THE BLOG

The Dollhouse Years

03/17/2014 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

I was running with a good friend the other day and when we got on the subject of work and identity, she started to get quiet. After about a mile of monologue (me), she confessed that she felt inadequate in this arena, like she was spinning her wheels in a series of fits, false starts, detours and dead ends. I laughed and reminded her about the dollhouse.

Huh? She looked at me, confused.

I explained to her that she still had a child small enough to own a dollhouse, so it was no freaking wonder she felt the way she did. The era of small children is enough to wring every last drop of energy and identity out of a woman. We temporarily forget who we are and even when we have lucid moments, we're too tired and overwhelmed to do much about it anyway. It's no wonder so many marriages derail during these trying and tenuous years. Women don't have much left in the tank for their man, and their man must wonder what happened to the dynamic, interesting woman he married. Things get lost in translation. Women get lost in translation.

Some women remain stuck in this place long after the era of small children is officially over. The days of full time 24-7 mom duty change to preschool years, with a few blessed hours of respite. Just enough time to exercise and get to the grocery store, occasionally with a Starbucks or a shower in between before it's pickup time again. This changes to elementary school years, where you finally have an entire day (or at least 8-2) at your disposal. This morphs into middle and high school years where sports, extracurricular and friend activities absorb the rest of your child's weekdays and evenings, and on weekends, they are busy with miniature lives of their own.

The children are constantly changing, and this is reflected in their schedules, attitudes, levels of independence and desires for freedom. Unfortunately, sometimes mothers do not change alongside their children. They do the same things they did during their preschool days, only they take longer doing them. Exercise and errands lengthen and bleed into each other until days are filled with relatively meaningless fluff and floundering during the hours when the children are occupied. I see it all around me, women who shrug and describe their purpose as being a wife or a mother when those are roles, not purposes. A ring finger and a uterus do not a calling make (Yoda-speak for think bigger).

I can discuss this -- one of the many things no one wants to talk about related to marriage and motherhood (I have a sea scroll if you're interested) -- and do it humbly and without a soap box because I can honestly tell you it could have/would have been me. The irony is that I was the person who never thought I would feel that way about motherhood; I didn't even like babysitting. There was a video made at my high school graduation lock-in, where they interviewed graduates about themselves in 10 years. Most people (granted, I went to a small school in Minnesota) talked about being married to their current boyfriend or girlfriend and having a couple kids, whose names were already picked out. I was the girl who was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" and "Best Hair" (so I clearly had it going on) and I said something about driving a Mercedes convertible to work. There was no mention of any husband and my car was a two-seater. Yet fast-forward 10 years and I was married, had forfeited my career to follow my husband and his dreams to Europe and was totally, irrevocably in love with my baby boy. My CEO aspirations were inexplicably satisfied with Goodnight Moon.

If my marriage did not implode a few years later, I could have gone on having babies, getting mani-pedis, working out and running errands. I would have been the woman who looked at her husband when the kids left for college and wondered who the hell he was. I would have asked the tired face in the mirror the same question. I would have continued in this manner, making a life out of setting up dorm rooms, sending care packages, visiting, setting up first apartments, planning weddings and spoiling my grandchildren.

Instead, due to the bless-curse of divorce, I was forced to get my own life.

When you are solo every Thursday, every other weekend, holidays and in the summer, you have to rethink your unplanned plan to be consumed with motherhood. At first I traveled, a lot. I think I made a pilgrimage to visit every old friend I knew. I could not bear the quiet of my house without the noise and mess of my children. Plus, I wanted to get away from myself, even though that logic was obviously flawed. Every town has a pack of divorcees who dress younger than they are and go out all the time; I tried that for a half a second and hated it. I ran too many marathons. I took up painting, even made my own studio out of our garage apartment. I knitted miles of scarves. I pretended my house was an ark and at one point had four dogs, a cat, a bird, a snake, Beta fish and a hamster. I said it was "for my children," but everyone knew I just didn't like being alone without anything to take care of or a reason to come home.

At some point, kind of like Forrest Gump when he suddenly stops running, I stopped running too. It occurred to me that if I had the blessing of a do-over in my life, I should make a more conscious attempt at the do. I did a deep evaluation, sweeping a metaphorical metal detector over the sands of my life, and found the jewel that I hadn't even realized I lost. It was, simply, that I have been a writer since my chubby fingers first gripped a crayon. I love words, and the effect they have on people. I always have.

I am not sure how this happens, but we weirdly forget the things we love, the gifts that make us unique and the talents that point us in the direction of our purpose. I recently heard author Rebekah Lyons speak at a conference and she described our calling as the point of convergence (picture an inverted V) between our talents and our burden. I had never thought of it that way, as our burdens playing a part, a necessary ingredient in the evolution of our raison d'être, but once she explained it this way it was as though a veil lifted and I could see my timeline with a clearer lens and the perspective of retrospect. I see now (10 years and many therapy sessions later) that losing my marriage actually saved me from losing myself.

I remembered and resurrected my gift, and it changed my life -- or possibly returned it to me. I kept at it through seasons of ease, when the muse of creativity perched happily on my shoulder and when I stagnated with writer's block, procrastination and rationalization. I still slip into old patterns of errands and concentric circles of kid vortex when I lapse in intention or diligence. But seven books and countless articles, essays and blog posts later, I can say I recognize the weight and weightlessness of my calling. My work is my play, and my play is my work. I am blessed.

I believe my children know that they rank high in my heart, a close second to God Almighty. This is important. But I also know that they are proud of me and of my work. They know firsthand that it's possible to love and think big, to have a life while making a living. I think there is a relief for them in knowing that Mom has a full-spectrum, full-on life of her own. It quietly grants them the freedom to relish theirs -- without prematurely worrying about me. And it prevents me from having a vicarious life through them instead of a real one through hard work.

I am certain I will bawl my eyes out when I drive away from college drop-offs or tear up as I watch my babies walk down wedding aisles. But hopefully I will cry because I love them, because I will miss them and because I am experiencing the end of an era. Ideally, the cultivation of calling will allow me to shed happy tears for the fullness of their lives rather than tears of grief for the emptiness in my own.

I have spent their entire lifetime learning the most delicate art of motherhood, which is how to love children and let them go. In the most intricate and intimate ways, we simultaneously weave and untangle our heartstrings -- making them tight enough to hold our nest together and loose enough for us all to fly free.