In seven words my youngest son split my life in two. We were watching old home videos of Kamau, my first born, ages 3 to 5, and my 23-25-year-old self was on the screen. My youngest, Mateo, is still grappling with the concept of time and is obsessed with the child version of his now 21-year-old brother.
“I want you to be that mommy!” he said.
“I am that mommy!” I respond, but it’s not true. I have grown out my hair and plucked my eyebrows. And jokes aside I‘ve also gotten married, finished school, had a career, experienced loss, and become a grown-up.
It feels unreal that so much time has passed, but looking at these movies of my younger self, fiercely motivated to raise both my son and myself, reminds me that it has. Watching Christmas morning, birthdays, and Kamau’s kindergarten graduation was surreal and at times a little eerie. Watching Mateo meet my father and grandmother on the screen made the pain of their absence in our lives feel tangible. These familiar moments, filled with emotions and memories, are now seen by both Mateo’s eyes and my 41-year-old, bifocaled ones. Looking at my heavy eyebrows and my vintage thrift store finds was an awkward mirror: It reminded me how much I—and all the details of my former life—had changed. I studied the ways I spoke on camera, when I encouraged and when I scolded Kamau. It became a bit voyeuristic. So many of these details had faded into a haze until I was forced to stare at them—my old relationships, extinguished passions, underdog spirit, and, of course, my first-born son.
It is impossible to be the me I am now and to be that other mommy…
Seeing Kamau as a toddler with a robust laugh and a love for center stage and watching my sweet young adult son, working on confidence, creativity, and discipline, it is hard to believe he is the same person. Witnessing those milestones again takes me back to when I was in survival mode and reminds me of the simmering anger that still bubbles to the surface on occasion. These seemingly harmless home movies trigger a complex blend of distance and intimacy, and I feel the dull wound, the absence of Kamau’s father. I can’t help but compare the differences in my sons’ lives: Kamau and myself like partners navigating life together; Mateo born to a family with security, never to know the challenges Kamau and I overcame. Watching Mateo be adored by his father while knowing that Kamau’s wound is yet to be healed is difficult.
“I want you to be that mommy!”
I am not that mommy, though in some ways I still am. I smile when I hear my frustrated voice on video, fussing at Kamau for not eating or listening, because Mateo hears the same voice. I hold the same anxiety for Kamau as he goes on job interviews as I did when he performed in the school play. The 20-something who raised her son alone with love, strength, and a hip-hop soundtrack was me, but that existence sometimes feels like a myth. These movies don’t fully capture the struggle, the victories, and the many, many lessons that I carry with me 21 years after Kamau’s birth.
It is impossible to be the me I am now and to be that other mommy, and it is impossible to not be both. A married, educated mother of two who looks forward to date nights and new parenting magazines, I have become the antithesis of my former self, so each of my sons have had different mothers; Kamau has had two. I am now the me I wanted to be: a married, secure, happy grown-up, though I have lost a little of my edge. There are days that I feel part of the conformist machine, with play dates and birthday themes, and sometimes I miss my unorthodox ways. I don’t feel totally erased, and yes, both my boys listened to A Tribe Called Quest by age 3, but there is a part of me that feels like I have it easy now. It is sad that I feel guilty for being happily married to a wonderful husband and father. But I do.
I think what I am most surprised about in all this is how fluid identity is, and how our circumstances shape so much. It may seem an obvious concept, but the subliminal ways our philosophies are shaped and how our motivations are directed can inform who you become. The weight of our experience is lying quietly under our skin.
These videos have also been a good reminder of what parts of myself I choose to promote, hold on to, or ignore. I miss parts of the 23-year-old me, and I know that 23-year-old me wished she could be the 41-year-old me. Both of us want to be “that other mommy.”
A version of this article appeared on Mutha Magazine.