“What do you do?” Such a standard question, whether we meet someone on an airplane or find ourselves at a child’s Back-to-School Night or at a dinner party for our partner. Such a simple question and so loaded.
“I’m a writer and a mother of two.” That is my standard answer, but it feels so inadequate. I am a product of my upbringing, a survivor of sexual abuse, a child of divorce. For years I looked forward to becoming an adult so that I could free myself from my parents and become less defined by them and their hold on me. I looked forward to exploring the world and looking at things in a new light and making decisions that would shape my future. I wanted to fully blossom into the person I was meant to be.
What I neglected to realize was that all of the ingrained identity stories would come with me, packed snugly in whatever vessel I chose to carry as I made my way in the world. Any decision I made hearkened back to the lessons I had learned, the overarching messages I had heard over and over again, and the things I told myself in an effort to make sense of the way my life was as a child. No matter how “free” I thought I was, making decisions I knew my parents would disapprove of or choosing things because they were so vastly different from the choices they would have made, the fact is that I was still shaped by my experiences with them.
Never did this realization hit me harder than the day I found out I was going to have a baby. I was going to be a mother. And I vowed to make good, healthy choices. I vowed to make decisions with more self-awareness than my parents had. I vowed to be different. And still, those notions of who I was and wanted to be stemmed from the stories I told myself about where I came from.
Several years ago, I bumped up against these stories in a hard way. For most of my life, they had been the levees on either side of my life path. Always present, bounding my idea of who I was and leading me in a certain direction. I moved forward, unquestioning, frustrated by the limitations, but never truly understanding that these boundaries were of my own making.
Today, as I meditated, a voice came to me that reminded me of my own evolution. And I began to count the years that I have been things other than what I grew up with. Eighteen years married to a loving, supportive man. Twelve years as the mother of an energetic, open-hearted daughter. Thirty years a writer. Three years a yoga practitioner. And for most of this time, I have been padding the scales on the other side. Thirty-two years a survivor of sexual abuse. Thirty years a child of divorce. Yes. But those things are no more indicative of who I am than the things toward which I am moving and striving. And their hold is beginning to expire. The statute of limitations is running out.
I have heard that for every traumatic or negative thing that happens to us as humans, it takes five positive experiences to counteract it. Evolutionarily, that was important so that we would remember the harmful, frightening things and not repeat them or put ourselves in danger. When I think about it that way, I realize that I have had so many more positive moments in my life that I chose to live out within the boundaries of the “Who I Am” levee than it took to actually construct those walls in the first place. I am allowed to evolve. I am allowed to grow and add to the list of “who I am.” I am allowed to strive for more and let those unhappy definitions fall to the bottom where they belong. There is no forgetting or negating the impact they had on the person I am becoming, but there is also no reason to let them limit who I can become. Or who I am today.
Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of who I am, I become what I might be.” In giving myself permission to expand the definition of who I am, I can begin to move past the things that I have limited myself to for so many years. When the levee walls fall away, the possibilities are endless.
*This is one of several essays that appeared in the magazine BuddhaChick Life. As the magazine is no longer available, I've posted these here for readers to find.