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This is what contentment looks like
There’s nothing glamorous about it.
Over the past week, I’ve caught up with friends I haven’t spoken to in a while. These conversations have all been with women doing interesting things. They’re following dreams, traveling places, and taking risks. They’re living seemingly fabulous lives.
They all also happen to be child-free.
I’ve found myself feeling insecure during these conversations. I don’t have as many dreams, travels, or risks to share. I don’t have exciting news or big life changes to report. I do have stories about motherhood and my daughter, Cass, to offer up, but I hesitate to share those. I know how tedious it can be to listen to people talk about parenting.
“Having a child is a lot like having a dream,” Jessi Klein wrote in her funny book of essays, I’ll Show Myself Out. “You know how sometimes you have a dream that feels very vivid and important to you, and then when you try to tell your friend about it, they’re instantly bored?”
Oof. The minute I read that observation, it hit me in the gut. The only people who are completely invested in each minute detail of Cass’ life are me, Billy, and her grandmas—and even then, our eyes sometimes glaze over when the same story is being told.
Parenthood is a hard thing to describe. I think that’s why so many of us rely on clichés to capture the experience. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but also the most rewarding! The days are long while the years are short. They grow up so fast!
Then, there’s perhaps the most annoying and unintentionally hurtful saying of all: You won’t understand until you become a parent.
The thing is, that cliché is true—like many tend to be. Parenthood, like deep grief or romantic love, is a unique, life-changing experience that’s impossible to explain. It’s beautiful and it’s boring. It’s terrific and terrifying. At different points and to varying degrees, it’s the best and worst thing that will ever happen to you.
Becoming a parent changes who you are and what you prioritize. It changes how you spend your time, what you eat, who you hang out with, where you go, what you watch, and what you say. It changes everything—and it is maddeningly frustrating to not be able to describe the magnitude of that change to the non-parents in your life.
This explains something I’ve also felt insecure about: that the few new friends I’ve made since moving back to Atlanta are parents with similarly aged children.
“Really, the only time someone is remotely interested in hearing about your dream is if they've had a similar one,” Klein wrote. “This is why you can primarily only talk to other people with kids about your kids.”
Of course, parenthood isn’t the only thing that’s changed me in recent years. Losing my husband forever altered the way I look at the world—for better or worse. It’s made me want to love harder and spend my time more intentionally. It also left me with deep traumatic wounds, heavy fears and anxieties that I lug around wherever I go.
And, like all of us, I’ve been changed by the pandemic. A recent study found that, since COVID’s arrival, we’ve become less extroverted, creative, agreeable, and conscientious. Our personalities have dimmed a little. “About one-tenth of a standard deviation,” the researchers wrote, “which is equivalent to about one decade of normative personality change.”
This ... doesn’t feel great, does it? Whether we’ve been changed by parenthood, a major loss, the pandemic, or all of the above, it’s upsetting to know that our personalities—the core of who we are—have shifted without our blessing.
It’s hard to not feel down about these changes. I used to be someone who traveled solo to different countries and always had weekend plans, someone who held notable jobs and stood in front of packed rooms, someone who regularly bought new clothes and wore cute dresses, someone who danced at wild concerts and hosted big parties. Today, those things are few and far between.
My life feels smaller. And when I try to describe my current state to an old friend, it sounds sad. It feels like I’m less the person I used to be. Sometimes I find myself wanting to scream, This is not who I am!
Well then, that same frustrated voice asks me, who are you?
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Perhaps the most confusing part of all of this personality change is that I’m not unhappy. In fact, most days, I’m pretty content. I’m thrilled that I get to write so often. I like living close to family. I’m happy working from home. I’m proud of the ways Billy and I work as a team. And I really do love being a mom.
The times when I feel less-than are when I’m looking at myself through someone else’s eyes. I can be totally happy in our 1,300-square-foot house, but the minute someone else steps inside, it feels too small. I can feel good about my appearance, but when I notice a friend’s new outfit, I feel frumpy and old. I can find the greatest joy in playing silly games with my silly girl, but when I try to describe those moments to someone else, it feels, well, silly.
I get caught up thinking about the version of myself that’s being broadcast to others—or, at least, the version of me that I imagine others are seeing. And I can’t help but feel a little sad.
That nagging voice returns: Who are you? As if the person I am right now isn’t a person at all.
Sometimes, I long for the drama of my past. When I think back to past versions of me—the more glamorous, fun, successful, busy me—she may have been more enviable, but she wasn’t as happy. I remember how unstable things could feel. Yes, I had some pretty high highs: adventures that were fun to tell others about and to broadcast on social media. But I also had some scarily low lows: times when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be alive. I haven’t felt that way in a really long time; I’m extraordinarily grateful for that.
“So much of who I was—my daily habits, my identifying clothing—had to get thrown away in making room to become a mother,” wrote Klein. “What's left of me is now sharing space with a little boy. And as a result, my mental capacity has been reduced from a decent three bed two bath apartment to at best a little tenement studio. While the tight space creates some cons, the pro is that what can come in and what cannot is pretty clear.”
My life is smaller these days, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have the most special, impossible-to-describe connection with my little girl. I have found love after loss, a relationship that’s undoubtedly special and often quite hard to explain. And I write this newsletter, a job that is equal parts special and difficult to describe. I do quiet things, like going for walks, making lunches for preschool, and lighting candles to make another night at home feel a little bit fancy. These things aren’t notable or even worth trying to describe, but they fit perfectly into the tight space that is my world today.
Nothing about my life is particularly exciting right now, but perhaps excitement isn’t the goal. Outside appearances don’t tell the whole story, I tell myself, as a gentle reminder to stop comparing—to try and enjoy this season for what it is. Maybe the fact that I feel content in my small house wearing old clothes playing silly games is exactly the point.
It might not look like much from the outside, but I feel at peace on the inside. That’s something I haven’t always been able to say. Even if I can’t describe it to others, I can feel it. And that’s what really matters, right?