Musings on motherhood by a woman who struggles to negotiate between being a mom and an individual.

Free to Be

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It’s 2013. Feels good. I think. Although the year 2013 does sound sci-fi.  I think it’s the “13”.  So I am not totally sure how I feel about the inception of this year.  I did, however, make a proclamation via Facebook where all important proclamation, declarations, exclamations, etc. are told for the world, or at least my “friends”, to marvel over.  Sure, it was the 31st and even thought it was probably only about 9PM, I had imbibed a bit too much but I meant the words I wrote.  At least I want to make sure I meant them. I do not enjoy eating my words; they get a tad stale.

For those of you who did not have the initial privilege of my proclamation of 2013, here it is: “Since I won’t be up till midnight, here’s the deal, friends. It’s all about being free. Being free to be you and me. So lets do it. No apologies. No faking it. No qualms about saying “fuck it” or “fuck you”. Now, bartender, another drink please. Cheers, friends!”  Here’s the deal: I am 35, I have a husband and 2 kids and I deal with an above average level of anxiety over what is a perpetual identity crisis. I do not entirely dislike this crisis; we all suffer from it to some extent and it is one of the things that has the potential to keep us motivated; to figure it the hell out.  Unfortunately, having the question “who am I??” running through your head all day every day can be paralyzing. I have been mostly paralyzed by this existential dilemma and I am sick of it.  There are a slew of complex reasons why this is so; childhood expectations, brain chemistry, fear of failure, life’s circumstances but that is boring and not the point.  The point is life happens and almost none of it is in our control. So I, and we, have to start with where we are now and what we have now and who we are now.  I have spent too long wondering who I would be had I not….or how would my life be different if I had decided….It doesn’t fucking matter.  Let me reiterate that: the past doesn’t fucking matter.  There are people, more like ghosts at this stage, in my life who dwell in the past. They wring their hands and scratch their heads and devise futile plans to change the past by insisting on reliving it.  I admit to having been one of those people; somehow determined to change what no longer existed in an attempt to become someone else; creating a false identity that might somehow replace the empty and lost one I walked around with day in and day out.  Dangerous indeed.  An identity that dwells in the past and worries about the future is a ghost; a vague shadowy form that haunts the present and shackles the only real identity anyone of us can hope for; the one that lives and breathes in this very moment. 

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My resolution to cure this identity crisis is about freeing myself from any guilt or regret or “what ifs” of the past.  Any failures or loss of opportunities or dashed hopes are lessons and only in that way do they define who I am.  This is the same for everyone; these things don’t define us.  Everyone walks with failure and pain and probably a little regret. And it’s OK. I’m surrendering all those burdens and I resolve to give myself the freedom to understand and embrace and love myself from where I sit now; a creative and curious woman, a grateful, hopeful, introspective, flawed, confident mother, wife, friend, daughter, and citizen. I’m opening it up; I’m removing the shackles I placed on myself.  Fuck it. And as for those of you out there who do not want to take this path, those ghosts and shadows of the past and demons of the future, I say with much aplomb, “Fuck you.”

Grief Forms

     “Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” Rumi

The minute I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I began the grieving process. I wanted to get pregnant so when that test read positive, I was not shocked or stunned.  I was excited and nervous and scared.  And a little sad. When reality slaps you across the face, it hurts and it leaves a mark; causes tears to shed.  It doesn’t matter if this dose of reality is of the happy or sad variety, it stings nonetheless. 

Of course, from that moment forward, my life was never the same. My appetite and moods changed, my body expanded and my priorities were reordered.  As the months went by, the reality that I would never be the girl, woman, friend, colleague, wife I was before sank in. The deeper it sank, the more I felt the pain of loss; the fear that I would not like who I would have to become.

How do you prepare to become a mother? You can’t. The idea that reading books and attending classes and talking to people and all that gets you ready for that experience is a myth. Everyone’s experience is different and the complexity of becoming a mother is so deep that it defies understanding. You just become one. It just happens. And the buildup to the big moment, when that little being exits yours, is a moment of great gain, and great loss.

