Before I had kids, I had the luxury of time, which I spent on creative pursuits, many of which I luckily got paid to do. I drew. I painted. I sewed. I wrote songs. I invented recipes and made yummy meals. I played guitar. I wrote—get this!—fiction. Also: I exercised regularly. I socialized on average five nights a week. I traveled for work to faraway lands, and I had at least 17 days a year when I didn’t worry about money. In short, I had a fully formed identity that had nothing to do with children, a rich intellectual, creative and social life.
When I’d imagined motherhood, I saw myself continuing those creative pursuits, bestowing my love of friends and culture and nature on my kids, teaching them the joy of crafting, leading them on walks through the park, and inventing exotic, organic baby foods to expand their palates.
But this is the reality: most days my kids are eating foods from shiny, squeezy packages, and 87 percent of my time is spent trying to distract them so I can ferociously—but unsuccessfully—tidy our apartment. Then I shuffle them off to bed as quickly as possible so I can sit on the couch, drooling, eating takeout and watching Homeland. Suddenly I am a bad cook, a terrible craftsperson, a talentless musician. I can barely read a novel, let alone write one. I hardly recognize myself, and it’s not just because I’ve had so little sleep in the last three-and-a-half years that I practically have a permanent tattoo of dark circles beneath my eyes. It’s because I’ve gone missing, leaving in my stead this creativity-free zombie whiner.
Now, shedding my old self isn’t all bad. There was plenty in my former identity that I longed to change, and I wouldn’t trade my current married-with-children existence for my excruciatingly lonely but much more culturally satisfying former life for a second. My children are beautiful, snuggly, smart and smell like sunshine (and a little bit like spit-up). I recognize my good fortune in having them, and in the ways that they’ve allowed a more nurturing and patient person to emerge from within me (this person visits a few hours each week, in between episodes when I’m literally crying over spilt milk). But it’s hard to feel grateful for mothering when I feel like I’m doing such a bad job at it much of the time, and when I feel like I’ve exchanged almost everything else in my life to do it.
While I admit that I’m naturally inclined to see the glass as half empty, I’m certainly not alone in feeling unmoored by motherhood. Most women I know, except the ones who are eerily indefatigable and relentlessly positive, undergo some version of an identity crisis when they become mothers, and feel like they fail at it somehow. And the predicament, I think, has cultural roots. Modern moms expect to excel at every aspect of womanhood: domestic goddess, creative force, monetary achiever and world’s greatest parent, whose toddlers are raised on baby Mozart and are properly primed for the Ivy League. Our generation has been told that we can be anything we want to be. But we seem intent on being everything we want to be, all at once. And when we can’t do that—because, ladies, there just aren’t enough hours in the day—we feel disappointed in ourselves.