How Can I Define Myself With Just One Word?

BlogHer Original Post

I am not one thing, I am many. I am a flower with many petals; I am a pinwheel. I am a doodle of a work in progress.

If you had asked me twenty years ago to define myself in one word, it would have been an incredibly easy task. I was an actor. Classically trained, focused, determined, and set on achieving a successful career on the stage.

I had dedicated much of my life towards becoming that singular word and claiming it felt authentic and natural. When I embarked on real life as a performer, I quickly realized something deeply important: I am not competitive. Being an actor was not going to be the THING for me.

I took a jump over to the other side of the industry and dove into work as an assistant to a film director. Within weeks if you had asked me to define myself, I would have quickly explained how my job defined me. I relished the long hours, inside information, being two degrees away from celebrity. But after over six years of grueling work and a brain full of useless film facts, I was able to walk away when I needed to.


Image Credit: Illustration from The Playwork Book, via The Library of Congress

Because the bigger defining parts of my life hadn't even happened yet.

When I was 29, my grandfather died. On the heels of his funeral, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. There was no wavering moment about who would help take care of her. I would do it. I would of course do it.

It didn't matter that I lived across the country. I would move. It didn't matter that my grandmother was often annoyed or exasperated by me. We could become reacquainted. It didn't matter that I had no idea what being a caregiver meant. I simply knew I would be there for her as she had been there for me and my mother when I was a kid.

The first several months as a caregiver were shocking. My grandmother was furious at her failing memory, and I was confused about how to offer help without making her feel helpless. For the first time in a very long time I had no idea who I was. Was I a roommate? A companion? A full-time granddaughter?

Soon a routine was born. I woke up before my grandmother and placed her morning pills in a dish in her bathroom. I prepared her breakfast and helped her get dressed.

I drove my grandmother to doctor appointments or her weekly hair appointment. I listened to her stories. I comforted her. I sat with her. I read with her. I listened to music with her. I cried with her.

I gave her care. I was her caregiver.

For almost seven years, I gave care to my grandmother. She battled Alzheimer's, and I stood beside her, propping her up and helping her face each day.

Some of the hardest days I have ever known were days as a caregiver. I witnessed the unraveling and decline of a human being, and there is nothing precious about that. I also experienced love, joy, forgiveness, and truth as a caregiver. There are no photo filters on your day.

Being my grandmother's caregiver led to another defining moment for me: the decision to become a single mother by choice.

I don't think I ever would have been able to articulate the song and desire in my heart if I wasn't experiencing life as a caregiver. The hows and whys of deciding to become a parent don't always define a person, but for me I know caregiving inspired the desire to parent.

Wanting to parent led to failing to achieve pregnancy, which led to years where I would define myself as infertile. The world was divided into those who had children and those who did not, and the longer it took me to cross over, the more bitter and brittle I became.

It worried me. I did not like feeling so out of control and negative. I did not like having such a duality to my life: nurturing and loving granddaughter / angry and self loathing infertile.

When I did finally achieve a successful and viable pregnancy, I became defined by something else: poverty.

My family had an unexpected and complete loss of income, and we went from stability and security to food stamps and WIC. My mother, who also contributed care for my grandmother, was the breadwinner of our family unit, and she suddenly was out of work and without any prospects.

For way longer than we would have liked, we existed thanks to the kindness of friends and assistance from government programs. Being poor shaped every moment of every day.

My son was born in the Spring of 2009, and my grandmother passed away six months later. My family eventually turned the corner, and we have been rebuilding our lives.

If you asked me to define my life now, I would not be able to sum it up in one word. I would ask you to sit down and have a conversation.

I am not an actor, but I used to be. I am not in the film industry, but oh, the things I could tell you!

I am no longer my grandmother's caregiver, but I will always consider myself a caregiver.

I successfully gave birth to a healthy son, but I still weep over the struggle it took for him to get here.

My family is no longer on food stamps or WIC, but that doesn't mean I am not terrified we might be on it again. I am the sum and collection and intersection of so much.

Dresden blogs about single parenting, plaid, and benevolence at and tweets about needing more coffee at @DresdenPlaid


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