I have been on a journey. I went away tired and ready for a vacation, but I found so much more than what I was expecting.
Growing up, I had a strong sense of self, and defending myself came easily. I found a bookmark from my elementary years that has a note in my handwriting on the back that says, "Don't you ever, EVER touch my things again." It was public school, and I had attitude.
My little sister had a birthmark as a baby, and I remember being on the playground with her, silently challenging anyone to say a word to her, my eyes meeting other kids' eyes head-on. If they had hurt her, I probably would have knocked them between the eyes. I had swagger.
In high school, I was Student Body President two years in a row. The seniors were less than thrilled that a junior would speak for them at their graduation. I was unapologetic and unafraid. In fact, I discovered that I loved public speaking.
Peer pressure. What peer pressure? I did a move like my dog does, stiffening my whole body. If I didn't want to do something, I refused. Solidly. Stuck in place. Stubborn was what I was.
As a teenager, I was dissatisfied with our youth group at church. We didn't talk about anything spiritual, and I needed more. So, I went to our priest and asked for more. He kindly demurred. I left church for a while. My parents raised me to make my own decisions for my own reasons, and I did.
I loved the freedom of college. I chose my own courses. I met fascinating people. I studied French for a summer in Paris for goodness sakes. Whatever problems I thought I had, I didn't have problems. Life was vibrant and beautiful and self-centered. I was young and naive and ready for a challenge.
My first job was a giant catastrophe. My husband and I were just beginning our lives together, and we were clueless and broke and in a city where we didn't belong. We moved home with our tails between our legs. We had a series of stops and starts, missteps along the way. I found myself losing my voice, my swagger, my confidence.
I went back to graduate school, and I dreamed big. I was accepted to one of the best programs in the country, and I felt wholly undeserving. Looking back, I shouldn't have sold myself so short. What happened to my sense of self? I let people judge me because I look younger than I am, and for the very first time that I can remember, I allowed people to talk to me as a child. Ask my parents. As a child, I rankled when people changed their tone to talk to me. "Why are they talking to me like I'm a kid?" to which my mom replied, "Well, because you are a kid." Even then, I wanted respect, and I expected the respect one human being should show another. And yet, I lost that sense of self. I was so worried about politics and pleasing the right people and not saying the wrong thing to the wrong person that I said little. All my ideas, my hopes, my opinions, I squelched them, just at the time when I had the luxury of being in classes designed to plumb the depths of my thoughts.
I came to hate public speaking.
I lamented to those closest to me that I'd lost something along the way, and I didn't know how to find her.
I had a baby while I was writing my dissertation. In a new city. Six weeks after we'd moved. He weighed 2.5 lbs. It was a shock, and there was no time to think about myself. I was struggling with guilt and exhaustion and fear. And a baby in the hospital.
When my son was 9 months old, I defended my dissertation. I became a doctor of philosophy. I was really proud that I hadn't given up on myself. It was the culmination of a hard-as-hell year for me. I went to an academic conference, and everyone else was newly employed. I felt out-of-place because my world was therapy and developmental milestones. There was no room for anything else, least of all my professional ambition. I pushed pause, taught a few classes part-time when I could make my schedule coordinate with my son's, and resolved to table my ambition for a while.
Nothing will humble you like motherhood. Nothing.
Then, I had another preemie, and again there was no time to think of myself. I delved into the care of my children. There was no choice to be made. I was doing what was right for my family.
But, all those hospital experiences, the determination it takes to parent a special needs child, and my newfound gratefulness at the simple things in life, they were working on me.
Last week, I attended the annual academic conference again. It had been two years since I'd seen most of my friends from graduate school. I also had a chance to see two friends from college and my childhood best friend. It was the first time I was away from my kids in two years. I expected to giggle and chit-chat and have nerdy discussions. I knew taking some time would reinvigorate me and give me a fresh perspective. But, I was wholly unprepared for what I received. The love. The acceptance. The kindness. The warmth. The encouragement. The support. It was absolutely overwhelming. I wasn't the mother or the wife or the health advocate or even the teacher. I was Just Summer. And then the strangest thing happened.
For the first time in a decade, at a place in life where I sometimes look around and marvel at where this journey has taken me, I found what I was missing. I know the exact moment when it happened. I heard myself tell the truth and give some attitude while doing it, and I was amazed. After spending my twenties trying to find a balance between kindness and permissiveness, there she was, feisty, full of sass and a zeal for life.
I wanted to scream, "Where the heck have you been?!"
It was a relief, after all this time. But, it's clear to me. To become this woman, I needed two tiny babies. I needed the career diversions. I needed these challenges, and I am so thankful for it all. On the surface, I am a part-time teacher and a full-time mother. But, underneath, I am Just Summer.