My husband and I both drive gray Honda Civics – one is fully loaded and the other is a strip-down model. Because I drive our son to school and therapy, my husband has graciously left me the car with all the amenities, taking the car with only the factory basics for his long commute to work every day.
On occasions when my car needs service, I have driven the strip-down car. And although there is stuff I can live without, I realize how much it really sucks when certain things are missing.
My husband’s car has an AM/FM radio, but no CD player…not even a cassette player. There is no “auto-lock”, so each door must be manually locked, with the driver’s side requiring you to hold up the handle while locking it. It is not equipped with AC, and the windows are the old fashioned, hand-crank variety. To add insult to injury, the hand-crank on the driver’s side sticks and requires two hands to wrestle the window open and closed as it screeches and groans loudly in protest.
The car’s interior has seen better days. The ceiling material has detached itself from the insulating foam and would hang so low as to obscure the view through the rear window if my husband hadn’t clipped it back up in several places. Likewise, the glue holding the upholstery fabric to both back doors lost its adhesive power years ago, and now the fabric hangs loosely, attached only in the upper corner where it is trapped under the plastic casing surrounding the door handles.
When I get the car up to speed on the highway, the engine roars and the steering column shudders. I half expect to look in my rearview mirror and see a trail of debris made up of bits of fuselage that has peeled itself off the exterior of the car. On warm days when the windows are down, material on the doors and ceiling balloon and flutter and snap in the wind, frayed and threadbare in some places like the sails of a ghost ship adrift on the high seas.
But for all it lacks and for all its flaws and oddities, it’s a good little car that gets us from point A to point B. Usually that’s all that matters.
Before my son was born, I remember dreaming of what it would be like to be a stay-at-home mom. Even if we could only afford for me to leave my career for a year or two, I was excited to throw myself into the role full-time. I would be the same person with all the same interests and hobbies and dreams – all those things that made me “ME”… and I would ALSO be a fabulously amazing mother.
It’s all about balance, you see. I had read that somewhere.
But my experience as a parent has not been about balance at all. It’s been about sacrifice.
From the moment my son was born, I’ve shed little bits of me. I’ve watched in my rearview mirror as those parts bounce and clatter and roll away behind me, retreating into the distance, memories of a person I once was. And with each new bump in our autism journey I shed more of me.
In my old universe, I was a teacher, a dancer, a runner, a reader. I traveled and climbed mountains and took photographs with a camera that required actual film. By no means was my life a “luxury car”, and I had no desire for a turbo-charged life in the fast lane. Mine was a practical, comfortable life with enough “bells and whistles” to keep things fun and interesting. Music playing and moon-roof open, I felt free to explore the world and discover my place in it – my interests, my passions, my identity.
I’ve spent some time mourning the loss of these pieces of my identity as if they were, indeed, lying by the side of the road somewhere, decomposing and forgotten like so much carelessly discarded litter. I’ll admit, I’ve felt sad and angry and resentful, even bitter about the loss of those pieces. I miss the “bells and whistles”. I miss my freedom.
Sacrifice is often painted as noble and honorable, a necessary step on the path toward deeper meaning and personal growth. But sacrifice worthy of honor should be a gift given willingly with a full heart, not grudgingly with exaggerated sighs and muttered curses…right?
And so I’ve worried – Am I a selfish, horrible person?
I realize now that I am not a selfish, horrible person, because if I gave up or lost something and didn’t miss it, it wasn’t all that important to me in the first place. Missing it is what makes it a sacrifice. That struggle is where deeper meaning and growth is found, not in some blissful acceptance of things lost.
And when life circumstances force you to sacrifice things that are important to you, when you are stripped down to the factory basic model of yourself, it can make you reconsider the very idea of identity.
It’s true that I am no longer a professional teacher, and I have little time for pleasure reading. It’s true that my dreams of traveling and exploring the world may no longer be possible in my present circumstance. And it’s true that although I’m the same make and model, same year, I’m not in such great shape anymore. My best dancing and running days may be behind me, as some of my parts have taken to creaking and groaning, and now I wheeze and cough when I reach speeds at which I once cruised with ease.
But who I am at the core remains the same when I define myself not with nouns like teacher, dancer, and explorer, but with adjectives like passionate, curious, idealistic, and creative. These traits are the engine that moves me forward, the engine that has ALWAYS moved me forward.
No matter the condition of my exterior. No matter how tattered and threadbare my interior may become from the storms that whip through me. No matter the bits and pieces and parts that fall away. No matter my flaws and oddities, my engine still somehow gets me from Point A to Point B. It gives me the power to reimagine, redefine, reinvent myself.
There are many ways to be a teacher.
There are many ways to be an explorer.
There are many ways to dance.
I need to spend less time looking in the rearview mirror lamenting what is lost and focus instead on the road ahead. My engine is driving me in a different direction now, on a road less traveled – one with twists and bends and mountains to navigate and few road signs to guide the way. The uncertainty is both terrifying and exhilarating.
So now with my music playing and moon-roof open, with a full tank and my engine strong, it’s time to explore my new world and discover my place in it, and maybe, just maybe, “find myself”.
My unexpected detour might make all the difference.