The other night, our book group welcomed a new member. It’s been a long time since we added someone to our group, so we decided to spend a minute introducing ourselves. You know, the usual drill: tell a little about yourself, like the names and ages of your children, where they go to school or work, etc.
I’m sure you’ve been encouraged to present yourself this way in the past. I know I have. This time, however, this time I felt a little uncomfortable. While true that at one time, it seemed so natural to get to know someone through their children, I began to think back, wondering when I had become defined by my children. I remember going to nursery school open houses and proudly wearing a nametag that read: “Sarah’s Mom.” After years of becoming me, professionally and personally, I was excited to pour into this new identity. Over the years my children’s triumphs and traumas became mine as well. As a couple, our closest friends were the parents of our children’s closest friends.
Sadly, some of these friendships did not survive as our children made their own choices in friends. This was especially challenging during the “mean girl” years. Even now, most conversations at the supermarket, bank or post office start off with “How is Johnny? What is he up to? When did we stop asking: How are you? What are you up to? Sometimes, even when I was in fact asked what I was up to, I often replied with the happenings of my children.
Last year, I went on a National Women’s Mission to Israel. I was on a bus with thirty-six women from neighboring states, most of whom I did not know. I decided to use the time to shake things up. At the onset of the trip, I challenged myself to have a meaningful, one on one conversation with each and every woman on the bus. To stretch myself even further, I was determined not to ask anything about their children and to spend little time talking about mine. It proved to be a difficult task. Many of the women came with friends and were rarely on their own. Some sat with the same person on every bus trip.
I am proud to say that by the end of the mission, I had successfully had conversations with thirty-two of the women. I learned about their hopes, dreams, triumphs and tragedies. They shared their deeply personal reasons for going on the mission. Some had lost family in the Holocaust, a few had beat cancer, others had recently lost a spouse and some wanted to find themselves beyond being mommy. As I reviewed my conversations, I thought about the women with whom I felt a real connection. I then asked myself, are these the women I would have sought out had I only picked a few to get to know. In most cases the answer was no. This experience reminded me that there is so much more to me, and all of us, than being “Sarah’s mom.”
Over the past year I have continued to stretch myself. Upon becoming “Empty Nesters,” I noticed that most of the conversations between my husband and me started with one of us asking if the other had heard from any of the kids that day. After a while, we agreed that unless there was an emergency, we would wait until later in the conversation to catch up on the kids.
Since my return home, I have tried to connect to current and new friends the way I connected to the women in Israel. I can honestly say that this year has been very fulfilling for me. I have reached out to many new and different people. I might not know the names and ages of their kids, but I do know their hopes, dreams, accomplishments, passions and fears. And they know mine.
This is a work in progress. As we grow and live through transitions, we must constantly remind ourselves of our many identities, and who we are at our core. I expect my next challenge will be when I proudly put on the nametag “Someone’s Grandma.”