So who are we anyway? Mothers, definitely. But we’re still people, too, aren’t we? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. When I’m foraging in the depths of my kitchen cupboards for a clean sippy cup while holding a whining seven-month old on my hip and trying not to step on the whining three and a half year old sprawled on the dirty tile floor, it’s really hard to tell.
I’ve been a Mommy for three and a half years and that’s not very long compared to the thirty-three and a half years that I’ve been Rachel. But Mommy has been known to swallow Rachel whole.
Rachel disappeared almost entirely during my first year of motherhood. My son had infantile botulism when he was eleven weeks old and was hospitalized in intensive care, essentially on life-support, for three months. When that happened, everything focused to a narrow pinpoint. The only thing that mattered in the world was being Quinlan’s mother. Even the hospital personnel called me “Mom,” not Rachel. And at the time, it seemed an appropriate label. Not one of my interests or hobbies or career ambitions seemed even vaguely important as I stood next to his little body that was poked with needles and strapped to machines.
And then he recovered. Slowly. When we left the hospital, he had a nasal feeding tube, an oxygen tank and physical and occupational therapy appointments four times a week. I felt lucky. Lucky and very, very busy.
Too busy, in fact, to notice me. It wasn’t until he was thirteen months old, the feeding tube and oxygen were gone, his therapy sessions were reduced to twice a week, and I had a moment to breathe. When I looked around, Rachel was no where to be found. Instead, I saw that I was still wearing the same huge jeans that I had bought in the early months of my pregnancy. The brown roots of my highlighted hair had taken over my head and were mocking the few remaining blonde strands. And when March rolled around, I hadn’t seen even one of the Oscar nominated films in the movie theater. And it hit me, what had happened to Rachel?
Before Quinlan, I had been a lawyer, a gluttonous reader, a filmgoer, a yoga student, a writer of poetry, an occasional creator of fine cuisine. After him, I was a Mommy, a waiting-room magazine reader, a reality television show watcher, a provider of storage for my yoga mat, a completer of health insurance forms and a preparer of microwaved foods. I wasn’t sure how to make room for the Rachel and the Mommy in the space of a 24 hour day.
So I went on a Rachel hunt. I went to bookstores and looked for her sitting on the floor reading the first page of novel after novel. I looked for her at art classes and at coffee shops with the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. I looked for her dragging her heels in the sand at the beach.
At first, I had just a glimpse or two of her. But I practiced spending time away from Quinlan. I practiced going to the movies in the afternoon instead of running around town to buy him an inflatable pool and sign him up for the latest music class. I practiced reading a novel after he was asleep and letting the dishes wait until morning. I practiced sitting outside in the sunshine reading the newspaper, while my husband served up breakfast. And it worked.
Gradually, topics of conversation with my friends widened to include discussions about Emerson’s quest to find transcendence in addition to, and sometimes in relation to, our quest to find the right preschool. I found myself not dreading my husband’s work functions because when asked if I’d read anything lately, I could discuss a book that wasn’t authored by Penelope Leach. And finally, I knew Rachel had been victorious in conquering some of Mommy’s territory, when other culture-starved mothers started to call on me for movie recommendations because I was sure to have seen Iris or Frida or Spellbound.
Rachel still slips away from me sometimes, but I try to keep her in my sight. I like to pretend she’s my son at Disneyland and I don’t want to let her get more than an arm’s reach away for fear of losing her in the crowd.