Here’s a truth: I love my mom.
Here’s another truth: I’m terrified of turning into her.
I know that sounds cruel, ungrateful even, given what an incredible mother she is. She divorced from my father when my brother and I were three and five. He left and never looked back, and she raised us on her own. She worked three jobs and never let us know what it felt like to miss a meal. She set rules and forgave indiscretions. She supported and pushed us to excel.
To do all that, she sacrificed all parts of her own life for my brother and me. She rarely went out, rarely pursued her own interests, rarely found a space to fit outside of the role of “single mom.” She gave everything to us, and in doing so, never built a foundation for herself, for her life with adult children with their own lives.
Now my brother and I are grown, with children of our own. She lives for stories and visits with her grandkids, which we try to plan often, and in between, finds quiet activities to keep herself busy. She has no meaningful friendships or hobbies or lifelong dreams she’s ready to pursue now. And no true interest in changing that. She’s often alone, happy to wait for the next visit or the next update. From the outside looking in, it looks immeasurably lonely.
From the outside looking in, it feels like a glimpse of a future I’m barreling toward. And I’m terrified.
Recently, I separated from my children’s father. For a variety of reasons, he is completely out of the picture and will not be re-entering. I am left to care for my two daughters alone. All of their needs, from the financial to the emotional, will be met by me. It’s eerily similar to the life my mother found herself leading, at right around the same age that I am now.
Which means—I know how much a single mother has to give just to stay afloat. I know the exact amount of blood, sweat, and tears it takes to raise two children to be good human beings. It takes everything, and I will give everything. Like my mother gave to my brother and me. My girls deserve no less.
And yet, I cannot help but look at my mother’s life now and know I don’t want that future. I can’t help but look at her life and be terrified of history repeating itself. Terrified of giving too much and having nothing left. Even though it’s a life that suits her, that she is happy with. Even though, after a lifetime of struggling just to keep her head above water, she deserves time to just float and make her life look anyway that she wants it to look. And even though, she is seemingly content.
I know I wouldn’t be. I know I need to build a foundation for my life that comes “after” — after my kids have grown and are busy creating lives of their own. I know I need to spend time now nurturing friendships for later. I need to spend energy now putting down the bricks of the life that will be later. Which means I need to carve out time and energy for myself, for my own interests and my own future life. Time and energy my mother never snatched away from my brother or me.
So, how to reconcile that? How to give as much as she gave, without sacrificing all that she sacrificed? How to find that delicate, impossible balance?
I could give as much as she gave and wait for my turn to come in another decade. Life doesn’t end in your late forties when the kids are off at college. (In fact, I would even argue there are enough stories to prove that it only starts getting good around then).
But patience has never been a strong suit of mine.
Ultimately, the answer for me will be to stop looking for a balance. To embrace the truth that keeping a little bit of “me” to myself, means keeping a little back, means not sacrificing everything. And truthfully, motherhood isn’t supposed to be the ultimate sacrifice. You don’t have to give everything to be a mom — even a single mom — who raises good humans, who sets rules and forgives indiscretions, who supports and pushes her children to excel.
And also, to take a step back from being terrified that I might end up like my mother, and instead give her the grace and space to enjoy this life she’s living. She’s happy and she fills her days with things that make her happy. She may in fact be living the life she had dreamed for herself.
I often think my mother fell into her life by accident. The story I tell myself is that she didn’t realize by giving us so much, she’d have nothing left for herself. But I never asked if that was true. Maybe she knew exactly what she was doing. Maybe she was doing what was best for herself, while also doing what was best for her children.
And if that’s the case, then maybe I have a lot to learn from her.