Parenting Through an Existential Crisis

Words by Ashley Jardine

Photography by Rebecca Benoit

The sky is blue when you have one kid. You take the time to match your baby carrier to your outfit. You follow a milestone tracking app that tells you when to panic because your child can’t point to their nose. You find a parenting philosophy you jive with and wax lyrical about it to anyone who will listen.

I always felt like there was a road back with one. I could look in the mirror and still see me.

Really, becoming a mother was a metamorphosis—there was no road back, even when I felt like I was hurtling along it. My body did return to a familiar state, though, and when I looked down at my belly, the only evidence that life had existed there before was a clean scar along my bikini line. I couldn’t believe that after it all, the earth continued to spin. Nine months of pregnancy, 30 hours of labor, 11 months of breastfeeding, and 12 months when my career stood still. I didn’t know what the world was, let alone what I was meant to be doing in it.

Now, a second baby later, I look down at my belly as a literal gut check to find out if I can still see my vagina. When I close my eyes and visualize myself, I see a big, round bump and none of my toes. My body now feels more at home when there’s a baby in it. I’m not sure if that’s a sign I should have another one or a sign that I’ve already had too many.

When you’re 35 and can’t get dressed in the morning, nothing is clear. The other day, after many hours of careful consideration, I bought a pair of rain pants. Not the cool kind, but the practical kind that makes you question, “Is this my life now?” The order receipt came with a shipping confirmation and a deep longing for the person I’d once known.

There’s the me that once was and the me that’s a mother, and every day the two get more and more entwined. Of course, there is only one me—I know that—but every day, I grieve for another part of me lost: buried beneath the diapers, the snacks, the unrelenting nature of it all. If I have any wisdom to share, it’s that parenting is a symbiotic act. You can feel two things at the same time and both can be true. I love my kids—and a vacation from them could never be long enough. I will do anything for my children—and they’re not the sun, and I don’t revolve around them. I am a mother—and quite often, I can’t believe it.

And while having kids irrevocably changes you, it also doesn’t. I hoped that bringing life into the world would make me more motivated and focused, but it didn’t. Five weeks after having my second child, when I lay on a hospital bed with a chest tube and a tumor on my heart, I hoped that the prospect of death would spring me into action. But it didn’t. Instead, I binge-watched Netflix and snaffled packets of instant coffee from my lunch tray for six weeks straight. I’m still reeling from that experience, and the weight of it is often too much to bear. Faced with your own mortality, how do you reclaim life when it isn’t your own anymore?

I wonder if I’m doing too much, expecting too much. I look around at other parents and wonder if they too feel like they’re going to die. Part of the reason I think about having another baby is that it means this chapter of my life isn’t over yet—because while parenting is gritty, careering towards 40 in a minivan and rain pants sounds worse. I want to look like me, feel like me. I want my children to see me doing things that mean something to me. I want to teach them about resilience, commitment, and drive. I want them to see me reading a book or practising yoga rather than feeding them Cheerios and making them watch Grey’s Anatomy.

Parenting might be a lesson in surrender, but the real test is figuring out when to submit and when to hang on for dear life.