How to make your kids proud of you

My biggest fear about becoming a mom was losing my identity. It wasn’t that I thought motherhood would be so all-consuming that everything else in my life would grind to a halt—work, hobbies, spiritual life, etc. I knew those parts of my life would keep going. What I worried about was raising a child who could see and understand those other parts of me. I wanted to make sure my son knew there was more to me than kissing scraped knees, doling out snacks, and generally attending to his every need. I wanted him to see me as more than just “Mom”.

What I’ve come to realize is that he won’t. At least not for a long time. I know this because, as a full-fledged adult, I’m just now digesting the many layers of my own mom’s story. She’s shared pieces of it over the years, like what a shock it was for her to go from being a city girl with an office job to the role of farm wife with chickens after she married my dad. She’s joked about how hard it was to make friends in a small, rural town where everyone thought they ran a commune because they had the New York Times delivered every week. And she’s been honest about how she sacrificed time with my brother when she went back to graduate school and ultimately got her PhD in her forties.

During my whole childhood my mom was on an incredible journey, most of which was invisible to me. She went from farm wife to head of the English Department at a university, and all I noticed was that she showed up at my school plays and bought the right flavor of Kool-Aid (Very Berry, of course).

My primary memories of her are of family cook-outs, camping trips, and Christmas mornings. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that those are just the memories nearest the surface. If I dig a little deeper there are others: Her packing the car on a Sunday morning, preparing to make the four-hour drive back to the university where she was taking her PhD classes during the week, trying to hide her tears as she hugged my brother and I goodbye. Her office while she was writing her dissertation, the desk covered in piles of notecards filled with her meticulous handwriting. While she was busy changing her life trajectory (and ultimately mine), all I was thinking about was when she was going to drive me to the mall.

The first time I realized my mom was more than just the person who chaperoned my school trips and made sure my gym clothes were clean was at her PhD defense presentation. The culmination of her degree, she was required stand in front of a group of academics and respond while they tried to pick apart her research. I attended her presentation because my dad, understanding what was on the line, was too nervous to go. I went begrudgingly because it was in another city and I was seventeen by then, so asking me to spend a weekend away from my friends was like asking me to sacrifice a kidney.

For two hours I watched my mom confidently and expertly respond to questions I didn’t understand about theories I’d never heard of. It was not my mom I saw at the front of the room. It was a whip-smart, highly-driven badass whose knowledge and abilities far outpaced making bunny-shaped pancakes and driving carpool.

It turns out, of course, that she had been much more than just “Mom” all along. My kid-brain simply couldn’t comprehend anything about her beyond my own needs and wants. And honestly, that’s how it should be. When it comes to my son, I want his first memories of me to be the times I wiped his tears away, cooked his favorite dinner, and read him Llama Llama Red Pajama for the zillionth time. Those are memories that will make him feel loved. I also know that it’s better for both of us if I continue to pursue the things outside of being “Mom” that make me whole and happy. Because while sometimes those things take me away from him, someday he’ll understand why, and those are the memories that will make him feel proud.

Motherhood is tricky. We spend our whole lives establishing who we are in our friendships, careers, and relationships, and then BAM!, the title of Mom comes along and upends it all. Everything else you worked so hard for suddenly seems secondary. It’s easy to start referring to things in the past tense, as in “Before kids I used to _____.” And let’s be honest, some things do fall by the wayside because we simply can’t do it all. The things you love, though, the ones that fill you up and round you out, keep doing them. For you, but also for your kids, because it will be part of how they remember you.

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