“I am a mother.” I read those words, and I hear them over and over again. Before Ellie (shorthand maybe should be B.E?), I never really thought twice about them. But now I “am” a mother, the question of what that statement actually weighs resounds in my skull, like a bowling ball ricocheting down the aisle (bowling ball analogies are on my mind, now that my baby is starting to feel as heavy as one).
I don’t think in terms of “I am a mother.” I think more in terms of one of my new functions or roles as mothering, or parenting. It’s like saying “I am an arts researcher,” or “I am a writer.” I am not either of those things – I do those things. Similarly, I do mothering – that does not make me a label.
I don’t mean to offend anyone here. I know that being a mother is an incredible responsibility and task and job and life choice. It just confounded me to think in terms of this new name for who I am.
Perhaps it is a cultural evolution – we Gen X and Yers refuse to be defined by our roles, but prefer to think of ourselves as individuals, functioning in different ways in different settings. We like to think of ourselves as having something fundamental at the core of all our fleeting journeys – a sort of modern, ego-based Western take on the Hindu “atman,” the constant consciousness that underpins all else.
That said, I think it has always been a gender thing too. My husband is a “father,” but he pointed out that society does not define him by that, but rather more by his job.
When I had Ellie, I had a crisis. I really do think of having a baby in those terms, even though it sounds melodramatic, but really it is just a definitional issue. Not all crises are bad, but they are nevertheless major events which change everything. That was Ellie.
As a woman in her 30s, I long had the reins over my day. I knew when I was going to eat, how long I would have to sleep for, what I was going to do. I had a sure sense of myself as a writer, a well respected policy consultant, an good friend, a kind wife, an interesting individual worth getting to know.
And then Ellie came. Suddenly, I did not know myself. Part of that may have been the intense sleep deprivation of the first couple of weeks, which made me feel a little crazy (another story for another post). My identity had fundamentally shifted, and I didn’t know where to.
After the third day at home with Ellie, I spoke to my husband. I had always thought I would take a year off and be with the baby. I had always thought I would relish that year off, and I still may. But I had to say some things out loud, things I wasn’t sure it was OK to say as a mother – but there they were.
“I am not sure this full-time mothering is for me. I have realised something about myself, and that is if I am only doing one thing, I tend to obsess about it. I need more than one focus. I may want to go back to some part-time work in a few months.”
It was hard to admit that I may not be cut out for full-time mothering. It’s not that I don’t love my baby. It’s not that I don’t enjoy her. But I also enjoy my mind. I had long drawn (partly unbeknownst to me) a lot of my identity from what I did. Like a doctor from the 1950s, I had become what I did and now that I didn’t do it any more, I was at sea. Maybe for me, the Gen-X/Gen-Y evolution really just meant that women as well as men are now defined by their work, and now that I wasn’t, I didn’t know where to draw my sense of self any more.
I think it was more than that, though. It was deeper – it went further than changing my idea of myself from worker/breadwinner to mother/carer. It was taking on the responsibility of a whole, separate life, one I would now have to care for, for the rest of mine. In practical terms, that meant a vast portion of the time I used to have completely at my own disposal would now be dedicated to another individual’s needs and activities. For now that meant her sleeping and feeding. In a few years it will mean her soccer and playgroups, doctors and schools, camps, and eventually her own life crises, which I hope to be there for. In identity terms, that meant working out who I was in that bigger picture of our lives together, with my new job as mother.
I thought I had been ready to give up my time. I had had my fill of time to myself, and being selfish ( in the sense that I had only my own self to think about). I was ready to give. But when Ellie came along, the reality of the hours and energy that would take came home to me and I guess I quietly freaked out.
Now that I am getting more sleep (we have devised a night shift system which makes me feel guilty but better rested – I said to my husband yesterday, “I’m still exhausted, but I think I am nicer to be around,” to which he assented), and some time has passed, the crisis is settling into a life shift, as all crises do. I am getting used to my new role, and the new pattern to my days (which is basically, do what the baby wants to do). I am writing tentatively, here again, which helps my brain. And I am still thinking and pondering because how could I not? In short, I have started to assimilate my new role as mother into my other roles as thinker, feeler, ponderer, wonderer, reader, writer, lover, political unit of democracy, tax payer, friend.
I would really like to know what other women have thought about this topic. I know so many other smart, do-ing women who have had babies and who must have some fascinating insights for me and others on the shift in identity and how they manage it daily. What happened in your minds (and bodies) when you became mothers? How did you “become” a mother?