A few years ago, I set off with two young children in tow to meet up with some friends at the local trampoline gym for toddler hour. My son was fresh off his third birthday and my daughter was still small enough to be maneuvering from one act of mischief to another on her hands and knees. The trampolines were a hit and the playdate was relatively uneventful, aside from the challenges of feeding lunch to an energetic infant with no high chair in sight.
As our friends trickled out and headed home for the reprieve of nap time, I scrambled to pack up the diaper bag, get shoes on the toddler, and wrangle my baby back into her carseat. After one final pit stop to the restroom for my son, we finally made our way awkwardly out to the car to head back home.
That’s when I realized that the car keys were missing.
After emptying out every pocket of the diaper bag, digging through the carseat and peeking through the car window to make sure they weren’t locked away inside, I picked up my haul again and herded the toddler at my side back into the building.
What came next was the most thorough search I have ever conducted for a missing item. I checked trash cans, bathroom stalls, the dusty void beneath the tattered couches in the parents’ seating area and everything in between. After checking with the front desk and sorting through the lost and found collection, a few of the employees joined me in my search. For roughly an hour we scoured the premises and the parking lot but had zero luck. We finally came to the conclusion that the only possible place left to check might be in the deep and enormous pits of foam cubes that were spread throughout the gym as a cushion for daring jumpers. We dug along the edges of some of the pits close to where we were playing and came up empty handed once again. At this point, we finally conceded that the keys were genuinely gone. They were lost.
The employees jotted down my details and promised to call me if my keys were to ever miraculously materialize, which of course they did not.
When I hear the word “lost,” I think back to this experience. I envision a pair of keys being hopelessly and eternally surrendered to the bottomless depths of the foam pits in a trampoline gym. The word “lost” has such a final ring to it. One definition of the word is “cannot be recovered.” Unlike something that has been misplaced, a lost item is unlikely to ever be found again. Just like missing socks that disappear into that mysterious black hole inside the washing machine, once something is truly lost there is no point in wasting energy on hoping that it will eventually come back.
I think that’s why I cringe so much when I hear moms lament that they have “lost themselves” since having children.
Not that I’ve been immune to feeling this way or using this phrase. I used to genuinely believe that I was lost as well. A few years into young motherhood, I experienced that phase where survival is the only goal each day, and you no longer know the answer when people ask you to tell them something interesting about yourself. At that point, I definitely started to buy into the idea that my pre-Mom self was a distant memory of someone that I would never again embody. That’s a pretty hopeless and exhausting place to be as a woman when it feels like motherhood is the only thing left to define you.
Thankfully, I know better now. I finally understand that motherhood, though it’s a huge part of my current identity, does not define who I am as a whole and complete person. I love my kids and I am honored to have the responsibility for their care, but I also understand that loving and caring for them does not have to come at the expense of loving and caring for myself. It never did.
In retrospect, I can see now that I was never “lost” to motherhood. It was more like I had forgotten myself temporarily. What I had categorized as “losing myself” in early motherhood was actually less like those keys that were surrendered to the void of the foam pits and more like the really cool coding robot that has been temporarily forgotten, but is safely tucked away in the back corner of my son’s closet. That robot is not “lost.” Actually it is exactly where it should be, and will be ready and waiting for him to rediscover and utilize it again when he is ready. Just because it is off of his radar at the moment doesn’t mean that it has lost its value to him or that he loves it any less. It has simply been forgotten for a time while my son has his attention focused on exploring other interests.
What happens to us mothers can be just like that robot sometimes. We might leave certain parts of ourselves in the back corner of the closet while we are deeply and intently focused on the mothering tasks at hand. We might even forget that certain parts of ourselves ever existed, but that doesn’t mean that they are truly lost. It just means that there are beautiful pieces of ourselves that are safely stowed away until we are ready to rediscover them again.
I can tell you from experience that the process of rediscovery is actually an amazing gift. I don’t regret those first few years of hyper-focused motherhood for a second. As my kids have begun to slowly grow out of needing me for every little thing, I have found so much joy and fulfillment in getting acquainted with myself again. The process of uncovering forgotten pieces of myself has even given root to the discovery of further parts of myself that I may not have otherwise known existed.
So, no. Being a mother does not ever have to mean losing yourself.
I wasn’t ever lost.
And you, sweet Mama, are not lost either.