“Becoming a parent will change you forever,” popular wisdom tells us. Pregnant or waiting to adopt our first children, we are told all sorts of things about who we’re about to become. Our parents tell us, or our friends who already have children, or our friends who don’t already have children, or grannies at the supermarket, or obstetricians and midwives. They all have so many things to tell us about all the ways we’ll change.
They tell us we’ll never sleep the same way again. We’ll never watch the news the same way. Our life goals will change, they say, and we’ll come to laugh and cry over things that didn’t seem funny or sad to us before children. We’ll eat differently, shop differently, dress differently.
It’s all going to change now, they say.
The reality is that, as true as this is, some things about me never changed when I had children. After all, I had nearly thirty years on this earth before my older daughter arrived, and some things became ingrained. As a human being, the circumstances surrounding me changed, but at my core, I believe I did not. I believe that none of us really change: not with children, not with spouses or life partners, not with jobs or homes or communities.
What happened to me, at least, is that certain aspects of my personality were refined by the experience of parenting, in particular the experience of parenting a medically complicated child like my younger daughter. My needs — largely the same as before children — remained needs but were simply unmet. My goals in life — which I never forgot — were sublimated by the daily tasks of keeping my daughters alive, tasks that got more demanding with each health crisis. My values — meaningful friendships, creative outlets, community engagement — remained important to me even as practicality kept me from pursuing them. In the process of knowing what I needed but being unable to attain it for long, long stretches, I found myself having to prioritize: what do I need most today? There is no long-term personal planning with small children, and no expectations with a child whose health is so unpredictable. My soul shook around inside my daily life like a crystal in a rock tumbler. All the nonessential pieces broke off.
I feel, in many ways, that I’m nearing the other side of that process now. With my children both healthy now, and both old enough for bigger conversations and do-it-yourself dinners, I feel the essential part of me being gently shined under a soft cloth. After all this time, after years of putting them above every other thing I needed, they’re now old enough and strong enough for me to consider what remains of me.
I’ve been writing for the last year about what happened to my daughter in her heath crises: heart and lungs, throat and ears, stomach and brain, but though these stories look like they are about her, they are mostly about me. In this writing, I am asking myself: what happens when you take a human being, give her a child she loves, and put her through years of uncertainty about that child’s health? I’m looking at this soul of mine to see what it became. I’m looking for what changed, what stayed, what was essential and what broke off against the walls of these crises.
They have only ever known me as a mother. They have only ever known me with my hands on their cheeks, my arms around their bellies, my hips holding them up and then pressed into their sides at the corner before we cross the street. They have only ever seen me with my arms full of laundry, pushing an IV stand, stirring the soup, rocking a sibling. They know I work when they are in school; they seldom see me work in real time. They know I used to write. They think I stopped long ago.
What else should they know? What parts of their soul would break off if they knew that mine was roughed clean of some pieces because of their mere presence?
I’m not ready to find out. I’m not ready to bare my humanity to them — to let them see that I was scared, that I was sometimes terribly wrong, that I compromised things they are too young to see that they may compromise too, someday. As I sort it out in words, I know that this writing is not for them; it’s for me and the parents out there watching themselves become distilled as their children grow.
Parenting did change me forever, but it didn’t change everything. What remains is for me to discover without the eyes of my children. Some pieces have been mine since before they came.