What My “Defining Experience” Didn’t Teach Me


I look back at myself, age 35, married and pregnant, with a mixture of humor, compassion, and unabridged mocking. I was so arrogant, and naive. I was someone who had never had much interest in children, glibly navigating the world of step-parenting, and preparing to bring a real live tiny human into the world. I was so consumed with thoughts about the best stroller, the top rated car seat, and the least off-gassing organic crib mattress, that I forgot that my soon-to-exist offspring would need socks. I wrote a birth plan that would make even the most optimistic and supportive birthing coaches howl with laughter at my lofty and completely unrealistic imagined birth. You guys, among other things, I was concerned about the lighting in the room where I’d be laboring. I wanted my darling Gumball to be born into a room with perfect lighting.

If that doesn’t epitomize my naiveté and complete lunacy, then I don’t know what else would.

This is what I thought everything was going to be like
This is what I thought everything was going to be like

My water broke on a Friday night, and my baby came Monday afternoon. My labor and birth were nothing like my plan, and I couldn’t have cared less. The lighting probably sucked, but I didn’t even notice.

Then my husband left, and every dream, plan, and hope for the future vanished. I couldn’t even contact my stepsons.

This is what everything was like
This is what everything was like

As I learned how to survive my devastating losses, and learn to be a mom, everything I knew fell away. I had a baby who would not sleep, unrelenting anxiety and depression, and bleak, long days. Winter came. I spent days trapped inside, when I couldn’t figure out how to shovel a path from my house to my car, and hold my newborn at the same time. When my neighbors dug me out, I escaped to the only store where I knew they had infant carriers on their shopping carts, and a private nursing room. I went there often. I was that person who would engage other shoppers, and store staff in conversation, just so I could speak with another adult. By “engage,” I mean that I would chatter at people like a monkey in a zoo, probably with the same level of coherency, and essentially trail them around the store, throwing poop nuggets of conversation everywhere.

The thing is, life got better.

It took a lot of time and effort, but it got better. I struggled daily to force a smile on my face. I forced myself out of pajamas and into some form of appropriate clothing every single day. I moved back home to Vermont. I learned, sort of, how to ask for help. I met the best, kindest, most thoughtful, generous, and loving people. I found my community of moms, and they helped me unpack, remember how to smile, and shared their own challenges and frustrations with motherhood.

The experience of becoming a single mom isn’t the first “defining experience” I’ve had. It’s certainly, however, the most powerful and brutal defining experience I’ve survived. I barely know the person I was before I had a baby and my husband left me. The old me was single-minded, selfish, whimsical, driven, impatient, flighty, and unrealistic. The funny thing is, I’m not here to tell anyone what my adversity taught me. On the contrary. I can only tell you about the things I’ve forgotten or unlearned. I’ve forgotten how to arrive early. I’ve forgotten how to care about scuffs, scratches, and stains in my house, on my car, and on my clothing. I lost the rules of capitalization. I’m not sure I can make a formula in Excel anymore. I absolutely don’t know who sings what on the radio. I’ve actually stopped caring about things that don’t impact me (like: the Kardashians.) I forgot about fashion. I lost small talk somewhere along the way too. I really don’t know how to set up my WiFi, or fix my printer anymore either.

I used to know the answers to everything, and now all I know is how much I don’t know.

I used to be blithely confident, and now I am truly aware of my capabilities, but still feel haunted by questions and doubts.

I used to think I was strong, but I had no idea what strength was until I became a single mom.

I’d love to hear from other people too- what experiences have defined you, and what did you learn from them? Please share in the comments, and let’s compare.



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