By Karen Lustig
I’m embarrassed to admit that, despite my age-old plan to take some time off when I gave birth to my daughter, I was ashamed to tell people that I was a stay-at-home mom. Granted, I had left my job and my hometown, moved into my first house (I’d long been an apartment-dweller), and given birth, all within six months. A sense of displacement permeated nearly every aspect of my life.
I was fortunate to have met other women, other moms, and random strangers to entertain and be entertained by, to sympathize, to empathize, to gossip with and to turn to with questions about everything and anything having to do with gas, heat, or water. But I had no identity to speak of, outside of my child. I will say that I was absolutely and rapturously in love with my newborn who grew into a toddler too quickly and a kindergartener even faster. My pregnancy was long planned and much delayed, and the result far greater than I had imagined during nights of severe and visceral desperation. Her tiny pursed lips (that I kissed incessantly, even when she slept), her faint sighs, the way she involuntarily smiled when she dreamt: all of it was intoxicating. But soon she began to meander away on her awkward legs and it occurred to me that I would need more, not just for myself, but for her as well. I had given birth at thirty and soon after became consumed with the idea that I ought to become a role model to both my daughter and myself. I was determined to prove to her and to me that it was indeed possible to feed oneself and still provide for another.
When she reached the tender age of two and a half, I went back to graduate school. It was something I had been planning for the better part of a decade, even though issues like rent, marriage, and then diapers got in the way. I worried that I was past my prime and would be surrounded by avid thinkers who didn’t wander away from academia–lured by the scent of French pastry and the possibility of making a salary rather than paying tuition–and who were a decade younger than I.
Gingerly, I made my way back into the classroom, into several hundred pages of reading every week, into long hours at my computer and into myself. Inadvertently, I learned something in school that my daughter had already conveyed to me at birth: I am both completely insignificant and utterly essential. The world stopped spinning around me the day she was born and yet she couldn’t seem to make it an hour without nursing. Likewise, the world of literary analysis had made great strides without me and would happily continue on without my contributions. I offered them anyway in the hopes that they would change someone’s perspective the way so many had changed mine. And I brought a different perspective than the twenty-year-old me would have. I was a parent. I was a mother. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, became more tragic to me because I sensed the sorrow of her son, slipping into madness; Bottom’s dream more poignant; Hermione’s resurrection more miraculous. When it came time to defend my thesis, a professor nonchalantly commented that he couldn’t see, after the murder of his beloved daughter, that death was a better alternative for Lear than life. I surprised even myself when I snapped back, “That’s because you have no children.”
I realize now that I set out to create a legacy for my daughter; to make her proud, to give her options, to draw a blueprint that she could choose to accept or reject but that she could see was useful to me as a woman. I also realize that accomplishing things (be they academic, financial, therapeutic, or simply humane) comes easier to me now because I have a child. I have carried a child, birthed a child, nursed a child, and continue to raise a child. What is school, what is work, what is anything next to that? Bring it on, I say to the world, each and every time the sun rises. I dare you to get in my way. I dare you to put up a roadblock. I dare you to hope that I fail. Because I never will. I am a mother.