Are You Still a Mother After They've Left?

by Melissa T. Shultz
Originally Published: 

I handed him a baby spoon filled with pureed carrots, something I’d done countless times before. Normally my son would grab the spoon with both hands, only to splatter the contents everywhere before it reached his mouth. But this time was different. This time, he used his left hand and the spoon made it to his nose first, then to his lips. I remember this not only because it was his first step towards independence, but because as a new mom, I was relieved to put this milestone behind us. There were lots more to go and I had no training as a parent. It’s not as if I’d interviewed for the role. I only knew that I wanted it, wanted him, wanted to be his mother. It was the job of a lifetime. But would love and instinct be enough to see me through almost two decades, and him off to college?

Two years later, by the time his brother was born, I was in the groove. I’d found great pediatricians, enlisted the advice of other parents, and read copious books about parenting. All the while, I continued to work full-time—sleep-deprived, commuting for as many as four hours a day, getting promoted—until what I mostly felt was guilt, for either being away from my boys or away from my job. My husband worked full-time as well and it became clear that something, or someone, had to give. After much discussion I decided that my career dreams could wait. The role I most identified with, first and foremost, was that of mother to my sons. Especially since it was all or nothing in my particular ladder-climbing workplace—there was zero in between.

So I went freelance and became my own boss. It turned out to be the best decision for my family, though not a great one for my identity apart from being a parent, something I didn’t realize until much later down the road, when I looked back.

And now, here I am all these years later, and both of my sons are in college—and I’m wondering if I’m supposed to stop thinking of myself as a mother, first and foremost.

I’m profoundly different now than I was when my first child was born. Mothers grow, too. Nobody talks about just how much. We start out as undergraduates in parenting and when all is said and done, we’ve earned advanced degrees in medicine, psychology, research, teaching, business and more. Yet it’s the only profession that I know of where so many women who have accomplished so much end up being not only undervalued, but told to buck up and get on with their lives when the primary job they’ve held for two decades slowly becomes irrelevant. It’s worth noting that after twenty years, members of the military can retire and draw up to half their pay.

I’ve read studies that say it’s all about the marriage—if you have a strong marriage, you won’t feel the same sense of loss when your kids leave home. Others say it’s about your lack of self-esteem, or the fact that you don’t have a career, or if you have one, it’s the wrong one.

I enjoy my work, it makes me happy. But my heart only beats for the people I love, and some of those loves are leaving home.

At times, this last year has felt like The Long Goodbye as one routine after another falls away. It sure makes it difficult to ignore the loss of a role intrinsic to my identity for the last 21 years.

So many milestones have passed since that day my son fed himself for the first time. And as it turns out, yes, this was the job of a lifetime, and yes, love and instinct have served me well in my role. Which is why I cannot simply flip a switch and get over the loss in an instant.

I know, of course, that it’s not really a “loss” at all—my boys have matured to become kind, thoughtful, productive and curious young men. They make me proud every day. But I’m only human, and therefore subject to feelings that have nothing at all to do with logic.

The way I see it, until science figures out how to make mothers who look like mothers but are actually computers, who can successfully raise a family by logic alone—and at this rate, that will be sooner than later—I make no apologies for my complex, beating heart.

Forever and always a mother, then. Though perhaps no longer first and foremost.

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