Last week I was thinking about how many of us ‘dress like moms’, a sort of short hand people use for those of us who have set our children before our selves, who carry a little extra weight beyond the post partum period, who tend toward comfy clothes and elastic waist bands even in public. but what of those who have chosen motherhood as a vocation? What if, like me, you’ve been mothering for a decade or more with no end in sight? If my home and my community are my workplace, is there really any less reason to dress for work? As I have reminded the kids many times, for better or worse our appearances are the lenses through which others see us and maybe, just maybe I’m selling myself short.
Fast forward to last Tuesday. I went shopping for earrings. Like a wanna be ex smoker stocking up on nicorette for their first cigarette free day I perused the racks of studs (I have a toddler after all) looking for something I thought might be the magic bullet I was looking for. I know these things should be easy and they probably are for some but I haven’t worn earrings in years and it all felt like a very big deal to me. You see, this is part of a larger project. In some ways it is the first step of the next phase of a huge project.
Like many mothers I had for a time lost myself in my children. While they were well looked after I was often tired and dishevelled. I routinely wore ill fitting clothes that should have been long since retired and wore my hair however was simplest to manage on a given day. Likewise my eating habits were poor, I seldom moved my body beyond walking at a child’s pace or used it for lugging children and I carried the extra weight to prove it.
First came running. After several attempts at incorporating physical activity into my life running was the thing that finally motivated me to make it a habit. When I’m running I’m better about my eating, and can better manage the excesses, and within a year or so my weight was under control. Running also built up pride in my body both in what it can do (run marathons!, make people!) and how it looks, motivating me to wear it proudly and dress it better when I’m out in the world. The problem however was that I couldn’t give a lick about clothes or hair or make-up. Don’t care. Never have. So how do I tackle this part of the change? The idea of a uniform started niggling it’s way into my brain about a year ago and last fall I finally took hold of it and tried to make it work. Call me boring, it works. First I thought about which clothes I went back to time and again and which I felt good in and then singled out those in the intersection of the two groups. I’ve worn well fitting jeans, a camisole or tank top and a sweater or thin long sleeved shirt nearly every day since. It may not be the most interesting of wardrobes but everything in it fits well and works together and it requires no brain power to operate. Enter the earrings.
Last tuesday when I set out to buy earrings I was motivated by two things. One, I had braided my hair the day before in a slightly fancy way and had walked around all day feeling the better for it. Two, the week before a Mom at karate had complimented me on my dress and I had the sneaking suspicion that it had been more of a nice shoes* comment which was worrisome. So, on Tuesday, wearing a dress to celebrate the good weather, hair braided, on a mission to buy a pair of earrings I had two encounters that at first weakened then strengthened my resolve to continue with my plan to pull myself together. The first was blocks from home when we ran into a neighbour, a mother of two littles under four. ‘How do you do it?’ she asked ‘this morning was all whining. They would not stop. I don’t know how you manage it”. I wanted to tell her that I don’t, that sometimes I sit on the floor in the kitchen very quietly hoping that no one will notice me, that I consume more chocolate chips than is good for a woman my age, that I spend an inordinate amount of time in the shower. I wanted to say, I’ve had more time to get used to this, give it time. But there I was, three kids dressed, hair brushed, playing together happily on the sidewalk, baby on my shoulders and me in a dress, looking for all the world like a woman with her shit together. Instead I told her the running helps and about my attempt to carve out a little time a few days a week to be quiet, alone, to have a thought start to finish, to write or knit or just sit. She seemed unconvinced. I might as well have been talking about unicorns. I know her, I’ve been her and it hurts not to be able to pull her out of that place.
As we carried on walking we met another Mom, this one a woman I’ve know since before either of us was married. Her youngest and a friend in hand she was in the middle of her midday rush from school to home for lunch when we caught her. ‘You look beautiful’ she said, her voice sad and tired. ‘You could too!’ I wanted to yell. I could braid your hair and we could shop for clothes that fit. I can see you in there, I can! This woman who is no longer the girl I met. She is a woman now with a husband and a house and two children she dotes on but she also carries what have become the expected markers of our stage of life, the extra weight, the haphazard clothes, the perpetual look of the tired.
As I walked home for lunch, earings in hand I felt like a fraud. I had set out to raise myself up but had I inadvertantly helped to bring two of my freinds down in the process? Was my attempt to pull myself together just raising the bar further for others? Guiltily I went home and tried on the earrings. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw the way the past few years have changed my face. Always round the weight loss of the last few years has thinned it out and made the structure more apparent, the lines more prominent, the passage of time more obvious. Ten years I thought, ten years of parenting, ten years of being defined by my children, by their successes, their appearance, their actions. Ten years is enough. The women I met on the street may be tired and beaten down but I can give them hope. This time, when everyone is little and the needs are immediate and huge, will pass. Kids will get older and more self sufficient, sleep will come and with it a chance to reassert ourselves as women and wives and individuals but none of this is to say that we should forget ourselves now. This is when our kids need us most. They need us to be our best, our happiest and our best able to show them how good life and motherhood can be. It is a mistake to forget ourselves in the process. Without us, how are they to know how good it is to be here, now, with them.
To myself, and anyone who cares to listen, I say this. Wear earrings, braid your hair, like your clothes, wear your body with pride (it makes people after all, how amazing is that?), talk to a friend about real things even if that friend is paid to listen , take a little time to read or craft or sit on the kitchen floor, assert your self, be yourself for all the world to see. We’ll all be better for it.
* I heard a man say once that when people say ‘Nice shoes’ it means I noticed your shoes and you noticed me noticing them so now I have to say something. It rarely means ‘nice shoes’ It mostly means ‘those shoes are noticeable’. My being pulled together was noticeable. Hence the earrings.
** The photo is of me at the park near karate. I think I’ve spent most of my life in this park. At least it feels that way. Sun, rain, snow, like clockwork I am here, babe in sling wondering how forty-five minutes could really feel this long. Seriously, five years later, who thought this karate thing was a good idea anyway?