In that momentous moment, grief stalls.  The enormity of life is too overwhelming and it swallows everything whole; the synapses in your brain that control your body are lagging and you are, in your exhaustion and raw elation, struggling to keep up with what has just happened.  It feels totally natural and totally alien, empowering and invalidating, joyous and sorrowful. And in this chaos, in this impossible negotiation, you cannot take a moment, not a breath to come to your senses.  The first thing I learned as a mother, minutes after giving birth, was that my heart and soul were capable of transcendent love.  The second thing I learned was that the luxury of self was gone; I was no longer just me, I was self and other; multiplied and divided.  I never had the luxury of telling my old self good bye. Everything from the thoughts in my head to the curves of my body to the smiles I smiled to the tears I cried were no longer mine; they were ours. And so the grief set in. Dug it’s fashionable heels right in and stayed.

I love my daughters. The fact that I feel the need to state that speaks directly to this issue.  The life I have with them has expanded and permanently changed my place on this earth. The peace and joy I feel when I hold them is truly as good as this life gets. But that doesn’t change or invalidate the fact that I still, many years later, still feel some of the loss I felt the day they were born. Mothers don’t get the luxury of feeling sad or angry or whatever. Fill in the blank. Once that guilt or regret creeps in, we shut it out and tell ourselves we are “bad” for feeling that way. Look at what we have after all! How can we possibly feel these things when we are so fortunate, when we have been given so much?? Let me tell you.  We can feel that way because we are human and we have the right to feel anything we want. And we are still individuals. That individuality means something new, something different but it remains. We have to make sure it does. We have to fight for it and own it.  It has taken me a long time to begin the dialogue with myself where I say “I am a woman first and a mother second”.  I think, and I am not sure, but I think the more I tell myself that and allow myself to mourn the loss of my independence, my career ambition, my old community of friends, the more my being will become whole. I will no longer have to categorize my identity because all the parts of me will harmonize, and I can stop grieving. 

What did I lose? Where did it go? Can it be found?  If the words at the beginning of this are correct, then I (and We) never lose anything.  It is easy to feel as if things (feelings, states of being, realities) are gone forever, especially in the face of something as life altering as having a child. It takes a great deal of honest reflection to accept that you must change; only then can you evolve. It’s that process of evolution where all that seems to be lost comes back. I was a woman; a wife, a friend, a teacher, an athlete, a singer in the shower, a fashion lover, a prankster, a rebel. Now I am all those things and more. Because when I look at my daughters, I see the form, the embodiment of my self looking back at me.  I found all those things I thought I lost in them. They are my evolution; my delight and solace. And that is joy. Not sadness, not regret; just joy. Pure and simple.

all images Gerhard Richter

The Good Wife

I suffer from guilt.  It’s like a disease I caught from growing up Catholic.  This disease is made more chronic by the condition of motherhood.  Every decision made involving my children leads to feeling guilty in some way.  I am just never quite sure if I made the absolute best decision possible. My children are not the only reason for my guilt.  My husband, a lovely, simple, loyal, funny Irishman did not know what he was getting himself into when he met a demanding, spoiled, independent, high-strung, irreverent, fake red headed girl from Texas.  For some reason that I still don’t fully understand, he fell in love with me and asked me to marry him.  Almost 6 years later, he still puts up with me in a way only he can.  He is solid as a rock, never complains, works hard for his family, and shows me and our daughters love through his sacrifices and complete devotion to us.  He is a rare gem.  And I am not worthy. 

I didn’t realize how hard being a good wife was until I had children.  Before children you and your husband or partner just have to worry about yourselves and each other. Stay out till midnight?? Sure! Have afternoon sex?? Sure!  Plan a last minute trip to lay around in a hotel room eating, drinking, and having sex?? Sure! Have an actual conversation over dinner?? Sure!  All those nice things that make being a couple so pleasurable go bye bye once kids come - at least for a while.  Being married or in a committed relationship is never easy and always requires effort, but maintaining a healthy connection with your significant other becomes a full time job after you have children.  Trying to divide your attention and time amongst multiple people is a true challenge, and we often fail.  Somethings gotta give.  Usually for women, that something is ourselves.  I hate that whole “I forgot to make myself a priority” mantra that Oprah seemed to ignite, but it is true.  The fact of the matter is that you can’t make yourself the priority.  What kind of a selfish loser would you be if you put yourself before your family?? My needs aren’t more important than my husband’s or my children’s needs - aren’t we all equally important?  The ideal answer is yes but the real answer is no.  If I am being honest, and I make it a point to be, I have to say that my children are at the top of my list, followed by yours truly, and bringing up the rear is my dear husband. 

