One night, I found myself scrolling Instagram and going to a college friend’s page. She and I had the kind of dynamic that once prompted our favorite creative writing professor to call us out in class as Heckle and Jeckle. We were both bold. Mouthy. Spirited. Our biggest difference, or so it seemed to me at the time, was that she had a clearly defined personal identity and I didn’t.
My personal identity seemed either confined or defined by whatever relationship I was in. While she had this impenetrable sense of self.
She knew what she was all about and let no one dictate who she was. I admired her authenticity and her tenacity to just be herself and know she was enough. I also admired her writing, which was as vivid, poetic, and as real as she was. While my passion for writing burned as brightly as hers, my writing voice was still tentative. My work didn’t reach into the deepest layers of my soul. I’m certain it was because my identity changed with each of my romantic seasons.
After graduation, we kept in touch loosely. Both of us entered M.F.A. programs for creative writing but states apart. I made one road trip with a mutual writing friend to visit her. We had a blast. She remained steadfast while I remained easily knocked off balance. Our lives drifted in separate directions, and our friendship became infrequently commenting on each other’s Facebook threads.
Through photos, posts, and comments we saw each other graduate. Land our first jobs. Move. Get married. Buy homes. And, have children.
What we knew of each other’s journeys into motherhood became based on what we shared through social media. To me, one of the most wonderful things about social media (and also kind of the most unreal) is that I can pick and choose what I post. I can select only the best of the best moments, feelings, or experiences. I can appear to the world like I have it all together. I can show a version of motherhood that is blissful and miraculous and appear like there’s nothing else I would rather do or be. Somehow, even in knowing this, I am always left dumbfounded when I find out that what I’m seeing of someone else might also be their own carefully curated illustrations of their life.
So there I am, scrolling and landing on this college friend’s page and seeing that she started a blog somewhere along the way. I went there immediately, of course, and binge read every post she wrote. They were about motherhood and identity, challenges, isolation…
There between the lines, I read “Help.” I read, “Do you feel me?” I read, “I’ve lost my self.”
As a nonfiction writer, I know that a part of me is compelled to write because I deeply want to impact another person so that they feel less alone. But I also know I’m compelled to write so that I can exorcise those thoughts and ideas that are better released than kept held. This friend and I both write nonfiction. We both understood each other at one time. And while it’s been over ten years since we’ve actually directly written to one another or even spoke on the phone, I knew it was time to reach out.
Moms need each other. Friends need each other.
I messaged her on Instagram and asked if she was okay. Like no time had passed at all, we were chatting as we had just left off. No barriers. No need for small and idle chit chat. Just realness. Candid dialogue. Friendship. We were in that familiar trusting space with one another as we had been in our twenties while the voices and perspectives and real feelings and thoughts were those of our now thirty-something mothering selves. We wrote to each other for a few minutes and then about a week later I picked up the phone and called her.
We jumped right in. What was going on for us right now? When needed, we offered up some of our backstories just to provide a little context, a little shading. The most compelling thing came out of our one-hour conversation:
She had lost her identity in motherhood and I had found mine.
While I still felt like she was coming across as who I remembered, she didn’t feel like she knew herself anymore. She was more anxious now as a mother than she had been before children. She was unsure about going out into town by herself while her husband stayed back, watched the kids, and gave her the room to do something for herself. She was unaware of what she liked anymore. She knew she had been the girl in college who knew exactly who she was. She possessed that clear sense of identity. And now she said that she didn’t know who she was outside of being a mother. “Do you feel that way?” she asked me.
I couldn’t say that I did, yet I know so many mothers who do. Several have expressed the very same thing to me.
For me, I lost my personal identity so long ago that it wasn’t there to lose when I became a mother. It was there to be rediscovered. Becoming a mother made me turn an introspective eye on myself. Could I feel proud of who I was so that I knew I was the best version of myself for my son? Was I the best role model for him that I could be? What would I change? What did I want to illustrate to him? These were difficult questions. As I went through a miscarriage, and then separation, and then divorce, they became more difficult.
Every question I asked myself came through the lens of motherhood. Who did I want to be because of the all-powerful, intimate connection and role I have as a mother?
Eventually, I came to rediscover myself. Eventually, I came to recognize my personal identity again. In doing so, I realized just how far back I lost myself. And while it was well before becoming a mother, it still related to my role within a relationship.
I believe we all have the ability to lose ourselves inside relationships we hold dear. For better or worse, but usually, unintentionally and unknowingly we lose our sense of self. Like drifting into sleep. I also believe what can be lost can also be refound, or rediscovered, or redefined, or recreated. So long as you’re willing to recognize it and do something about it. And that includes putting yourself out there to be heard and seen so that someone can step forward in friendship and out of love and say, “I got you and you’re going to be okay. You’re doing great. I still see you.”
In reconnecting with my college friend, we rekindled our friendship after years of quiet. We found ourselves in a space where we could lean on each other and share our individual experiences, our feelings, and our challenges without there being judgment or shame. She lost her identity in motherhood. I found mine. But motherhood is something we both understand.
We both want a personal identity outside of that very wonderful but all-encompassing role as a mother and we can have them if we permit ourselves to go create them, define them, and nourish them.
To my college friend, I love you. I think you’re amazing. You’re still all the wonderful things I remember about you. And I know you’re a wonderful mom. It may seem like you’ve lost your way or your self, but you’re just on a solitary journey right now and there’s not much of a map. Think of it like being on those dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere that connect one small town to another. You know you’ll get there if you just keep going. Have faith that you’ll arrive, always believe in yourself, and rely on a few key characters that you’ve met along the way to give you a lift when you run out of gas.
P.S. If you haven’t taken that jean jacket out of the closet recently, it’s time.