Toby is a superhero today.
Yesterday, he was a dinosaur, although I kept forgetting which kind, glancing up from my work to shriek off-cue in mock terror when evidently, I was supposed to be fawning over his gentle herbivore sweetness, and the day before that, he was a Ninja, complete with black eye mask, throwing blind punches.
Now, he’s standing with his back to me, shoulders straight and still, waiting with carefully coiled and barely contained preschool patience as I tie his red satin cape around his neck. He’s solemn as I adjust the hem with a tiny tug, laying his hero-dom like a mantle about his shoulders with as much flair as I can muster, because this is serious business, this donning of costume.
He turns around as I declare him done, his jaw dramatically clenched, his eyes narrowed. He’s already in character. “I’m Super Speedy,” he announces decisively, “and I can fly.”
But who am I? I’m startled to realize I’ve asked this question out-loud.
He’s quick with an answer. He always is. I’m stuck in a swamp, or I’m clinging to a ledge, or I’m caught in a storm. I’m always in peril.
Always in peril.
I play along, albeit half-heartedly, blundering my lines and missing my marks, until I think I‘ve fulfilled some unspoken quota of attentiveness, and then I slink away, toward the kitchen where dishes have collected or toward the computer, where half-finished documents sit open. He carries gallantly on without me for a while, leaping from the couch to land like a cat, ducking his head and running, cape billowing behind him, into the next room. Five minutes later, however, he’s back at my side, a pirate eye patch in one hand, a Mickey Mouse-eared buccaneer hat in the other, his cape discarded on the floor. I sigh as I stop and dress him, again. I can’t refuse him.
Preschoolers are notorious for this constant and fickle redefinition of self, of course, a condition that no doubt stems from nothing more complicated that your garden-variety inferiority complex fueled in part by their short stature and yet-undefined muscles, relative to the rest of their world. They want to be anyone but themselves.
Mothers are notorious for this, too.
The truth is, I haven’t known who I am since the day my oldest child was born. It’s a fact that continually surprises me, popping into my mind at the most unlikely moments–in the supermarket, while sitting in my car, while running a three-mile circuit through my neighborhood–like the sudden remembrance of a disturbing dream. Did that really happen? I ask myself. It did. Somehow I became the parent of three children. I had once thought motherhood was meant to ground you, honing familial ties that rooted you to home and hearth, to heightened maturity and sense of purpose. Instead, for the past nine years, I’ve been continuously changing costume, trying on this hat and that, just to fling it to the ground in place of another. I became a student, and then a professional, and now, home all day every day, filling sippy cups, soothing cries, leaping from danger to danger as each swamp and cliff proves too deep, too high, too something.
I take classes. I enter contests. I join rec leagues. I volunteer and I try to cook meals and I assist in my children’s classrooms. I read. I meet other mothers for coffee and swap confessions and slobbery teething rings. I agonize over whether to go back to paid work. People I’ve just met ask me that impossible question of what I do and I hem and haw and wonder when I lost my ability to articulate. Because while I could tell them what I do day-in and day-out, they aren‘t looking for a running commentary on my responsibilities and tasks, and they don‘t want a peek at my schedule. They want to know who I am, and I never have an answer for that. “I stay at home with my kids,” I usually end up saying. “For now,” I always end up adding, as though that’s not enough. And it’s not enough, for me, or surely I wouldn‘t feel this prickle of resentment and vague sense of self-loathing when I say it. “I am a writer,” I will sometimes say instead, or, “I used to be a publications editor,” or, “I’m trained as an EMT.” All true. All feeling as foreign as masks on my face as I try each one on for size, digging into my cheekbones, obscuring my vision. They don’t quite fit; nor do their sweeping cloaks or shiny capes. I’m too small. My muscles are too weak.
Right now, however, Tobes is reaching up to adjust the pirate hat after I’ve placed it on his head–he wants it askew–and then he’s pulling the cushions off the couch to make himself a ship on the living room floor. I have to bite my tongue, but I don’t stop him, and I purposefully train my eyes away from the collection of goldfish cracker crumbs and cat hair that is revealed as the bare couch frame is exposed. It’s raining out. We have hours before we pick up his older brothers from school. What else are we going to do besides christen a boat and begin to row?
I ask him where we’re going, and he knows. Just like that. He’ll change his mind in a minute, maybe less, but right now, in this instant, he’s sure, and sitting behind him on the cushions, my knees drawn up close to prevent myself from sliding off onto the carpet, I find myself in awe of him. He’s leaning forward in earnest effort, his shoulders scrawny, the cheerfully bright hem of his Blue’s Clues underwear peeking out from the waistband of his pants, and in this moment, I know he’s not pretending. He’s reinventing. And that’s the secret to his happiness, even while adrift.
It could be the secret to mine as well, if only I could embrace this fluid stream of identities within myself as Toby has, taking each one as it comes, anointing each newfound role with the pomp and ceremony it deserves. Today, I’m a first mate flung into a shark-filled sea, and every day, I’m a mother trying to tread water and a woman trying to prove myself, but somewhere, underneath it all, where the depths below turn dark and still, I’m simply myself. No elaborate costume. No back story.
I only wish it wasn’t so hard to imagine.