Cringe.  The truth is I am much more selfish than I like to admit.  I have never been very good at sharing or not getting what I want.  The single most difficult thing about having children is accepting that you are not the center of your universe anymore.  I purposely fell in love with and married a man who understood that I needed a certain amount of control and he has always let my needs and wants come before his (I am convinced that he has no ego and that mine is big enough for the both of us). The problem is that children don’t have the intellectual or emotional capacity, or corruption, to negotiate these kinds of things.  They are the center of the universe, as they should be.  And because of this, you become dislocated; lost.  Where do I belong in this family unit?  Are we all separate planets circling each other, or are we inhabitants of the same planet, staking claim to our territory?  As a woman, I have tried desperately to be a separate planet; independent and self-sufficient.  But as a wife and a mother, I have had to reluctantly leave my own planet behind and trust that even though I am no longer the center of my own life, I am part of three other lives whose love and energy does, in fact, make me a better person. 

I may never figure out how to be the wife my husband deserves and probably needs and I may be setting up my children for unforeseen sorrow.  Despite regular therapy appointments, I will probably always harbor guilt about not telling my husband more often I love him, not thanking him for making my life more comfortable, not expressing my gratitude for holding this family together, not being more affectionate.  Amidst the critique of my shortcomings, I have learned that one of the best things I can do for myself and my family is to stop and give myself a damn break. I am flawed, but I am loved.  I am selfish and cranky and chemically imbalanced, but I am loved.  And although my opinion of myself changes daily, today, in this moment, I feel like a good mother and I dare say, a good wife.

And the Winner is?

One day I was at the grocery store and while waiting in line, a woman behind me strikes up a conversation.  Great, now I have to talk to someone.  After small talk about nothing in particular, she mentions that she thinks we have a mutual friend, and sure enough, we do.  By the time I have checked out, I have agreed to join her and some other moms at her house for a play date.  On the way home, I kept asking myself why I had agreed to this. What the hell is a play date anyway?  Am I supposed to bring something?  Who will be there?  Later that week, my daughter and I are getting ready for our play date. At the last minute, I decided to bring a bottle of wine.  I figured if these women were put off by the idea of wine during the day, then they weren’t women I wanted to spend time with.  And I was pretty sure I would need a drink. Or two. 

Later, at the play date, I was introduced to a group of women who were nice but clearly cut from a different cloth then me.  Conversation revolved around their kids (boring!), how they were getting resumes ready for their toddlers as applying for schools was nearing, church, decorating tips, jokes about their husbands, blah blah blah.  Really?? And the wine didn’t go over well.  No one offered to open it so it sat on the kitchen counter all alone, tempting me.  I mostly stayed quiet except when confronted with questions such as, “What classes do you have Ava enrolled in?”  Apparently if these kids weren’t taking swimming, art, music, and dance classes at the age of 2, their development was in jeopardy.  “Where does your husband work?” None of your business.  “Where do you live?” None of your business.  “My Sally already counts to 20 and knows sign language, does Ava?”  Shut up.  By the time we got out of there, I had used my anthropology skills and analyzed this odd group of humans and their odd activity, The Play Date. 

What it boiled down to, from my perspective, was a competition between a group of women from a similar socio-economic and cultural demographic. I know this because I grew up in this world.  Going to a world-class all girls private school in a city like Dallas as I did is a petri dish where proving your worth through your children and your possessions germinates.  I recall my mother struggling with this very thing.  She didn’t want to be thrown into the ring of competitive mothers but she felt she had no choice.  Even though she felt she didn’t have much in common with most of the women, since she was a housewife like them, she too was looking for a bond of some sort and eventually, her identity was based, at least partially, on comparing herself to other women whose identities were as lost as hers.

