Who Do I Say I Am?

A woman who has reached her middle years confronts an age-old question.

Author: Maraya Steadman '89, '90MBA

Steadman New N7a5845 V3 Photography by Karen Morgan

I keep buying clothes, failing at Wordle and seeking beach glass that is the perfect shade of blue. The clothes that I keep thinking will make me look fitter and younger — or maybe just like who I am supposed to be, my undefinable self — instead reflect the truth, undefined. Every Wordle guess reminds me that I can’t win the game in two tries. I read an article that claims COVID-19 survivors lose up to 2 percent of their memory; maybe the pandemic scars I can’t see are etched into the gray matter of my brain. The biological spark of energy transfer inside my brain cells, hopping over these scars and my faulty dopamine receptors, ends up at the five-letter word “splat.”

Whoever I am, I’m at an age where I accept this lack of perfection, this inability to attain my unattainable self. I will never be who I imagine I want to be. At this age, I find my kids don’t want my advice, yet they watch every move I make and every bond I break, making me the personification of a Police song, a rock hit of my youth becoming the flashing red and blue warning lights of a teenager-parenting journey.

From the beginning, my parenting journey has been so profound, consuming and joyful that I must acknowledge that the best 25 years of my life are probably ending. I am not sure I will ever be as happy as I have been raising our children. Still, I wonder if it’s possible to give too much. Did I give too much of myself away? Maybe I overdid it; in trying to be a perfect mom, I eroded the cornerstone of who I am. I question whether I may have read the Prayer of St. Francis one too many times, trying to validate my choices with the words, “for it is in giving that we receive.”

If you ask me who I am, and I am honest, I am tired of caring about everyone else so much that I no longer care about me. I am tired of trying to keep some semblance of family around a dinner table no one wants to eat at anymore. I am tired of absorbing punches like a punching bag, of being a person who never gets to answer the question, “How are you?”

Descent is not a place I want to be. My oldest child, a daughter, left for college almost three years ago. My son leaves in a few months. I have been embracing these losses of motherhood for a while now. I reached a point in my descent where it was time for growth and reclamation, time for me to climb out. I am still tired, but I am tapping into the power of the feminine, climbing the ladder of transformation rung by rung, punch by punch.

My first step was a pivot move away from my obvious choices: going back to work, volunteering or suffocating the daughter who is still at home by continuing to be a full-time, stay-at-home parent.  After the pivot, I took the shot. I don’t know if it went in or not; I may never know. I have no idea what will happen next, but I do know that “you will always miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” This quote has been attributed to both Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, so you can’t use it in a sophomore writing seminar. I know that not because I remember anything from my classes at Notre Dame, where I majored in accounting, but because I am now an undergraduate English major at a college close to my home in the Chicago suburbs. I tried to include a quote in a paper without citation — “Education will make you free.” My professor advised me to take it out.

My oldest is a biochemistry major at Notre Dame. She reminds me that every living thing is composed of cells, that all cells contain some form of instructions like DNA, that proteins are foundational to life. What she is trying to teach me, in terms I can understand, is the role of protein in energy transfer. She spends a long time explaining the “instructions” coded in DNA. They don’t instruct the cell how to make energy directly. The DNA doesn’t say, “To make energy, do this and this and this”; rather, it’s a list of things: “flour-egg-flour-flour-sugar-sugar-sugar-egg-vanilla.” Throw everything in a bowl in that order and you get a cookie.

She left for Notre Dame, the pandemic hit and — after more than a year of being locked down with teenagers, enduring e-learning and other restrictions, tolerating a spouse we voted off the island in the first week, being sick and pounding cherry Danishes from Costco; a year of not going to the gym because it was closed, not doing Zoom classes because I was lazy and feeling sorry for myself, and not running around the neighborhood because I hate running — I got fat. So last summer I hired a trainer and started pounding protein.

English is my trainer’s second language. He tells me I’m a “tough kooky.”

“You are one tough kooky; you can do this.”

The last time he called me a tough kooky, I told him it was a dumb saying, it made no sense, and he wasn’t pronouncing it the right way, so I kept after him to practice saying “cookie” correctly. I was mad, and I wasn’t kind. I didn’t like being called a tough cookie. Who wants to be a tough cookie? I’m not even sure that being tough is a compliment, although I suppose it is in a boxing gym.

Steadman N7a5730 Kp Toned

Once you start working out in a gym, you get bombarded by motivational posters. An Everlast poster over the kettlebells says, “Greatness is within.” When I read that, my brain cells went straight to my abdomen, which at the time was beneath a weighted barbell. By the second set, I realized the slogan was about mindset: We don’t have to conquer the mountain; we just have to conquer ourselves. The climb is within us.

