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By Irena Ioannou

“So, how are you keeping?” Each mother asks the newcomer once she joins the fourth birthday party we’ve all been invited to, since the start of the school year. We’re all sitting crammed on plastic chairs, outside on the balcony, so our children can take over the whole house unobstructed. It’s brimming mothers out there, the birthday party the reason we go together, the reason we are in this together.

In the last years, to be honest, I can’t remember any other reason that I meet other people. It’s the children’s needs that come first and their need to play with other children, children of their own age, whom they know, and whose company they enjoy. And of course, classmates’ parties. God forbid, we miss any of those. Once, when I was sick, my son suggested to my husband that he skip work to take him. It seems children, as opposed to us, have come to realize and demand on top, that their needs are respected and served on the spot.

What makes it all the more pronounced that somehow, along the way from becoming a wife, and then a mother, my needs for either privacy, or to hang out with people I would choose as my friends, new people, outside the circle of work, family or classmates’ parents, have lost priority.

Talking to other mothers at birthday parties, I realize we are all in the same boat. The news and the stories we exchange revolve around our daily routines, which disappointedly come down to our children’s problems at school, the time-consuming after-school activities, or what we cooked for dinner. Sometimes our conversations sound trifle and trite, even though all the mothers are well-educated and accomplished in their fields.

I try to imagine what my younger self would say to me, if she eavesdropped and listened to my conversations with my new acquaintances. I imagine her pouting and thinking, “This is not me! Somebody must have abducted me and put a clone in my place”.

Having four children, I could call myself a veteran, and I can’t deny that meeting new mothers has also a funny side attached to it. There is an eagerness to fit in, that I detect in new mums, an eagerness that I remember in myself, along with the thrill that every mother experiences when she receives her first invitation to a mother’s group. Because let’s face it: We interpret our children’s acceptance by their peers as a reflection of our own acceptance as mothers. Nobody wants to invite an obnoxious child, with an equally irritating mother. We’re still seeking to be accepted by others, no matter our age.

Sometimes I ask if this is all I am—a mother? And I don’t imply that being a mother is not the MOST important role in the life of a woman. It is, at least to most of the women I know. But why are we allowing ourselves to be seen as only mothers to the exclusion of everything else? Why don’t we demand for ourselves the time and the fulfillment of the needs that our children and husbands consider self-evident? Why is it so easy to fall into the trap of the always-serving, never-complaining mother? And who are we to blame?

Sometimes, I think motherhood has served as an excuse of sorts to me. Stuck between deeply rooted stereotypes and the craving to belong, on one side, and my own discomfort and emptiness on the other, I always had trouble defining who I really am. And then motherhood appeared like God from heaven to fill that gap.

You’re a mother, people say, and that encompasses all. Well, they’re wrong. I already had trouble finding myself, before that hurricane called ‘children’ stormed in. How can I discover who I really am, now that I don’t even have time to take a bath in peace? Sticking your head in the sand and waiting for the danger to pass never helped anyone.

And we’re certainly not happy with our heads in the ground. Because every time I attend a birthday party, I get the feeling that at least half the women there would prefer to be someplace else, do something completely different and have a meaningful discussion that doesn’t contain the words: children, husband, work, or household chores. But still. Why does even the thought of demanding some time for ourselves, let’s say two-three hours every Thursday evening, or every other Thursday, sound too extreme even to our own ears? Why do we feel too overwhelmed to even negotiate for our own needs for once? What are we afraid we’ll discover? The truth about how we’re really keeping?

But I guess I have to stop thinking now, because I have to run. My children are complaining we’ll be late, and I haven’t bought the present yet. We have another birthday party to attend.

Irena Ioannou writes from Crete, Greece and her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Betty FedoraFlash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, MortarOTV, and elsewhere. She is a mother of four.