I’ve only been a mother for five years. That’s less than fifteen percent of my life, and yet when someone asks me to define myself (I’m a teacher–we do lots of identity processing), the first thing I will list is “mother.” Perhaps it’s because becoming a mother is so life-changing, so heart and mind and body altering in a way that nothing else is–not a wedding or a new job or even a formative friendship.
And so I struggle, as many moms do, to hold on to those parts of my identity, the things that I have been cultivating for the thirty other years of my life, to remember that being a mom is not all that I am. In fact, I may have once thought of myself as a book-lover, a cook, a bar-goer (!), a Michigan football fan, a friend.
Friend may be the easiest and hardest to reconcile. I’ve made new friends in the years since I’ve become a mom, and several of these are and will be some of the most important relationships in my life. But what of my pre-parenting friendships? The people I grew up with who knew me when I had braces and piecey side bangs and hung out with me anyway. The people whose spaces I inhabited, our beds mere inches from each other’s, an early introduction to what it is like to be a mom when all you want is some room to breathe.
But back then, I didn’t mind sharing those spaces with my closest friends–a 10-by-10 dorm, a hallway in a sorority house, a tiny room in a Roman apartment, a converted one bedroom with an illegal wall in the city–because we were young and having fun. Those cramped quarters comforted us when the vast expanse of the outside world with all its promise and potential and, well, responsibility overwhelmed us.
But as we got older, it was time to move on (to Chicago and LA and DC and Ann Arbor and New York); time for our lives to become about something else. New jobs and new spaces and building new communities in the places we had each, separately, chosen to call home. And eventually, for some of us, about having children.
I know there are people out there who are wonderful at maintaining their friendships. Great at calling and making plans and getting on planes for visits or mid-country meetups. But the challenge is right there in the word: maintenance. It takes work and upkeep, and when you are a mom.
There are so many other things to maintain, to do, on a daily, hourly, minutely basis that you may find yourself, as I have, letting those friendships fallow. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value those people or that I don’t want to hear their voices, even if it’s just to mourn our former bodies or wonder aloud why there’s just so much laundry.
And then in walked COVID and we became confined to our spaces. We were required to hunker down with the ones with whom we had chosen to make a home. And I could write an essay on what was hard about all of that but instead, I’ll tell you what was truly remarkable. Inside that mandated quarantine, my friends and I reconnected.
We saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and we realized that our train cars were looking pretty empty. And so we put in the work and found new ways to stay in touch and, while I think we’ve all had just about enough of the Zoom happy hours (and baby showers and kids’ birthday parties and…), there’s one app that has gone the distance. It allows you to record video messages in an ongoing conversation that you can tap into when you have the time.
The app has helped me to connect with the people I love on an almost daily basis. I can get the kids into the tub, open it up, and listen to my girlfriend tell me about her day at work. I know more now about her career, about her hopes and fears than I had since the days when we shared a wall. And even though our mommy-hoods can creep in–my friend’s son loves to pop on and tell us what he’s been cooking–I feel grateful that my sons know the name and face and voice of their Auntie who lives so far away and who they have never gotten to meet in person.
Our messages are often rambling, interrupted by the needs and wants of children or work emails or social media, but through this app, we have found a way of closing up the space that has wriggled its way in over the years and the moves and the babies.
Our faces appear along the bottom of the screen with our previous messages, contained in this 5-by-7-inch space, and it feels, for a moment, like we’re lying next to each other in the bed of a tiny dorm room, our past and our future just on the edges of our field of vision. All we have to do now is open our eyes.
Juliana Zalon is a high school English teacher, an aspiring novelist, and a mother of two orange-haired boys.