Just Summer

I have been on a journey. I went away tired and ready for a vacation, but I found so much more than what I was expecting.

Growing up, I had a strong sense of self, and defending myself came easily. I found a bookmark from my elementary years that has a note in my handwriting on the back that says, “Don’t you ever, EVER touch my things again.” It was public school, and I had attitude.

My little sister had a birthmark as a baby, and I remember being on the playground with her, silently challenging anyone to say a word to her, my eyes meeting other kids’ eyes head-on. If they had hurt her, I probably would have knocked them between the eyes. I had swagger.

In high school, I was Student Body President two years in a row. The seniors were less than thrilled that a junior would speak for them at their graduation. I was unapologetic and unafraid. In fact, I discovered that I loved public speaking.

Peer pressure. What peer pressure? I did a move like my dog does, stiffening my whole body. If I didn’t want to do something, I refused. Solidly. Stuck in place. Stubborn was what I was.

As a teenager, I was dissatisfied with our youth group at church. We didn’t talk about anything spiritual, and I needed more. So, I went to our priest and asked for more. He kindly demurred. I left church for a while. My parents raised me to make my own decisions for my own reasons, and I did.

I loved the freedom of college. I chose my own courses. I met fascinating people. I studied French for a summer in Paris for goodness sakes. Whatever problems I thought I had, I didn’t have problems. Life was vibrant and beautiful and self-centered. I was young and naive and ready for a challenge.

My first job was a giant catastrophe. My husband and I were just beginning our lives together, and we were clueless and broke and in a city where we didn’t belong. We moved home with our tails between our legs. We had a series of stops and starts, missteps along the way. I found myself losing my voice, my swagger, my confidence.

I went back to graduate school, and I dreamed big. I was accepted to one of the best programs in the country, and I felt wholly undeserving. Looking back, I shouldn’t have sold myself so short. What happened to my sense of self? I let people judge me because I look younger than I am, and for the very first time that I can remember, I allowed people to talk to me as a child. Ask my parents. As a child, I rankled when people changed their tone to talk to me. “Why are they talking to me like I’m a kid?” to which my mom replied, “Well, because you are a kid.” Even then, I wanted respect, and I expected the respect one human being should show another. And yet, I lost that sense of self. I was so worried about politics and pleasing the right people and not saying the wrong thing to the wrong person that I said little. All my ideas, my hopes, my opinions, I squelched them, just at the time when I had the luxury of being in classes designed to plumb the depths of my thoughts.

I came to hate public speaking.

I lamented to those closest to me that I’d lost something along the way, and I didn’t know how to find her.

I had a baby while I was writing my dissertation. In a new city. Six weeks after we’d moved. He weighed 2.5 lbs. It was a shock, and there was no time to think about myself. I was struggling with guilt and exhaustion and fear. And a baby in the hospital.

When my son was 9 months old, I defended my dissertation. I became a doctor of philosophy. I was really proud that I hadn’t given up on myself. It was the culmination of a hard-as-hell year for me. I went to an academic conference, and everyone else was newly employed. I felt out-of-place because my world was therapy and developmental milestones. There was no room for anything else, least of all my professional ambition. I pushed pause, taught a few classes part-time when I could make my schedule coordinate with my son’s, and resolved to table my ambition for a while.

Nothing will humble you like motherhood. Nothing.

Then, I had another preemie, and again there was no time to think of myself. I delved into the care of my children. There was no choice to be made. I was doing what was right for my family.

But, all those hospital experiences, the determination it takes to parent a special needs child, and my newfound gratefulness at the simple things in life, they were working on me.

Last week, I attended the annual academic conference again. It had been two years since I’d seen most of my friends from graduate school. I also had a chance to see two friends from college and my childhood best friend. It was the first time I was away from my kids in two years. I expected to giggle and chit-chat and have nerdy discussions. I knew taking some time would reinvigorate me and give me a fresh perspective. But, I was wholly unprepared for what I received. The love. The acceptance. The kindness. The warmth. The encouragement. The support. It was absolutely overwhelming. I wasn’t the mother or the wife or the health advocate or even the teacher. I was Just Summer. And then the strangest thing happened.

For the first time in a decade, at a place in life where I sometimes look around and marvel at where this journey has taken me, I found what I was missing. I know the exact moment when it happened. I heard myself tell the truth and give some attitude while doing it, and I was amazed. After spending my twenties trying to find a balance between kindness and permissiveness, there she was, feisty, full of sass and a zeal for life.

I wanted to scream, “Where the heck have you been?!”

It was a relief, after all this time. But, it’s clear to me. To become this woman, I needed two tiny babies. I needed the career diversions. I needed these challenges, and I am so thankful for it all. On the surface, I am a part-time teacher and a full-time mother. But, underneath, I am Just Summer.

Comments

  1. What lovely writing, Summer! My memory of you is that your were intense but kind, full of self-esteem, but never egotistical. It’s good to read that you are feeling more like “you” again! —Vicki Schoenly

  2. Mrs. Schoenly! It’s so good to hear from you–and here of all places. Thanks so much for your comment. I hope all is well with you.

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