I crouched in the crowded hallway outside A’s classroom, affixing giant butterfly wings to her back before sending her in. They weren’t meant for a child, but they were too beautiful to pass up: pink, sparkly, and bejeweled. Each time she wore them, which had been often in the preceding days, they’d fallen out of place within minutes, tilting crookedly down her back, making them look like more of a burden than an asset. She craned her neck to observe, inquiring about their placement, now aware that donning butterfly wings was tricky business.
As I adjusted and readjusted, a grandmother doing dropoff commented on their beauty. “What pretty butterfly wings,” she flattered A. “And so big!” A gentle note on the issue of scale meant for me, without drawing the attention of the butterfly. “Yes, well, they’re made for adults, but we couldn’t resist them,” I clarified.
“It’s no harm,” she answered. “She’ll grow into them. We’re all still trying to grow into our wings, aren’t we?”
The gravity of that observation caught me off-guard the way the freezing air takes your breath away on a cold winter night, probably because I’ve been thinking a lot about my wings.
When we’re younger, the future holds endless possibilities. We think of careers or vacations or goals without grasping how we’ll get there, but knowing there’s a chance we could. I remember the feeling of confidence and opportunity I had in college. I couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I could do something remarkable. I had proven to myself that drive and desire were what I needed to “succeed” in the most conventional ways: grades, internships, even dating.
But as the years have passed, I’ve seen opportunities slip away. I’m not going to be an astronaut or a movie star—not that I necessarily wanted those things, but the possibility is gone. I’m never going to be a CEO or a high-powered anything. I would’ve traveled a very different path had those been the goals I’d pursued.
I made the choice five years ago to step away from conventional success, when I became a stay-at-home mom. Or maybe I made that decision ten years ago, when I decided to leave the art world to become a teacher. There are no famous teachers, but we all have had a few who have touched us, and that was what I wanted—not to be famous or powerful, but to make a difference in someone’s life. That’s also why I left my career.
Most mothers I know put their lives on hold during the haze of early motherhood. Even those of us who “work” aren’t reaching for promotions as much as work-life balance. We used to have big dreams, but now we’re pragmatists: dinner-making, sale-scouring, booboo-kissing pragmatists. There’s no time for big dreams at this stage of life, but this stage won’t last forever, and I’m starting to wonder what’s on the other side.
I can imagine the day when my kids will be in school and my only title might not be Mom. I’m starting to remember my wings.
I’m remembering that there are still lots of things I’d like to accomplish. I want to visit Rome, I want to publish books, I want to explore an interest in design. These are things I wouldn’t have even considered when I had really little babies, but the time is coming.
For a few years there, I may have forgotten my wings. But if grandmas are still trying to grow into theirs, it must not be too late for the rest of us.