Who Am I?

This question makes me think of the character Jean Valjean in my favorite musical of all time, Les Miserables. Prisoner 24601. That’s how he was known for years and years. And I think up until his dying day, it’s an identity forced on him that he carried to his grave.

We all have identities that are either chosen or forced upon us. Up until I was about 30, there was always an epithet after my name… Elizabeth the oldest daughter of Jon and Melissa. Elizabeth, Eileen’s granddaughter. Elizabeth the honors student (again and again and again). Elizabeth the piano teacher. Elizabeth the college student. Elizabeth the wife, and then Army wife.

Alternate identities can be a welcome invisible shield from who we really are, especially if the underlying being is of an unsure form. Like me. I grasped onto any positive or powerful or proud name I could through my childhood and early adulthood. I really wanted to please people, anyone: my parents, my grandparents, my sisters, my teachers, and then my boyfriend now-husband.

I wanted to look good on social media, on Christmas cards. I wanted to convey a sense that I had my life together because it was much easier than being honest with not only myself but everyone. It hurt to be honest, to myself especially because you have to live with yourself.

So for years I hid behind my shield, and I had an acute awareness that hiding was exactly what I was doing. But I didn’t know how to put that cloak on the floor. I’d be naked. I’d be seen for who I really am. (FWIW I know this all sounds cliche but guess what? I don’t care. It’s honest.)

I remember a distinct moment when all my alternate identities no longer were serving me. I was “home” in Illinois visiting for Christmas. Earlier that year I’d just graduated with a Master’s degree (a welcome accomplishment and identity to add to the list) and I’d landed a job as a professor.

I made sure that everyone knew I was a professor and not “just” a teacher, like I’d started my career years before that. I felt I had really made in the world. Even if during my ridiculously short tenure as a professor I felt like an imposter the whole time. I didn’t even had a PhD. I wasn’t “Doctor”. Hell, I’d barely even studied much of the subject of the department I was a part of. But I was all of a sudden an expert in my area. No pressure, right? But I clung to that identity as Professor as tightly as I could.

The tidy list of accomplishments that I thought made up who I was began to really unravel for me when we were trying to get pregnant and couldn’t. If I’m honest, my whole life all of my identities were just placeholders for when I’d be a wife. And then they still stayed tight in their places until I would become a mother. But in the same time of about six months, I lost my title of Professor due to moving and having to resign from the job, and then I really lost the possibility of being a Mother when we decided to not pursue treatment and live without children.

That moment during a winter break, I was just Elizabeth, Elizabeth who was loved and who loved her family. Elizabeth who barely wore makeup except mascara or changed her earrings or went on runs before Christmas dinner or watched silly movies with the kids while the adults played games. Elizabeth who likes to read and play music and drink wine and talk about deep things. Elizabeth who’s been in love with the same man for almost half her life. Elizabeth who loves deeply and a little recklessly and takes almost everything personally. Elizabeth who is generally anxious and has a penchant for situational depression. Elizabeth who has big opinions about a few things and doesn’t care much about the rest.

When I realized all the other identities, or rather, qualities that made me up as a whole person, it began a search for truth about who I am, what’s important, and why I’m on the earth. And the answers to any of those big questions really don’t have much to do with my alter egos, my other identities I hide behind in order to not face the fact that most days I am confused about my purpose on the earth. And least of all it doesn’t have much to do with whether my uterus will sustain a child or not.

At first taking off the cloak of epithets was difficult. Painful. Soul-wrenching. I grieved. And then after awhile it was freeing, and now I’d never dream of putting the cloak(s) back on.

 

The Day After

Long have I despised the day after Christmas. All the hype, expectation, and anticipation ends even before midnight on Christmas, because soon we understand that the magic of the season is over.

This is the attitude about the days following Christmas I grew up with. Often as a family we would take down and put away all the Christmas decorations the day after. If I’m not mistaken, there was even a year we began on Christmas night.