 I am sure that, like me, she felt that none of these “play date” mothers were interested in getting to know her as a person and none of them seemed willing to have an honest talk with one another about anything, motherhood or otherwise.  To me, it seemed they were on parade, showing off their ballet flats they paid too much for, their newly colored hair and expensive boring handbags while their children tore the house apart and did not behave as the rocket scientists in the making their mothers advertised them as.  They were not there to support one another but to compare themselves and their children to each other.  I left there wondering if any of them had any hobbies or interests.  I wondered if they ever felt like getting in the car and driving without stopping for days?  Then it dawned on me that these women weren’t malicious and even though they seemed dull clones of one another, they were just falling into a role cast for them.  Who was I to judge their behavior?  After all, I was the one who wanted to get tipsy in the middle of the day.  Not the best parenting in the world.  The difference, however, is I am not ashamed to admit that I need a drink now and again. Okay, every day.  I am not projecting my own struggles and vulnerabilities onto my children by trying to make them better than other children.  The sad truth is that a lot of women, especially mothers, have lost themselves to such an extent that the only way they can communicate is through this veil of competition.  We often feel we have nothing to offer so we use our children and trivial things like possessions to prove who we are, to make us fit in. 

I have been on the brink of this madness and still worry about falling victim. I believe wholeheartedly in making sacrifices to raise your children but I also believe it is imperative to keep your identity (sense of self, how you understand your place in the world) separate from you children.  This requires a conscious determination and effort. Everyday you have to ask yourself: what am I curious about?  How do I want to spend my time?  You have to be willing to admit that you don’t want to spend all your time focusing on your children. Our sense of worth as mothers doesn’t come from how we stack up to other mothers or how “gifted” our children are.  Our worth comes from being ourselves, authentically and without apology.  Our sense of worth can only flourish when we nourish ourselves with the same zeal we nourish our children.  I can’t say for sure, but I am pretty certain that if the women I’ve met at play dates, my mother, and the women she competed with for many, many years, would have reminded themselves every morning that they were individuals and had intellectual and spiritual strengths beyond motherhood they would have approached each other and life in a more honest and authentic way.  Only then can women truly support each other, which is so crucial. 

I personally refuse to compete with other women on this level.  Put me in a trivia match or a marathon and I’ll compete but I refuse to let my role as a mother become competitive.  My role as a mother has nothing to do with making up for my shortcomings; has nothing to do with my ego.  If I enter this boxing match, my children are the ones who will nurse the black eyes and bloody lips.  When you have children, you’ve already won the greatest prize of all. What makes us losers is when we pretend our children complete us and we lose sight of our own ambitions and desires.  What makes us winners (thank you Mr. Sheen) is when we maintain our own individuality and pass that strong sense of self and integrity onto our children.  No one loses in this scenario and we are all, in fact, winning.

All You Need is Love

Several times a day, amidst the chaos, I stop and think about these two faces.  Thinking about my children, seeing them, kissing them, cuddling with them, just being in their presence is the only thing in my life that brings me pure joy.  There is no way to articulate the feeling of love you have for your children - it transcends language and is totally visceral.  It is awesome, and it is the reason that all of the struggle surrounding motherhood is worth it.

Here is what makes being a mother “worth it” for me:  the funny way my 3 year old daughter says “mama” - it sounds like “moe-ma”, when she tells me I am beautiful, how her imagination allows her to create a universe that only she understands, watching her sing any variety of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or Rhianna songs with total commitment, her squishy belly that hangs over her little underwear, how much she adores her baby sister, watching how other people light up when they interact with her, her laughter that comes from deep inside her gut, her child smell, her big eyes…

And then there is my 6 month old.  She smiles when I enter the room, she giggles and reaches for my face, she smells like the sweetest smell on Earth, she stares into my eyes with real intensity, she has fat on her thighs and butt that I could pinch for days.   The thing with both of them, and children in general, that smashes my heart to bits is that they are new and unvarnished by the world.  All they want to do is give and receive love.  For all of its complications, parenting is all about expressing love to your children in every way possible.  Knowing how to parent doesn’t come naturally, but the unconditional love you feel is raw and real and sublime.  I am privileged to have these two perfect souls in my life.  Sometimes I have to remind myself, when my ego starts to confuse my clarity, that all you need is love. 

