As I was driving down the Long Island Expressway, my friend, an aspiring cinematographer, was filming me from the passenger seat. She asked me to give her one word that best identified me. I fought like crazy to stop myself from saying it. I spewed forth lawyerly equivocation, harking back to my days as a litigator, but out it came: “Mom.”
My friend acknowledged it pleasantly and non-judgmentally, while I repeated it, as if confessing, almost wishing it weren’t true. I love my children more than anything. But that admission was almost tantamount to failure. I heard “you could be anything” all my life, and after graduating from a prestigious college and completing law school, the most relevant label for me is “Mom”?
Now with one child in college, and one graduating — from my alma mater — this month, I wistfully watch young mothers with their newborns, thinking “that used to be me.” I even hear myself telling them that “it goes by too fast,” biting my tongue on the last word. Somehow, overnight, I became one of those older women.
And here I stand, with a sudden need to affix a label to myself besides “Mom.” “Mom” has become an old, tattered metaphorical nametag for me, out-of-date, unusable.
“What do you do?” I am asked at a business function. I rattle off my résumé of respectable community board and committee positions, and teaching I do on the side. But I avoid mention of the endless volunteering, which could smack too much of suburban PTA culture, to avoid “the look” and a polite retreat by my inquisitor toward more interesting conversationalists. Ultimately, I’ll find a label. I’m a writer. Not to become more popular at cocktail parties, but because I (like many lawyers) have always wanted to write.
So many of us feel the need to reinvent ourselves, around the half-century mark, as we qualify for AARP. I see it all over: new real estate agents, paralegals and teachers. But it’s not just the former “mommy brigade”; it’s single women who didn’t take off years raising children: the marketing wiz with a new film and photography career, the psychologist turned comedian. We’re so much alike, evaluating our lives at this juncture; hoping to find real meaning in what we do. But are we mothers different, desperately fleeing from our “mommy identity” and always wondering if we mistakenly tossed aside our careers? Would I have been happy with a corner office at a law firm? Although I wince when I think how parenting took over my life, writing about its ups and downs gave me an outlet and a new career.
If I stayed home to witness the “firsts,” then maybe I failed. I didn’t even see my son’s first steps: I had turned my back for a moment at a party, when I heard “Alec just walked!” By the time I reeled around, he was settled back down on the floor, as if nothing had happened.
I regretted missing those steps, but there was far more to my choice. My hours were long, and I couldn’t do it all. It wasn’t after years of soul searching or an aspiration to become “the ideal mother,” described by Elisabeth Badinter, author of “The Conflict” — it just was. Pregnant and thrilled to have a baby, I was wheeled out of the hospital with my bundle, only to have the “now what?” moment. I didn’t get my mom stripes from birthing, though I like to remind my children of the pain. I got my label by living through the tough moments, soaring high with the joyful ones, and trying to always have the answers for my children.
Of course, now here I am, a few months before my 50th birthday, still at the inception of a writing career. I will count my blessings, ignore regrets and follow my dream. I have taken something from each of my experiences in an effort to grow. Why is it that I could not stop myself from saying “Mom” in the car that day? Because being a mom is the core of me, no matter what else I do with my life.
Risa C. Doherty is a mom, lawyer, freelance writer and family educator from Long Island.
Copyright 2012, The New York Times Company.