My family and I recently watched the taped production of the off-Broadway show In and Of Itself. Part magic show, part storytelling, and part immersive theater experience, Derek DelGuadio’s production begins by asking each audience member to pick a statement from a wall of hundreds of possibilities, each proclaiming “I AM…” something.
The choices ranged from occupations, to personality types, to wild options such as “Ninja” or “Shaman.” The choices made by audience members were the basis of the jaw-dropping, “how did he do that?” conclusion of the piece, which holds at its core the essential notion that everyone of us wants to be seen, recognized and acknowledged for the identity (or identities) we claim for ourselves.
I am “mom” is the only answer that popped into my head
Afterwards, I was struck by wondering how I would have answered that question. What word would I have chosen from that wall of possibilities to fill in the blank after ‘I AM’? The only word that came to me was “mom.” Nothing else seemed to fit – not writer, not actor, not comedian, not wife or friend – none of the identities I thought were mine seemed right. And other options I saw on the show such as “life of the party,” “good Samaritan,” or “leader,” seemed inappropriate or even boastful.
What was I left with? The only word that floated into that blank space after ‘I AM?’ Mom.
This caught me off guard. From the time my (now 21-year-old) daughter was born I had been determined never to be that woman who described purely as a mother. Not me! I worked hard to carve out a path and an identity separate from being her mother. What had changed? Why now was “mom” the only word I could think of to describe myself?
We were nearly a year deep into pandemic life and my identity as mom had swirled and settled on my shoulders wrapping itself about me so completely, I could see nothing else. And it had happened so slowly I was barely aware of it. When my daughter’s college had closed its campus halfway through her junior year and sent everyone home for remote studying, I had been thrust back into the day-to-day life of a mom after three years of comfortable empty-nesting. And I hadn’t minded. In fact, I had welcomed it.
I didn’t mind having my daughter home again
Having my daughter home gave my days structure — her online classes, her remote summer job, dinners that were scheduled around her Zoom rehearsals or meetings – these formed the framework of my days. All I could focus on was how much she had lost, how much she was missing out on, all I wanted to do was help her through it as much as possible.
My own pandemic life was an afterthought. I adjusted to remote work, resigned myself to not being an actor again any time soon, Zoom-ed a few happy hours with friends, played Scrabble with my wife, binged Bridgerton with the rest of the world and called it good.
Then, a run-of- the-mill email exchange with a friend brought me up short one day. She had asked how I was and I answered by describing what my daughter was up to, how well she had adapted to remote college, and how much fun it was to have her home all the time. My friend replied, “That’s a great update about your daughter, now how about an update about her mom?”
As a New Englander, I shy away from self-examination
I didn’t know how to reply. As a native of northern New England, I shrink from anything smacking of self-examination, or worse, publicly talking about how I “was doing.” Whenever I got that quarantine-laden question “how are you doing?” (or worse, its earnest cousin “how are you holding up?”), I always answered with a laugh and an ‘oh fine,’ followed by a quick pivot to turn the conversation back to the other person.
Faced with this email from my friend, I didn’t know what I would tell her. That there was an ache in my chest from the absence of the things that had created the identity of who I thought I was? Actor? Not anymore. Stages sit darkened, my news feed is filled with Zoom performances and self-tapes of out-of-work actors singing in their living rooms, and each day my former identity as an actor flies further and further out of reach.
Writer? Not these days, as blank pages and blinking cursors leave me fighting for words that had so freely flowed ‘before.’ Nonprofit professional? Sure, I guess, although that work now happens in a haphazard home office with a cat or two sleeping beside me as I stare at to-do lists and wonder what has become of my ‘real’ job.
I struggled to identify who I was apart from my role as a mom
With my world shrunk down to the three floors of my townhouse condo, I was hard pressed to think of myself as a complex and whole being separate from my family. Somewhere along the pandemic way I had lost who I was. Who I thought I was. I’d lost the words that went into the blank space after ‘I AM..”
After nearly 11 months, my daughter’s campus has reopened, hopefully a sign of better things to come, and she’s once again where she belongs. The day I returned from bringing her back to school, I stood at my kitchen counter and cried. I cried for nearly four hours. I cried to the point I thought I was going to throw up.
It wasn’t simply the quiet stillness of a house absent her vibrant presence that brought on the tears. It was that in that stillness, in the gaping hole of her absence, I was finally having to face all that I had lost during the course of the past year: my work as an actor; my voice as a writer; my active social life; my nights standing backstage at the theater where I work watching the curtain rise on another performance; the way it felt to be known and greeted as I popped in and out of the stores and restaurants near my office; and the weekend road trips we could take without worrying if we would be able to find an open restroom or if we had masks in the car.
I had not been processing my own losses
For nearly a year, I’d stoically kept all of that at bay, focusing on the one role I could manage — mom. I’d turned my focus outward to my daughter and in so doing, had avoided the losses that were piling up in front of me.
So, I start again. I rearranged my basement office to feel more like “me.” I’m writing again, I finally admitted how it hurts to not be an actor anymore, I started to think seriously about what the next stage of my career might look like. I sat down with my wife to plan some pandemic-safe adventures.
Most of all, I’ve promised to remind myself of all the other words — beautiful, complicated, silly, and serious –that can take turns sitting in that blank space following “I AM…” For, on the other side of this strange pandemic life, there may be a word for that space I can’t even yet imagine. What will it be and what roads will lead me there? That’s a story yet to be written.