The Good, the Flab, and the Ugly

During both of my pregnancies, I worked out until about one week of delivering my children.  Impressive, right?  Aside from the fact that I genuinely enjoy being fit, I was also scared about getting my “normal” body back post pregnancy, so I forced myself to get by ever-growing ass and belly into the gym.  As I have mentioned before, one of the most difficult parts of pregnancy is watching your body change and knowing that things will probably never look or feel the way they did before.

We are expected to push that baby out after many months of eating like horses and having our skin stretched beyond belief and our breasts (and many other body parts) blow up like balloons, and still keep it all together.  Call it vanity, or whatever you want, but there is damage done to a woman’s ego and identity when the body they have known all of their lives is transformed, if not deformed, by pregnancy.  Looking in the mirror at sagging skin, stretch marks, a chest that looks as if it was inflated with air and later sags to your feet, dark spots that weren’t there before, etc., etc. is many things: depressing, frustrating, just plain sad, and confusing.  Will I look like this forever?  Will I ever feel sexy again?  Your self confidence is lost somewhere in those folds of skin, and the pressure from all sides to get “back to normal” doesn’t help the situation. 

The first time you leave the house, or have someone over, one of two things happens - they either say “You look great!” or they don’t say anything at all.  But you can see them looking.  Their is a silent evaluation going on and you start to imagine what they are saying to themselves and each other when you aren’t around.  “She still looks pregnant”, “I hope she is breastfeeding”, “Did she always have that double chin?”.  Open any magazine and there are sure to be photos of celebs post baby in bikinis frolicking on the beach saying to you “You’ll never look this good!”  It is possible that we are imaging these things but that doesn’t make the effects of such criticism any less real or painful.  It is true that too much of our value in society is based on our appearance, so much so that it has spawned an epidemic of self criticism.  I have personally never been more hateful towards myself as I was after giving birth.  Sad.  I hated that I wasn’t who I used to be and that there seemed to be no acknowledgement of my personal crisis.  I was emotionally overwhelmed, fat, exhausted, insecure about how to mother properly.  It took me a long time to accept the consequences of childbirth and to know that the negative feelings I had were normal.  Yes, they are normal.

Of course the upside of this is that you have a child.  The flab and the ugly are masked (for the most part) by the good - your baby and the power of unconditional love.  I still look at my breasts and wonder why my husband wants to touch them and I still long for the day when the flab that hangs over my probably too tight jeans goes away.  But I also still eat cupcakes, drink a lot of wine, and dance around my house singing Lady Gaga with my daughter.  My children don’t care if my tits and ass sag and ironically, they have always and will always love me for me.  If I hate myself as a result of creating them, then I am doing them, myself, and all women, a disservice. 

Bun in the Oven

I haven’t researched it and don’t plan to, but I would bet that this silly euphemism originated from the (obvious) connection between women and the kitchen (womb = oven; baby = bun). So…women cook food and babies, right?  If so, “cooking” a baby is a delicate, exhausting, and extremely important task.  Thank god, for people like me, some higher power is responsible for the recipe.  The point is this: by equating a womb with an oven the literal and figurative meaning of the oven is elevated which in turn degrades women.  I mean, can we ever escape the damn kitchen??  Why do our wombs have to be Martha Stewartized??   I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that dull, bitchy woman anywhere near by womb, literally or figuratively. 

Back to the original point: getting knocked up.  I’ve been there twice and I have strongly disliked it both times.  Both pregnancies were planned so I thought I knew what I was getting myself into but there is no way to predict what happens to you while knocked up.  I’m sorry, pregnant.  Hello tits, bye bye ass.  Hello demon bitch, bye bye rational person.  Hello incontinence, bye bye sexy panties.  There is something awesome and miraculous about what happens during pregnancy, no doubt about it.  And some of my favorite days were the ones I knew I was going to the doctor for a sonogram. The hardest thing for me was surrendering my physical body to this other being.  Your body is literally taken over and if you have the gift of insight, you know that your mental and emotional “body” will be hijacked as well. 

