What changes and what does not

On Facebook, people often mark the birthdays of their eldest children with memories of becoming a parent for the first time. Sometimes there are baby photos from the hospital, memories of a wretched labor, whatever. You talk about how awesome your kid has turned out to be.

All good. But I saw a post recently about one baptism into parenthood that jarred me out of my usual Facebook stupor. On that fateful date, this mom realized that “it was obvious: Nothing in my life had really mattered until then.”

Some folks are more dramatic than others (who knows if this woman believes this absolute), but as I have thought about this, I realized that this statement was touching on the same issue raised in a comment recently on life goals changing after children. They can. But they also might not. And that is OK too, to acknowledge that life before kids was awesome and life after is awesome, and you are still you and you still want what you want.

To be sure, kids do change things. There is the existential: you are responsible for another person. There is the trivial: you spend money on things such as sports classes for toddlers that probably did not cross your mind as compelling prior. You spend your time differently. You probably think about some issues differently (and certainly any veteran parent can marvel at a non-parent insisting that their future children will always eat kale, or sleep on a schedule, or play with appropriately progressive toys, or whatever).

But I remember when I was pregnant for the first time how people kept telling me that everything would be different, particularly in regards to my professional priorities. All my life, and what I would want, would be re-ordered upon meeting my son.

Well, I met my son, and he was great. Adorable! (as much as squished up newborns can be). In my humble opinion, he demonstrated his brilliance early on. But I had been around a lot of babies in the past, so I was not shocked by having a baby in my life. Nor did I experience this lightning bolt flash of feeling the need to negate everything else I had accomplished or wanted to accomplish. I felt like…me. Me with a kid. Before my son was born, I wanted to learn interesting things about the world and then write about them. I enjoyed running and singing and reading. After my son was born, I wanted to learn interesting things about the world, and then write about them. I still enjoyed running and singing and reading, and so I continued with my life with my kid along for the ride. And three more after them.

It has been a great ride! The kids have turned out to be awesome little people. Far from completely altering my life goals with respect to my career, they have shoved me toward them by giving me lots of new things to write about. I realize I have been very lucky in having four healthy children, and work that has some natural flexibility to it. I also realize that people can experience various things (such as financial shocks) that will change life regardless of what you want.

But there are some larger points here, such as that intense love for other people does not require negating yourself and your own identity. If you have done the work of getting to know yourself before having children, it is quite possible that your self-knowledge will survive the shift to parenthood. Likewise, while raising kids is very meaningful, it is not the only source of meaning in life. Indeed, I think it is a bit dangerous to depend too much on children for giving your life meaning. They are ultimately their own people. You are your own person too.

28 thoughts on “What changes and what does not

  1. I am reading this post on the eve of my return to work following maternity leave. Thank you for writing this! I needed to read it.

    I also read I KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT during my leave, and it shifted my paradigm about what working motherhood can look like. Thank you so much for sharing your research and reflections on work, parenthood, and success.

  2. Perhaps she just didn’t really know how to express the love she felt that day and quickly jotted something down on Facebook without analyzing it. I once said, “My wedding day was the best day of my life!” to which my husband replied, “So it’s all been downhill since then?” Now I say, “It was ONE OF THE BEST days of my life.” Three kids and a great career later, I can say I’ve had many best days.

    1. @LaDawn- oh, I agree. Some people are just much more dramatic than others. But I found it interesting that she wanted to express her love that way, by negating what she had done before, and who she was apart from being a mother. Why is that the narrative that comes easily to mind as a way to express profound love for another person? It could have been “I knew at that moment I was smitten — smitten in a way I had not experienced before.”

      I agree that we want to have lots of really good days too. I think the outcomes of my 4 kids’ births were great, though I hesitate to call the days themselves “best” as they were kind of painful 😉 — not ones I wish to live through again. Maybe there is a distinction between good days we would wish to repeat, and ones we would rather not (even if we are happy they happened).

  3. I just returned to work this week after maternity leave with baby #3. Your work to change the narrative around working moms has been so helpful to me as evidenced in my attitude about returning to work with this one vs. my oldest. Loving my work and loving my kids aren’t mutually exclusive. I use my lunch to go see/feed my baby at her nearby daycare and have enough career capital that it was no big deal to leave early yesterday for a dance performance for my older daughter. Thank you for your important work on this subject!

  4. This post is perfect – all parts of life are interesting, and exciting. We can feel proud of our goals before and after family. My life hasn’t changed as much as I thought, in the ways that I imagined and was warned it would. I love my family, my job and the crazy ride that is life. What a wonderful way to start the day! Thank you.

  5. I so agree Laura, and I speak from the vantage point of an empty nester with two college students. Our children have enriched and continue to enrich our lives but I look at my life as a series of cycles. My husband and I had 10 years of marriage before children, 20 years with them at home and now we’re in the stage of adult children, which has its own rewards. And my husband and I have jointly owned a business for the past 20 years. I was always a working mother with flexibility for field trips, Scouting and vacations.

  6. I loved this post and could not agree more. I struggled to have children late in life and was blessed to have two of them. I hate the thought that my life wouldn’t have mattered if I had not been able to have them. I have lots of friends who have not had children and their lives are equally as rich, just in different ways. My life is richer (and also more complicated) because of their part in it, but I’ll never know what adventures I would have had if I had remained child-free. As is, I never want them to think that my happiness is solely dependent on them.

