There's a weird thing about being a mom: You can forget who you are.
As a parent, you struggle to recall what you wanted for just you, before you had kids. Everything becomes a calculation of how kids will react or respond to what you do, and that calculation often takes precedent over what you want for yourself. You forget how to choose for yourself.
This happens at a really small, granular level—I’ve asked myself, when my kids aren’t around, what foods do I really like (just me, not to share with my children)? What TV shows do I want to watch on my own, if I have the TV to myself all Sunday afternoon? What places do I like to shop, without family in tow? What vacation destination would I pick, if it were just me, or just me and my husband?
But it also happens at a very deep, philosophical level. Have I forgotten how to be myself? What do I want for myself? Who is the person I wanted to be, before I had kids? Who am I now?
I’ve been reading Who You Were Meant to Be: A Guide to Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose by psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson. She helps readers think about what they are really drawn to, what interests them deeply (rather than what others want them to be interested in), what kinds of jobs they want to do, what they want their relationships to look like.
Much of her focus is on her clients who did not make life choices that they’re happy with, many of whom were influenced by controlling parents. They find that later in life, they aren’t doing well emotionally, and want to make big changes.
But what about those of us who are parents ourselves, and who have been shaped for the last umpteen years by our children’s needs, wishes, and personalities? It’s not that my kids are controlling me, it’s that I shifted so many aspects of my life in order to be able to care for them. That’s been true since the moment they were born, and I am not complaining! I chose to do that, making my kids my highest priority.
On one hand, I would never, ever in a million years give up that shaping. It would be a cliché to say it’s kept me young at heart (and a true one). It’s made me more emotionally intelligent and aware in ways I never imagined. As a parent, you need to constantly stay flexible and shift gears on a moment’s notice, putting others’ needs before your own, dealing with crises and challenging questions and many things you wish you could avoid but have no real choice about (currently coping with an onslaught of bureaucratic paperwork for back to school/back to sports is just one tiny example!).
But on the other hand, parenting has also made me prioritize my kids and family over some of my deepest wishes for my own life. Again, I’m not complaining here. Just acknowledging. For example, I recently preferred to spend my week off work helping my daughters get ready for their summer programs, taking them to Target and Walgreens, pulling out their duffel bags, reviewing their packing lists, allaying their concerns, helping them enjoy final moments of freedom at home before heading out to new group settings… I did all this rather than working on my own writing projects. Rather than fulfilling my personal wishes, I decided to help them realize their summer dreams. I had an important motive—I wanted to soak in the little time I had with them during summer, time that feeds my soul as a mom.
And now both of my daughters are gone, one for just a week, and one for 4 weeks. My husband and I suddenly have the run of the house. And while we are busy working or heading out to meetings during the day, it seems normal, but suddenly, as I came home to an empty house this evening, I found myself in shock.
I know this is an early taste of the “empty nest.” I thought it would be quiet and empty. But the odd thing is, more than that, I felt boring and dull and uncertain of what I would do with myself. For all this time I’d been struggling to sneak in a few minutes for my writing, between my full time job and my daughters’ needs and other family members I wanted to spend time with… and suddenly, now that I have hours to choose how to spend, I felt a sudden sense of blankness.
I’ve long known that my children are separate from me. As a Stoic, I hold this knowledge close, remembering that my kids need to make their own choices, and that they have to take some responsibility for what they decide and what they do. I also understand that I have agency over myself, and I can choose to devote more of my time to my interests, especially those that uphold the virtues. However, my role as a mother takes precedence. And I genuinely love to spend time with my daughters. They are cool, interesting, fun, smart, and humorous people, who keep me guessing and laughing. They (and coffee) are my lifeblood!
So I’ll be missing them now, and I’ll miss them even more later. Again, Stoicism reminds us we don’t possess our children or any other humans, and that all is transient. One day we have them, another day we don’t. It’s the way of the world, and holding out for another option is absurd. I will try my best not to hold onto them, but rather to prepare them for the world, and to help them take flight in it.
And I’ll work to be grateful for the time that’s allowed to me with my teens, and try to use to coach them to develop their character, their grit, wisdom, sense of service to others and confidence in themselves, their moderation in all things, and their courage. I will stay mindful of the moments we share together. And I will still always be there (as long as I am alive) to do my mom thing. To chat, to ask, to listen, to do, and to just be present.
But for now, while they are away, I get the TV to myself for the next couple hours, to watch the most dry historical documentary I can find, or maybe the oldest classic movie in black and white. It seems I’ve forgotten how to decide.
“Are we going to be OK?” I could see the look in my daughter’s eyes turn fearful as she lay on her bed holding her pillow to her chest, a distinct note of anxiety in her voice. So many things to worry about... so many concerns for a teen girl becoming a young woman to face. I felt sadness welling within me. I didn’t know how to answer, but I said, “Yes, we’ll be OK.” I needed to reassure her, though in truth I could use the reassurance myself. I, too, was struggling with how to move forward in a positive way.
It has been a tough few months—years, honestly—in the US. Whether I’m talking to my teen daughters as they look with concern to the future, reading the newspaper with its page after page of stories of violence (here and abroad), or having coffee with friends who are despairing about the direction of our country, it has been challenging.
In the wake of so much turmoil, I often wonder about this question: What can I do? How can my family and I make a difference when there are so many powerful forces at play and so many reasons to worry?
We all know that the dichotomy of control is fundamental to the Stoic world view. There are certain things that are in our power, and many, many others that are not. When it comes to political power structures in Washington, for one, individuals have frustratingly little influence. We should vote, of course, and we should encourage others to vote. We should support causes we care about, and try our best to protect our rights and our safety by raising our voices to our leaders.
In reality, we can only create change in the small ways that are available to us. So let’s talk about that. In some ways, I’m writing this post to help myself and my family find a path forward with meaning and virtue. I hope you’ll read it as an effort to make even the smallest of differences.
Here’s what I think we can do:
I turn back to my Stoic ideas to remind myself not to get swept along by fears and sorrows about current events. While I can’t dismiss all my feelings as mere impressions—I’m not a sage yet—I can take a deep breath and ground myself in the real here and now with my daughters and husband, with my community, and with those whose work I read and take inspiration from (both ancient and very modern).
Stoicism is an evergreen philosophy that takes us out of judgment and hatred and violence, and into virtue and action and practical wisdom. Let’s make it our guide as we fortify our minds and energies, and seek to make a world that welcomes and supports human flourishing for all.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.