Some women feel beautiful and glowing.  They relish in creating life and some of them even go so far as to put on display their big, fat - I’m sorry, beautifully round and resplendent - bodies. To me, being pregnant was something sacred and private - when other people wanted to touch my belly I wanted to slap them.  When people I didn’t know very well asked all kinds of questions about the pregnancy, I felt uncomfortable.  So when “people” like Demi Moore and the always classy Mariah Carey put their half naked bun in the oven bodies on the cover of magazines and assume people give a shit and are “oohing and ahhing” instead of vomiting in their mouths, it makes me simultaneously cringe and laugh.  Look at Mariah, with that vacant, inappropriate seductive look on her face.  I would respect her more if she was sitting on the toilet, trying to go number two, eating a donut, with giant bags under her eyes. At least her representation would be authentic and accurate.  I have to wonder if regular women look at images like this and think “I wish I looked like that pregnant” or “if Mariah is proud of her growing body, then why aren’t I?”  I hope they don’t.  I think the illusion created by the media and idiots like Mariah Carey about the reality of being a pregnant woman and consequently a mother is a travesty. 

The difficulties of motherhood don’t start when the baby is born; they start when you find out you are pregnant.  It is a complicated mix of beauty and ugliness and at the end of the day, it would be nice to say, “I’m fat, I’m tired, I’m scared, I’m overwhelmed” without Mariah-I make bad music and dress like a slut-Carey shoving her half baked, airbrushed bun in our uninterested and bloated faces, making us feel unnecessarily sick and inadequate.

Introduction

In 1963, Sylvia Plath put her head in her own oven, turned on the gas, and slowly died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  She was only 30 years old, had two small children, and was divorced. She also happened to be a brilliant writer whose work had an intense personal element. 

This is not a blog about Sylvia Plath.  It is a blog about being a woman and a mother.  Since I have been a mother (I have two daughters; 3 years and 5 months old) I have often  thought about Ms. Plath, among other “famous” mothers, and their process of motherhood.  There is something about the imagery and symbolism of the oven that hits me on a gut level.  As a society, our collective imagination knows “mother” as someone in an apron, standing in front of an open oven, with some delicious dish in her hands, and a smile (albeit fake) on her face.  June Cleaver may be “dead” but the idealization of the perfect mother is not.  One euphemism for pregnancy is “there’s a bun in the oven”.  You get the point. 

I am sure the symbolism and poetic gesture of killing herself with the very thing that simultaneously defined and tortured her was not lost on Ms. Plath.  And I have to say, I get it.  And I find it disturbingly beautiful.  (No, I am not suicidal, but I appreciate her tragic and grand gesture).

How many times have I said to myself, “I am going to put my head in the oven” when I feel overwhelmed by being a wife and parent?  How much money have I paid my therapist to help me, on a professional level, deal with the transition from career minded young woman to stay at home mom/wife whose years seem to just tick by with no consequence?  The fact of the matter is that being a mother, perhaps I should say parent seeing as mothers are no longer necessarily female, is tortuous at times.  It hurts on a physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, metaphysical, existential level.  It isn’t all fuzzy with joy all the time.  I have to say I am fed up with the way motherhood is portrayed and the way so many women (a lot that I know personally) sugar coat the realities of this very complicated task and privilege.  I want to start a conversation with mothers/parents out there who act as an oven for 9 months and once the baby pops out are loaded up with unrealistic expectations that eventually leads to a great struggle for identity.  Do children bring joy? Of course.  Do parents love their children in infinite ways.  Of course.  But is it okay to think and feel that in becoming a parent you loose a lot of yourself?  Is it okay to admit that there are days you feel like you made a mistake by having children?  Is it okay to sympathize, even a tiny bit, with Sylvia Plath’s oven stunt?  I don’t think it is. I think we are expected to have children, feel the joy, and shut up about it.  And I think this is bullshit.  I want to get real about this thing called motherhood. I want to go inside the oven.

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