In the past few years, post kids in the house, I’ve had more time for myself. In some ways, with work, travel, new projects, my days seem as full as ever. But there has been a shift in the busy-ness of my free time. Now I’m more likely to spend time reading online, or exploring some new activity for myself. Not that I’m totally self-absorbed. No, there are others in my life, and I reach out in many ways. But in the quiet of the evenings, or early mornings, I have freedom that couldn’t exist in the years of getting kids out the door for school, or doing laundry for a family, or proof-reading term papers due the next day.
I read other women’s work and at times, feel like I’m a late bloomer, or maybe just incredibly slow on the journey of self-discovery. There are women in their 30s that seem to be more enlightened about themselves, and more experienced in some ways, than I am. How can that be? And then I remember. I was busy that decade of my life. And in my 20s. And until late 40s. Not that motherhood and family prevent self-examination, or stunt personal growth. No, in many ways, parenting is a never-ending growth opportunity and personal challenge. It has made me want to be the best “me” I can be, and for the best motives. But it takes tremendous commitment and focus. And maybe I’m not as much a multi-tasker as I like to think.
I began the experience of motherhood at a young age. At twenty-three, just out of college a year and still a baby myself, I had a baby. And suddenly that consumed my world. In many ways, because my husband was equally consumed with medical school, it became my salvation. I was so absorbed with this new person in my life that I wasn’t troubled by the pattern our lives fell into. We each committed to our assigned roles (roles we assumed and accepted without discussion or question) and put our heads down to power through the next several years of life, surviving professional school, residency, another child, moves, stress, minimum income, minimum time together. Looking back, it is nothing short of a miracle that our marriage survived and that we were able to create a functional and even positive environment for our children. Somehow we did it. Now I understand that there was a cost, and we paid a price. We paid a price personally, and jointly. But at the time, we were just doing what was expected of us. What we expected of ourselves. Failure wasn’t an option.
As our children grew and I took on work, first part time, then full time, and Rob moved through various stages of a career in medicine; as the obligations and responsibilities of family and social commitments, volunteer positions and the chores of life grew to be never ending, we soldiered on. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that for all of the thought and care that I put into those years, there were pieces of myself that were dormant, just waiting to breathe, to have opportunity to surface.
Let me validate, for myself and for anyone else who cares to know, that those years were good. Reduced to a few paragraphs in blunt language, it’s easy to miss the joy, the love, the laughter, the good stuff. So let me acknowledge: it was mostly good. But it was busy, overwhelming, consuming, challenging. Fill in the blank with whatever word conveys the sense of completeness. The reality of life is: if you jump into the pool of creating a family, it’s going to consume you. It may consume you with joy or with grief, with busy-ness or guilt, but it will consume you. You can’t really dabble in it. If you do it well and successfully, that takes time. And if you do it poorly, there’s a cost to that too.
So what’s the point of all of this? The point is: I did it. We did it. We made it through to the other side. I always say if you have children, you’re going to pay the price either early or late. It’s not a question of the value of the decision to parent. That statement simply acknowledges the commitment. And the hands on commitment, whether you begin at twenty-three or forty-three, is going to take time, energy, money, thought, self.
Now I’m in a different time of life. I’ve written before about the empty nest, about growing into it, accepting, coming to celebrate it. The emotional ties with our kids are strong. The effort to be connected still takes time and thought, energy and commitment. I still spend money on our kids. Of course I do. They didn’t exit my life when they went off to college, or joined the army, or got married, or began to earn enough that they didn’t need regular rescue checks. But the hands on tasks are largely done. And that has left room in my days for self-discovery, for quietness, for thought. It’s amazing how much time you need to think and absorb.
I don’t know how I stack up against others. Maybe I am slow. Or maybe some of the writing that I read online that speaks of a self-knowledge gained at an earlier time in life is possible because the women writing have taken different paths than I did. Maybe they found themselves first, and will add family later, if at all. And I’m not saying that personal epiphanies and family are mutually exclusive. I had moments of enlightenment even when up to my armpits in the lives of my kids. I learned to do many things because of them, and through them. But it’s easier to get to know myself without the noise of a full house.
So I’m working on it. Some parts of me I’m well acquainted with, but there are nooks and crannies that I’ve hardly looked into. I’m exploring, both to see what I’ve neglected or forgotten about myself, and to learn what I can contribute to the rest of the world. Because really, the point is not to do all this growing just for my benefit. Isn’t the goal to integrate, to give, to share, to take part in the lives of others? Yes, that’s the goal. And to do that, I have to know what I bring. I’m late (those who know me will hardly find that surprising…one of my faults…I’m chronically late). But I had a great reason for my slow start, and I don’t regret it. I was investing up front. Now it’s time to catch up, and I’m ready to do that.
Where are you? Did you begin early, or late, to know yourself?