I’m still not sure anything is within me except organs and cells madly utilizing protein to release energy. The cells in my brain must be the champs of my cellular structure, because they have both to do all that protein conversion and to convince me that I can be a better version of myself. A self that after almost 40 years is emerging as weirdly similar to my 17-year-old self: the athlete who loved American literature, reading books and writing short stories that were so horrible their author became an accountant.

My decision to go back to school and walk into a boxing gym was about transformation. I was at a crossroads. I didn’t want to go back to my career, my kids were going to college, I needed to figure out what was next. I needed to make choices about where to direct my energy. At this point in the semester, with so much due in the next four weeks and training sessions where I’m forced to listen to electronic dance music while doing side planks and sumo squats, this growth mindset I’m trying to exercise feels more like self-hate than self-love. Quote: “Everything worth having in life involves sacrifice.” (That one is me. I tell my kids that all the time.)

This is not the first time in my adult life I’ve had to pivot, redirect, transform. When I was in my 20s and 30s, spending my energy doing everything society told me to do — go to college, get a degree, get a job, have a career — I mattered. I mattered to my bosses and to the managers and staff who worked for me. My self-worth was dependent on promotions and paychecks. I carried designer handbags and wondered if maybe I should get a bigger diamond because a woman in human resources had just gotten an engagement ring bigger than mine, and I made twice as much money as she did.

I stopped wondering about diamond rings, paychecks, promotions and handbags as soon as I got pregnant and started throwing up. I often felt that God walloped me during my pregnancies because I was a self-centered corporate executive who wasn’t focused on what matters most: love. God wanted to make sure I realized it was time for something bigger than me and my career. He wanted to make sure I realized that what I had been doing — all that running around and being fabulous — was something I was going to think about, a lot, as I was creating this child, my future biochemistry major, cell by cell, with my head in a toilet on the 16th floor of the Willis Tower, an office building in downtown Chicago at the corner of Wacker and West Adams.

Still, I wonder if it’s possible to give too much. Did I give too much of myself away? Maybe I overdid it; in trying to be a perfect mom, I eroded the cornerstone of who I am. 

So, I made a choice. Not while my head was in the toilet but afterward, when my career ended up in the toilet. My choice was to quit working outside the home. After making it, I felt like a “quitter,” like I no longer mattered to society, to LinkedIn or to the notable alumni pages. I will never be invited back to campus as a distinguished speaker. I still answer the question “What do you do?” with “I do laundry.” Not long ago, in an act of defiance, I hung my diplomas in the laundry room.

Twenty years later, the decision to stop working outside the home is probably the only decision about parenting I don’t doubt. I am no longer embarrassed by my choice, but I still cringe at parties when someone tells me, “You know, I think it’s great you’re a stay-at-home mom.” Typically, the next line is something about what a great sacrifice I’ve made. Americans overuse the word “great” when we don’t know what else to say to each other. I didn’t make a great sacrifice. I just gave my energy away where it was needed most. I was busy. I have always been busy, just like my cells.

I learned from my daughter that transferring energy is something all cells do all the time. Cells transfer energy through cellular respiration, using oxygen to release the energy from the glucose molecules in, say, the cherry Danishes I like to eat. They store that energy in unstable ATP molecules linked by high-energy phosphate bonds. As proteins break the bonds, energy is released. Without protein there can be no broken bonds, no energy release, no biological order, no life. If we are alive, we are constantly releasing energy.

“Processes like cellular respiration and the miracle of conception and birth: The more I learn how perfectly designed and complicated they are, the more I am convinced of the existence of God.” My daughter taught me this.

So, who am I? My identity isn’t gained or earned. I didn’t work for it in an office, a gym, a classroom, at home with my kids or in the laundry room. My identity is made up of action words — learn, love, pray, give, forgive — converted into something I picked up along the way: a rock from the last ice age, a fragment of the universe, of time and erosion; the imperfect rock I will pick up along the shore of Lake Michigan when I’m searching for beach glass that is the perfect shade of blue.

But unlike the rock, identity isn’t static. It can’t be held in your palm, warmed by the sun.  Identity is kinetic, moving constantly as we make choices, as we transform ourselves and choose pathways that lead us to what defines us. The energy I receive from God, from the universe, from whatever cosmic, mundane or deity-well it springs, fuels the choices I make. My identity, who I am, is how I spend my energy and how I give it away; it’s the DNA in my cells, instructing the proteins in how to make one tough kooky.

Maraya Steadman is still going to the gym, still trying to lose the weight, drinking way too much coffee, wanting to be a better writer and seeking beach glass. She enjoys using -ing words, playing Wordle, wearing jeans and making fun of her editor. Contact her at MarayaSteadman@gmail.com.