It’s a funny moment that happens for women. Almost like a whole new birth. This time around, a more mature person is being brought forth though, with some aspects of the newborn and some much more wisened pieces. It’s the birth of a woman with independent children, a woman with the ability to come into her own for the first time in a long time. It’s the moment of space.
I had predicted many months prior to my youngest child leaving for school that the first day would be a challenge for me. I knew I’d be filled with tension during our first true separation, and I had planned ahead: a whole day out with my husband, quietly enjoying easy conversation while also saving me from the hours alone, waiting for my children to return to me.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was that next day.
The challenges of getting everyone off to school for the second day were eventually managed, the household chores were executed, my husband went back to work after his day of babysitting my emotional self. Quiet. Space.
For the first time in 11 years, there was a span of time ahead of me with no urgent requirements. No one was immediately hungry or waiting for help. A list of responsibilities could be accomplished quickly with no little ones to maneuver. And not just on this day, either, not a stolen moment, but rather a long stretch of loosely tethered hours and days. I was stumped. I could do whatever I wanted, but . . . what did I want to do?
What kind of person was I without my children needing me?
With enough wisdom from the years gone by, I could see too much time alone would not be healthy. Living away from family and friends meant no obvious house to stop by for coffee or friend to call to meet for a walk. Without a little one in tow, I had no direction. My daily rotation of playgrounds and libraries was useless in this new situation.
I looked around me and every part of my existence was wrapped up in someone else. No part of my home, clothing, or time had anything to do with who I was outside of being a wife and mother. Then my eyes landed on one lone bag on the hook—my daughter’s ballet bag. A never-ending smelly place where it’s hard to discern what is clean or dirty.
Long ago, I had a very similar bag. It smelled about the same and was stuffed full of just-in-case items, with only one or two real essentials and at least one rotting protein bar at all times.
I reached into that smelly cave and pulled out the one thing I knew I used to be—a dancer.
For nearly two decades, ballet was an anchor for my life. Whether it was by choice or persuasion, happily or not, varied day by day. Year after year, I took my place at the barre and exhaled at the opening strains of music. Working my body to its limit, I strove against myself and came away from those years knowing what I learned in the ballet studio was more valuable than any degree I could ever earn.
The discipline of ballet carves a piece of art out of a human being, chipping away the edges while preserving the beauty to be found within. Long ago, I walked away from my last class with confidence, knowing I’d worked hard and become someone to be proud of. So long ago, I’d almost forgotten.
I grabbed my daughter’s ballet slippers, some old running clothes, and an old friend. While my babies were learning to read and write and change the world, I stepped back into a ballet studio like I’d never left. The women I found inside were unspeakably strong. Every age and walk of life, every level of talent and ability was represented. Open arms greeted me, and I walked in as a woman—not someone’s wife or mother.
I walked in as myself.
No one asked my children’s names or my husband’s occupation. When I heard, “Ah, you must have a kindergartener . . . Welcome,” I nearly cried to be so understood. I tugged those smelly slippers on and silently prayed I’d remember the smallest fraction of what I’d once known.
The opening chords of music started and without thought, my arms breathed open and my breath exhaled. There it was. It’d been waiting for me all that time—the long, aching exhale of a job well done. The exhalation at the end of a journey that mirrors the deep breath at the start.
The settle that comes from deep inside when your mind stills to make way for your soul.
I exhaled all through that class, and through many more after. Quietly grabbing a pair of ballet slippers that wouldn’t be missed, I slowly started collecting my own smelly bag all over again.
Many days I struggle through each combination. Some days I conquer a few. But what I learn is that I’m still learning, still a student. I haven’t finished anything at all, but rather I’m just starting out on a new leg of life. A gracious teacher wisely greets me at the door and witnesses every mistake I make. She encourages me by saying, “Your body remembers who you are. You have to convince yourself you’re still her.”
I’ve been focused on mothering for so long I’d forgotten how to be anything else. As it turns out, all I have to do is start with what I know. While I figure out the rest of what kind of woman I want to be next, I’ll keep dancing in my daughter’s shoes.