As an adult in my own house with my own family (of three) and my own traditions, I keep up the decorations as long as socially acceptable, which for me is right before I go back to work as a teacher, or even the weekend after that. It’s an act that has rebellious roots, and it’s an external way for me to keep the spirit and warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas alive in light of my childhood traditions and the after-Christmas sales.

The truth is, the wisemen were still searching. Purportedly, it could have taken them up to two years to finally visit Jesus. In a cursory search about this, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the length of the wisemen’s journey. What I take away from it is that after Jesus’ birth, they were still searching. The story wasn’t over.

Another external observation that helps me not fall into a post-holiday depression is that the days are now becoming longer, if only by a couple minutes. This year the winter solstice really meant something to me. The longest night of the year was far from the darkest: there was a full moon. In another cursory search (I’m ashamedly a fan of these quick Google searches…), it’s believed that the sun dies and is reborn. In fact, in .many cultures, a god or goddess of sun is born.

So on the day after Christmas, I’m still pondering what it means that God was incarnated onto the Earth in the form of Jesus. It brings all of Advent, and quite frankly, this whole crazy year of 2018 into perspective.

The Gift of Enough

Sometimes I do the torturous math and think that if we had had a child soon after we started trying, he/she would be a preschooler. And sometimes I think that maybe we’d have had another one by now, too. I guess I aspired to be a mom with kids close in age, and voluntarily participate in the (observed) crazy that goes along with that, especially on Christmas morning.

More children, more gifts, bigger house, more shoes, more socks, more laundry, more…

But my life years not just later but apart from those possibilities is, from a bird’s eye view, empty.

Our Christmas table has four place settings, two more than it usually does. Actually, four more than it usually does since Aaron and I generally sit at the counter on stools to eat almost every meal.

After our Christmas Eve meal and time with friends yesterday, our sink was full of coffee mugs and wine glasses… with more than there usually are. After opening gifts from each other and then with friends, our tree stands alone in its simple glory: white lights, red ribbon, and matching ornaments, not to be outshone by a plethora of gifts below.

It can be anxiety- or depression-inducing to think of all the ways that our life is not enough, but I’m here to tell you (and most importantly myself) after years of infertility and a whole (blessed) year of therapy (thank God), this is all enough.

My one now-dirty coffee mug lovingly embracing my second cup of coffee is enough. Our house, quiet though it is on Christmas morning, is enough. My artificial pre-lit tree enthroned by a beautiful sunrise is enough. Our small Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gatherings are enough. Our simple yet rich meal today will be enough. My husband and I are enough. I (and my empty womb) are enough.

Last night at the candlelight service, our pastor preached on how Jesus met people where they were. That Jesus’ birth in a manger was announced to the shepherds because they would know to find a manger in a stable. That the wisemen were given a star because with their knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos they would be able to find Jesus.

And on this quiet Christmas morning with just my sleeping husband and dog upstairs, Jesus has met me where I’m at, and that’s enough.

“Good with children”

I’ve always been this way, good with children. If there’s such a thing as a maternal instinct, I have it. As much as I’d like to say I always played with Legos and didn’t prefer my Cabbage Patch Kids and doll house and play kitchen, I’d be lying if I did.

Not that having a maternal instinct and being domestic, as it were, go hand-in-hand, but for me they do.

So when I was first in the throes of infertility after its discovery, I for awhile believed that my being good with children was a farce, and something forced on me. But truly, it’s not.

I internally cringed when my therapist told me that I’d find ways to ‘mother’ others. I did not want to mother other people’s children, you know. I had wanted to mother my own, dammit.

But here I am to say that she was right, and I have known that this thing about myself is real and true and I can’t divorce it from my empty womb and healing heart.

I act on it all day long in my job with elementary aged students, attending to their sad faces and knee scrapes and tattling about their classmates. I act on it when I ask the youth if they need a ride home. I act on it with my many nieces and nephews, even from afar. I act on it when I run with a friend’s daughter during a 5K.

It’s just manifesting itself much differently than I thought it would, but I’m so grateful for those opportunities that other afford me with their children because infertility or not, it’s who I am.