When I was younger, I believed in the idea of separate selves. Throughout high school and college, I felt myself consistently shifting — not so much changing, but disappearing and then reappearing as someone completely different. I divided portions of my life into chapters, all of which neatly fit within the pages of my journals that I kept as a teenager and early twenty-something. If a friendship ended or I went through a breakup, I felt like “the girl that I used to be” during that time also ceased to exist. I marked endless “before”‘s and “after”‘s with physical alterations: a new haircut, a shopping spree, a dramatic weight loss, the change of a season.
This way of thinking was both productive and simultaneously destructive. In a sense, it allowed me to plow forward through things that might have otherwise held me back. But at the same time, instead of mourning whatever I had left behind, I would later end up mourning myself — or the version of myself that I thought I’d lost. In some instances, I’d try to get her back. I’d change my hair again, dig out an old dress from the back of my closet, or reread the journal entries from the era I longed to return. But it never worked.
As time has gone on and I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to learn that “separate selves” isn’t really a thing at all; rather, who we were is always a part of who we are. This is why we sometimes still feel like we’re 12 years old even when we’re adults, why the ’90s feel like yesterday, and why time seems to be going increasingly faster every year.
But motherhood can feel like a “before” and an “after.” One minute, it was just you and your partner, and the next, there was a tiny little dictator, demanding something from you every waking second. It’s a kind of draining that exceeds expectations and words, and sometimes it feels like every ounce of who you were “before” is gone for good.
As someone who used to get nostalgic for versions of herself, this has been hard. There are days when I feel like I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. I lean in close and notice lines by my eyes that weren’t there a few months ago, and there’s no amount of concealer that can fully cover the dark circles underneath. When I do have time to put on makeup, it’s rushed and sometimes my contour isn’t completely blended and it startles me. My hair (in a perpetual mom bun) is almost never brushed, and I can’t remember the last time I took five minutes to apply any sort of moisturizer to my skin.
The kicker, of course, is that I struggled to recognize myself during my pregnancy too. With so much happening to my body — so much that was visible to the public, putting me on display to endure questions from well-meaning strangers every time I stepped out of my apartment — it felt, in a way, like I was disappearing.
I think back to a couple summers ago, long train rides to New York City, earbuds full of upbeat pop music, ring-adorned fingers flying across my laptop, an entirely new career in front of me. I think of spray tans and long, waist-skimming side braids, strappy wedge sandals, rooftop string lights, glittery lip gloss, neon blue and green. Sometimes, I find myself nostalgic for this summer and subsequent fall, only because it was the last time I was “just me.”
But the thing I’m starting to realize, or at least trying to remind myself, is that “the girl I used to be” is still here, inside me, and she’s been here all this time. Every version of myself is still here: the teenager who spent wintery afternoons writing fanfiction instead of going to house parties, the college student sitting in class in that building with its sloping silver ceilings, the grad student walking through the streets of Boston for the first time, the woman writing her wedding vows in a navy-blue notebook, the mother with the messy bun and so much love in her heart.
I don’t think it makes me a bad person or a bad parent to say that I don’t want my entire identity to be wrapped up in being a mom. In fact, I think it makes me a good one. I plan to show my daughter that I’m many things all at once — and none of them are perfect. I’m not a collection of separate selves; rather, I’m a collage of every person I’ve ever been, every choice I’ve ever made, every day I’ve ever lived.
Motherhood doesn’t have to be a “before” and an “after.” It doesn’t have to be a eulogy to the person you were before, nor does it mean that you’ve become someone new entirely. In a way, it’s a “to be continued.” It’s a “chapter two.” It’s whatever comes next, and you bring everything else with you.
You don’t have to get left behind.