more and began calling my friends back. I started to remember who I’d been before I became a mother.
Then I got pregnant again. The baby fog thickened. I was preoccupied with my pregnancy and my toddler, and consumed with worry about how I’d manage with two small children.
It was 2007, when the news was filled with the crisis in the subprime mortgage market. I was vaguely aware of the economy melting down, of the warning signs getting louder, but the voices on NPR were drowned out by the exhaustion of pregnancy and the toddler in front of me.
My son was born in June 2008 but the news continued to get worse. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, it was scary but still seemed like distant news.
Then the news arrived at our door.
My husband lost his job in January 2009 and the nonprofit let me go a month later. We had a mortgage, an infant, a 3-year-old and no income. While I’d been obsessing about sleep schedules and cloth diapers, the U.S. economy had imploded. I no longer had the luxury of focusing completely on my children. I needed to find work, and to do that I had to get back in touch with the determination and drive I’d known before kids.
I began lining up freelance editing and writing clients. My husband found a job within three months, and I began working from home, hustling to match my previous income. I still worried about what my kids were eating and if they were meeting all their growth milestones and if that was another ear infection, but now I was also focused on work. Our temporary double employment at first terrified, then energized, me. I’d always wanted to be a freelance writer, and it seemed like this was my chance.
Then, halfway through 2010, inspired by my growing freelance career and what I’d discovered I could do when I took risks and worked hard, I joined a CrossFit gym, and it was here, five years after my daughter was born, that I remembered who I used to be.
Most of the people at the gym were 10 years younger than me, and none of the people I trained with regularly had kids. If I talked about my kids, their eyes would glaze over, so I had to remember how to have conversations not involving nap time, snacks or time-outs.
For five years, my body had been primarily used in service to my kids: in pregnancy, breastfeeding, rocking them to sleep, carrying and hugging. Now I was spending an hour every day using my body to learn how to do a pullup, then a handstand pushup. I put my hands on a barbell for the first time and learned how to squat and deadlift, and how to get the bar over my head in the snatch and the clean and jerk.
I remembered the music I used to love, the loud rock and the dirty rap. I began surfing again, starting reading fiction again. It wasn’t that I let go of my identity as a mom, it’s that I remembered I wasn’t just a mom. It was like putting on a favorite dress I hadn’t worn in years and remembering how good it looked, and wondering why it had taken me so long to wear it again.
I have never for a second regretted becoming a mother. I love being a mom, and I’m grateful for the ways it’s changed me. I had no idea the depths of love I could feel, or the joy ― and of course the worry and irritation ― my children would bring me. Having kids made me less self-involved, more nurturing. Through them I’ve met some of my best friends in the world.
I’ve also realized it’s important for me to remember who I was before I had kids, to not lose myself in service of their needs.
So when someone calls me “fit mom,” or wants to organize a “mom’s night out” or refers to a glass of wine as “mommy juice,” I’m taken back to those years when I lost myself.
And I don’t want it to happen again.