It’s what you are, not what you do


The transition from being a family of two to being a family of three was one of the most challenging things my husband and I have done so far.  Those first months were full of doubts and uncertainties.  But then when Kiddo was a few months old, parenting seemed to get a little easier.  It was no longer this big, huge, scary cloud of millions of choices.  Things started feeling more natural.  My husband and I gained more confidence in ourselves and in our ability to shape this wailing creature into a functioning member of society.

Around that same time, my self-identity began to change as well.  If you had asked me in August 2009 to describe myself, I would have said I was a software engineer, married with a new baby.  A year later, I would have reversed that order and put the parenting part at the top of the list.  Of course it’s a context-sensitive thing; if I were introduced to our company’s CEO, I’d refer to my job first without even thinking about it.  But in casual conversation, or when filling out my profile for some social website, I’m a mother first.  (This does backfire if I don’t think carefully about my wording.  In a popular site’s blog directory, my first crack at my blog description said I was a “mom to a toddler and a software engineer.”  Kiddo is a clever young mister, but that’s pushing it.)

So, what changed that brought about this reversal?  In a nutshell, my attitude about parenting.  I’d finally internalized that parenting is not something to do, like reading or cultivating mushrooms.  It’s something to be.  It’s what I am.  I’m a Mother.

Think about the difference implied when someone you’ve just met says “I bake” compared to “I’m a baker.”  The first one implies a more casual association with the activity, putting it on par with all the other activities that fill up your time, including going to the dentist or going for a run.  The second phrase conveys a sense of authority and ownership.  It’s an integral part of who they are.  Someone who casually bakes could whip up a fine batch of chocolate chip cookies from a recipe.  Someone who’s a baker would be able to read the recipe, instinctively know that something sounds off with the proportions of butter and sugar, and tweak it accordingly to produce something even better.

Technically I was a parent from the moment we first found out we were expecting a baby (in fact, a few weeks before that).  But like any activity, parenting is something that takes some practice and some getting used to.  There are lots of mental adjustments, as you break hundreds of old habits and routines and lay in new ones.  It’s not necessarily as instinctive as we’d like; consider all the stories of people who have fathered or given birth to children but then end up neglecting them or worse.  But I’d like to believe that most parents have made a choice, albeit a subconscious one, to do the best they can in caring for their child.  It’s tough, and for many people there’s a lot of questioning and self-doubt.  But then one day, something happens or someone says something, and they realize that, like the Velveteen Rabbit, they’ve finally become Real.

Now, when faced with a mammoth pile of shirts in the toddler section of Target, I know which ones to get: the orange ones.  In less than a second I can tell the difference between his “I’m hurt” cry, which gets an immediate response, and his “I’m frustrated” cry, which might need nothing but the space to work it out for himself.  And when I’m reading books or scouring the internet for advice, I can filter out suggestions that don’t seem quite right for us, modify others to better fit for our family, or even go completely off-book if necessary.  I don’t expect that I’ll always have the answers, but I feel a lot more confident in my ability to search for them.


Author: Jessica Wallace

I'm a wife, mother, and software engineer living near Seattle, Washington. I like doing competitive puzzle events like the MIT Mystery Hunt and The Game. I've recently started learning a bit about candymaking, much to the delight of my husband, friends, and co-workers.

3 thoughts on “It’s what you are, not what you do

  1. I’ve been married just four months now, so the next step is suddenly in my head — having kids. I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun in my career as a journalist, and now at a storytelling startup, so I wonder, sometimes, what being a mother will do to my self-identity, how I’ll react, etc. When I tell Mom this, she laughs. “You have no idea how fun it will be,” she says. “Stop worrying!” I think she’s probably right. But I can’t help but wonder. I like what you said about how motherhood is about something you are, not something you do. Inspiring stuff. Thanks! And PS – Welcome to Intersect 🙂

    • Thanks! I’m a wonderer and worrier too and it’s led to some frustrating moments, but there have been a lot of fun moments too. I never thought I was cut out to be a mother, and I’m really glad that we made the choice we did.
      Then again, my son’s not quite 18 months yet and I’ve heard that’s where things really start getting tricky. 😉

      I’m enjoying Intersect so far and hope to add some more stories there soon!

  2. Pingback: Reader question: Did changing diapers lead to a change of mind? « Geekamama

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