Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Woman Formerly Known As

When I was born, I was named Jessica. My dad says he lobbied for Angela or Angelina, but I don't think I've ever had what it takes to be an Angie Rapisarda. And there are only so many times I can explain how someone with a warm Sicilian last name has skin that suggests long hours spent in dark, wood-panelled rooms eating schnitzel. Mediterranean I am not.

So "Jessica" fits. Its anonymity deflects from the conspicuousness of my surname. "Jess" to my husband and my friends. "Jessie" to my immediate family. I don't love my name, but then again, I don't love a glass of water or a gulp of air. It does its job. Its job is important.

Jess, circa May 2012

Then I became pregnant, and with each passing month, as my stomach expanded, my name seemed to contract, shrinking away from me little by little. For everyone who called me "Jess," there was an equal number of folks calling me "mom-to-be."

"How are you feeling, mom-to-be?"

"Hey there, mama-to-be. How many more months to go?"

It was exciting. I felt like a fresh-faced sorority pledge. Granted, it was the least exclusive sorority in the history of womankind, but for 36 years, I'd been watching its secret rites from a quiet, well-rested distance. "Mom-to-be" reminded me that other folks appreciated the importance of my initiation.

And, honestly, when a hugely pregnant woman forgets her keys at the cash register, why bother with a "Miss!" or "Ma'am!" when "Yo there, mom-to-be!" is sure to narrow the field?

Yet a memory, a small and unadorned piece of history, wormed its way out of the dark to nag me. Years before I had even met my husband, let alone married or thought of having kids, I drove from Maryland to Southwest Virginia to visit my dear friend who was several months pregnant with her second child. We hadn't seen each other in months, not since just before she found out that her strange change in appetite was more than just a passing bug.

We stood on her wrap-around porch, in the bracing light of winter, looking out at the dips and curves of the valley surrounding her home. I marveled at her belly, her rosy skin, but mostly we talked about our latest writing ventures, our families, and news of mutual acquaintances.

"It's good to talk to a friend," she said, "someone who remembers your name, ya know?"

I felt my brow crinkle, my look clearly indicating that I did not know.

She rested her forearm across her stomach. "People forget who you are when you become a mom. It's like they forget you're a woman, an individual even. You're suddenly just 'mom.'"

And though I understood her words, I still didn't really know. But by my own second trimester, I was at least getting the gist.

Jess-ish, September 2012

When my son was born in early 2013, "Jessica" was abruptly and thoroughly shunted aside. But it was to be expected for a while. In the first week after his birth, I needed to hear other people say "mother" and know that they were referring to me, to be reminded that, yes, this child was mine. I referred to myself as "mama" while rocking my newborn to sleep. Everyone was trying out the new name, like a freshly minted "husband" and "wife" on their honeymoon.

The Woman Formerly Known as Jess, February 2013

My dad had gently told me, when I was newly pregnant, that life would never be the same. A pretty obvious statement, if I'd ever heard one. Of course life wouldn't be the same, I thought: kids require love, food, money, space. But within a few short weeks of my son's birth, nothing seemed obvious anymore.

Once I was a woman who didn't give a second thought to driving across the state just to eat lunch at my favorite fried chicken joint. Once I was a woman who spent half of an hour each morning applying moisturizer, penciling in her brows, selecting just the right lipstick. Once I was a woman who wrote stories, who read stories, who had time on her hands. Once I was not a mother.

Between the psychological whiplash, the sleep deprivation, and the claustrophobic cold of February, I felt, as my grandmother would have said, a bit touched. Insane. Everyone who called or stopped by or sent a card called me "mom" or "mama" or "mommy" -- as though my one child had multiplied twenty times over.

It took months, frankly, for me to reestablish old routines (like showering and eating breakfast) and to break free of the postpartum haze. I grieved the life I'd had before my son, but I realized that I was no less myself just because my schedule didn't permit a lengthy beauty regimen.

Months rolled by, a year even, and my new world order felt a little more broken in. But coworkers, distant relatives, even the grocery store cashier still echoed the same refrain: "How ya doin', mom?" I thought better of being honest, of saying, "Well, I used to go by Jessica, so I'm experiencing a pretty intense identity crisis right now."

There is no malice in "mom." Honestly, I've dropped the m-word many times myself. "Mom" is shorthand for "I acknowledge that you have a child, congratulations, welcome, try to breathe, this is going to last for at least 18 years."

But "Jessica," my dime-a-dozen first name, is shorthand for something much more complex.  It contains  the little girl playing with Barbies on the front porch and the angsty teenager playing The Cure in her bedroom. It holds my college years, my grad school years, and the years in between when I folded khakis at the mall for a living. There's a career in that name and a marriage and ten different addresses across two different states. "Jessica" wrote poems in her diary when she was 13, and "Jessica" wakes at 5 a.m., a few quiet hours before her son stirs in his crib, to write an essay on her laptop. "Jessica" contains "mother," too.

I love being a mom. I love all the names that come with it: mother, mama, mommy.  Even now, as I watch my son on the baby monitor, curled in a tidy "c" around his trusty stuffed elephant, I am awed that he is of me. And I am not even bothered that my very best piece of work has already been made, that nothing I type will ever top him.

There are times though, when I am out with old friends, when I'm alone with my husband, and I hear my name, and it's as though a door swings open. And inside is a room packed with neatly labeled boxes and bins: "First ballet recital, 1981," "Trip to Madrid, 1999," "Christmas with Shelby, 2012," "Early mornings at the kitchen table, 2014." And I think to myself, "Oh, thank god, it's all still here."

16 comments:

  1. I don't think I breathed reading half of this article.

    YES.

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  2. A Jessica by any other name would blog so sweet (though I am still contemplating the alternate reality in which we could have had Shangelina!!!!).

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  3. Love, love, love this Jessica! It had me teared up by the end, as I too am watching my baby on the monitor, trying to type an essay, and adjusting to this new life.

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  4. Oh wow. This encapsulates everything I've felt for the last month or so as I've tried to put my life back into something like "Oh hey I'm in adult with interests and feelings and hobbies outside of the damp little being who takes up 95.8% of my life right now."

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  5. The last paragraph. I can breathe out now.

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  6. Surely one of your best, most insightful retro/introspections.
    M

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  7. "And I am not even bothered that my very best piece of work has already been made, that nothing I type will ever top him." YES. And that last paragraph. Beautiful.

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  8. This is fabulous! I am 10 years into "Mom" and sometimes when I am alone I will blast some Prince just to remind myself who I once was! :)

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  9. OMFG you are amazing. Yes. It's too damn easy for me to forget that I am also Kristi. That name sounds weird, sometimes, now. I think I may love you.

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  10. I'm 33 weeks and already experiencing this. I'm so excited for this baby - our first - but sometimes it feels like my biggest accomplishment in the eyes of others is reproducing. I want people to ask me about my studies, running my own business, and what I'm reading. I'm a Jessica too - thanks for the reminder!

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  11. This is so wonderfully done, Jessica. We can all relate to grasping to those former parts of ourselves. I particularly love the last paragraph.

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  12. This was really beautiful Jess. I must say, Momma suits you so well.
    -Sarah aka mom, momma, mommers, darth mommy

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  13. Oh this is just gorgeous! YES! And as time goes on for me as a mom, mommy, mother.. I am finding that although that is my favorite name, my first name rises to be heard more and more. I like that. There's a fine balance between them all. <3

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  14. This is the best blog post about being a new mother that I have read yet! You are a fantastic writer with beautifully portrayed personal insight. I felt like I was right there with you. Thank you!

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