One of the packages waiting for me when I got home from the hospital was from Stitch Fix. In the whirlwind of events leading up to brain surgery, I’d forgotten to postpone or even cancel the service that I rarely used and had lukewarm feelings around. I arrived home with a swollen, purple face and a bloody head; it was not my most empowering fashion moment, to say the least, and as my husband helped me back to our bed I figured we would just send it back without opening it.
The next morning, however, the kids went off to daycare and I asked my mom if she could help me try on some of the clothes. A flowered tank top was at the top of the box; I put it on and grimaced. “Not really my style,” I thought. But then I confronted my first internal identity challenge.
What WAS my style?
When everything you know to be true about your life is suddenly shaken to the very core, it is hard to pin logic and predictions on just about anything. Were we done having children? Was I even going to be around to raise the two we had? As my loving husband helped me and the kids through the longest and most intense days of our lives, I often felt like we needed to start back at a first date to re-meet each other. Because even “are you religious?” had become a question that I answered differently post-surgery.
So there I am, staring at myself in the mirror wearing a floral tank top, and I just decided then and there: flowers are beautiful. They’re alive. They are definitely my style.
I kept the shirt.
My maiden name was Epting. When Chris and I got engaged and discussed whose names were becoming what, one option on the table was to combine Epting and Dary and become the Darings. (I KNOW.) We dropped the idea and I took his name but, riding high on surviving brain surgery and hearing the tumor was benign, I brought it up again one night before bed.
“Ok, totally unrelated topic: should we change our names to the Darings?!” Chris started laughing. He was exhausted and so was I but we talked it out and ultimately dropped it again.
Would it have been a crazy thing to do? Yep. Would it have involved 1,000 pounds of paperwork and DMV misery and new birth certificates and awfully confused in-laws? You bet. But if we had felt up for it, I would have done it all. I would have owned the cheesiness and ridiculousness and looked forward to a time when I’d be called up to give a talk at a conference as “Jen Daring.” Because when you evolve and grow, nothing is pinned down or unchangeable — even your name.
I have a buzz cut and a big scar and now people recognize me. The baristas at the coffee shop I frequented a few times a week have only now started remembering me. What do they think happened to me? Is it obvious that I had brain surgery? I’m usually good at seeing the world from others’ eyes but this is a huge blind spot for me now. I simultaneously want to tell the story and avoid telling the story again.
I made a new friend the other week, a fellow mom at the boys’ daycare. We got coffee. She doesn’t compare me with what I used to look like; she can’t answer the question “do I seem like myself?” because my current self is as authentic as she expects it to be. Sometimes I get so involved in the conversation and then go to the bathroom only to be shocked in the mirror as I wash my hands. Has she been staring at this head the whole time we’ve been talking?
It is so strange.
It is so strange.
I have been struggling with owning my feminine identity since the surgery. Though my buzz cut is growing out, there is a large hairless scar across the middle of my head and it will be a while before I refind wavy tresses. In an industry with many men and as a mom to two boys, I used to exert my femininity by just existing. I wore jeans and Tom’s and simple gold hoop earrings and totally felt like a woman.
I guess it’s the loss of my hair, but now my feminine self feels cloudy.
Probably as a reaction to this, I chose bright pink nail polish for a pedicure recently, the opposite of what I used to get (clear polish!). But, as with the flower shirt, it didn’t feel like a betrayal of self or style to mess with bright pink; my identity has been busted wide open and all choices seem possible.
There is a rich space between nature and nurture, between self and momentum. Who are you? And who are you because you’ve inherited a label or choice or style, even if you were the one who originally chose it?
I feel gratitude to have this space of half-baked identity after a huge life event. At 35 years old, I’m experiencing a rebirth in which I can change almost anything that needs an update in my self. But what does one do if she doesn’t have a disruption in her life? How do you give yourself permission to change, to break the momentum of what others believe to be your role or identity in life?
Well, I’ll give it to you. This post is your permission slip to change something fundamental because you have outgrown what was there before. Get a bike and start riding it everywhere. Chop off your hair (or let it grow long!). Tell your family you no longer want gift cards to the store you loved in 2005. Pull your manager aside and tell her that the skills you were hired for aren’t the only tools in your toolbox. Buy a deck of tarot cards, plan a solo vacation, bravely email someone you deeply admire and see if they write back.
Because you are allowed to change without a brain tumor to justify it. You are allowed to find new versions of yourself so your identity continues to authenticate; it doesn’t make you a schizophrenic.
It makes you an adult who is growing and evolving and maturing. And damn, if we don’t need more of these kinds of humans to help run our world.