    1. @Martha – I had not followed out this line of reasoning, but yes, the implication is that if nothing one had done until parenthood mattered, then if one had not become a parent, one’s life would not have mattered. That seems like a rather horrible thought! And just objectively not true, either, if you look at the things people who are not parents have done.

      1. This drives me bonkers. I have one close friend with a kid, and she says things like this constantly–that nothing matters more than being a mother, etc. I think it comes from low self-esteem but it’s still hurtful and annoying to someone who doesn’t have kids yet. And I agree it’s not great as a child to feel as if your parents happiness depends on you!

        1. Your last point may be the most important. It’s a terrible burden on a child for sure. Despite my large brood, I won’t set myself up for empty nest syndrome or make my kids feel responsible for my happiness. It’s a child’s job to grow up and parenting is a temp job.

          Mothering is the most important thing I’ve done, likely because I never had a “career with a big C”, but I have goals, interests and passions that have nothing to do with motherhood, and when my kids are all gone, I will pursue those more (7 kids does limit one!).

  7. Thank you for this post! After having a kid, you really are just you with a kid! I remember being sad that I didn’t feel that immediate large rush of love for my daughter after she was born. No doubt I loved her, I was fierce about protecting her and knew I loved her. But I did not experience this feeling wash over me the minute I saw her, as so many people had previously described. I actually thought ‘whoa , she looks weird’. But I was highly defensive when the doctor said, ‘oh, she’s fiesty’.. hmm, what does that mean????
    After becoming a parent I do tell my pregnant friends, you will have your own story, your own delivery, your own way of parenting, try not to let people tell you how you will feel (because I was sad I did not feel the way people told me I would feel, but I wasn’t wrong). I also remember reading a post on http://www.theshubox.com, and reading that so many people kept telling Shu ‘just wait’, as if she would completely change all of her beliefs and personal choices just because she would become a parent, and I have tried to be very mindful of not telling soon to be parents ‘just wait’.

      1. @SHU – that was a great post! I think one of the unsung upsides of having 4 children is that no one says to me “just you wait!” anymore about anything parenting related. Whether it is the craziness if children’s activities, or the sullenness/delinquency of teenagers, most people give enough mental credit for the extra 2 children over the norm that they do not presume it has all been easy to this point.

        Fun seeing 5-week old A in that post. I started reading your blog when she was about 1, so I never saw the baby pics.

  8. I love this post! I don’t have kids yet and I’m so sick of the narrative that “nothing matters till you have kids” (and its many variations). I’m the reader with the question in the post earlier this week about how to use my time before having kids, but life is also not a waiting game. I’m so happy to read (in the comments too!) about people maintaining their identities throughout parenthood.

  9. I changed pretty dramatically after my first child was born. After a few years, when she and her little brother were at more manageable ages, I found that I reverted back to a lot of the same interests I’d had pre-kids. Something I’ve realized is that I am going change as time passes, with or without kids! It will be interesting to see what I’m like after baby #3 arrives in a few weeks.

  10. I love this post! Especially the ending ” I think it is a bit dangerous to depend too much on children for giving your life meaning. ” YES. what a lot of pressure on them, right? That scenario works out for no one involved, trust me, I’m seeing it close up.
    When I contemplate life and make decisions, in addition to the immediate issues, I also try to think ahead to when my kids are grown up and need me less. Yes this phase of life is valuable & fleeting, but there are other equally important phases behind & ahead of me!

    1. @Ana- yes, I was thinking about this when someone described a business/coaching practice of helping women rethink their lives after the kids leave. I recognize that there may be more time but I’m pretty sure I have a reasonable sense of what I’d like to be doing with myself then. But if that has been your sole focus for 21 years (2 kids 3 years apart) then people really do have to figure out a new identity. Or become one of those parents accompanying kids to job interviews, I guess.

  11. Just wanted to add to the chorus of thanks for this post. I reflect on how often I’ve felt frustrated and sad that, to some people, my value is only seen in terms of whether I have a partner and whether I have kids. @Martha’s point is incredibly important – my life will have meaning whether or not I end up having kids. I was talking to one friend recently who is reluctant to have children, and one reason is that she really doesn’t want to have the feeling that ‘nothing in her life mattered until then’ – she wants to maintain her interests and identity. I think we need more voices telling us that it’s possible. Finally – women who don’t experience this feeling often feel guilty and it can trigger post-natal depression – again, we need to hear the narrative that it’s okay if this is not what motherhood means for you.

  12. I’m a little late to the party on this post, but THANK YOU THANK YOU!! I have a 6 month old and am already tired of the smug nod accompanied by “It changes everything, doesn’t it?” Well… no. You’ve articulated what I wanted to say so well.

    1. @Byrd – Thanks! I have discovered over the years that this is just a way people use to try to relate to each other. Parenthood is a fairly common experience and so these types of comments are a way to try to establish common ground. But…yeah. Pretty meaningless!

  13. The people who write about their children are one kind of parent.

    Then there are those of us whose children are “the by-product of sex.”

  14. Thank you for this! I’ve been reading your blog for a year now and it’s my first time to comment. I gave birth last January and it’s been a really difficult time. Still waiting for that intense feeling of love; what I feel now is just an intense desire to sleep. Your last paragraph is a lifeline.

  15. Thank you for this post. As others above have discussed, this is so important for those of us who were unable to have children. It is difficult enough to work through the grief of not having one of my most precious dreams realized, without adding the burden of feeling like my life has less value that those who have children!

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