On Motherhood and Losing Myself

7 Sep

I remember the first time it happened – it was shortly after Theo’s birth and I was still in the hospital. My mother and husband were in the room with me when the nurse came in to do something – maybe weigh him or help bathe him or check his vital signs. After she finished, she said, “all right, now I’ll give him back to mom,” and I was momentarily confused. Why was she handing my son off to my mother? Shouldn’t she give him to me or my husband?

And then I realized that she had, in fact, meant to give Theo back to me. Mom meant me. I was mom. My mother, meanwhile, had graduated to “Grandma.” The nurse left before I had the chance to tell her that my name was Anne, although if she’d really wanted to know that she could have just looked at my chart.

I got used to the name Mom, though, and faster than I’d thought I would. I started using it to refer to myself in the third person when I spoke to my son: “Mama loves you so much,” I would say to him. “Mama’s just going to change your diaper, and then you’ll be much more comfortable.” “Mama’s making your dinner, but don’t worry, she’ll be really fast!” “Ma-ma. Can you say ma-ma? Ma-ma. I’m your mama. Ma-ma.” By the time Theo was eight months old, he would howl “Maaaaaaaaa-maaaaaaaaa” every time he wanted me, and I felt a funny sense of triumph whenever I heard him call me. He knew my name. I was Mama.

I wasn’t the only one who referred to myself as “Mom” or “Mama” either. My husband did it whenever he was in front of our son, even when he was talking directly to me – after all, we wanted to keep things consistent and easy to understand for Theo, didn’t we? My mother did it, too. So did my sisters. And as my son got older and we started making the rounds of playgroups and library programs and sing-alongs, the other parents (almost exclusively women) referred to me as “Theo’s mom.” Not that I was any better – I didn’t know any of their names, either. We were all just so-and-so’s mom, as if that were our name or our job title or maybe the most fascinating fact about us. 

Admittedly, there were a lot of things in my life that made me feel as if being a mother was the most fascinating thing about me, or at least the best, most noble thing about me. Strangers smiled at me, and offered me their seat on the bus. People working in customer service were more polite and attentive, whereas before I felt as if I’d often been brushed off. Everyone took me more seriously. It was as if by giving birth I’d somehow gained some strange kind of respectability. I wasn’t just that weird girl who talked too much and cried easily; I wasn’t just another person who had never reached their full potential. I was a mother, and according to a lot of people I’d fulfilled exactly as much of my potential as I needed to. And while on some level that fact was embarrassingly gratifying, mostly because I’d never felt so much societal approval before, underneath that gratification was a restless, howling anxiety. 

I wasn’t the only one in our household to be given a new title, of course. My husband became “Daddy,” a name that also carries some baggage with it. But he didn’t seem to feel as if he was losing himself, the way that I did – and it does seem to bear pointing out that our circumstances were vastly different. Every day, while I stayed at home with our son, my husband went to work. Every day, while I sat on the couch and cried over how fucking hard breastfeeding was, while I took a deep breath and tried not to scream with frustration because my kid was inconsolably exhausted but absolutely would not nap, while I stripped off yet another urine-soaked onesie and brightly-coloured cloth diaper only to watch in horror as my son chose that exact moment to unleash a jet of poop, my husband went back to the Land of the Adults, a country that we both called home but from which I had temporarily been exiled. Every day, while I opened my laptop and tried yet again – through frighteningly hive-minded online parenting communities, frantic status updates on Facebook, and emails to my family – to find the training manual for my overwhelming new job, my husband went back to his same old job, where he could take hour-long lunches and everyone called him by his real name.

No. It wasn’t the same thing at all.

I tried not to feel like I’d somehow lost something, because how could I have lost something? I hadn’t lost anything; I was still the same person, wasn’t I? Even if I felt like I’d lost myself, I was clearly still there. I still existed. On top of that, it seemed unbelievably selfish to frame it in terms of “loss” when, in fact, I’d gained a perfect baby – especially when several of my friends were struggling in various ways to become parents. And I’d wanted this, hadn’t I? Becoming a mother had been my choice. So how could I complain?

Another layer to my unease lay in the fact that if I felt like I’d lost some part of identity, then had my mother experienced the same thing when she’d given birth to me? It seemed impossible that she had ever been anything other than what she was, namely my mother; and yet that selfish feeling of impossibility was almost certainly evidence of the part that I had played in who she had become. For a long time I’d thought that I would never grow up to be my mother, because my mother’s life had always seemed so constrained and limited. Now I saw that I was the one who had limited it. 

Maybe saying that becoming a mother was my choice wasn’t quite the right way to put it. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I chose to become a parent, and then society gave me the label “mother” with all of its loaded associations. After all, what is there specifically about being a woman that says that you have to lose yourself completely once you have a kid? Isn’t it possible that if we lived in a world that treated motherhood and fatherhood equally – a world where we called it parental leave instead of maternity leave, a world that was just as accepting of stay-at-home fathers as it was of stay-at-home mothers, a world where women couldn’t expect their wage to decrease by 4% for every child they have – then women wouldn’t feel as if having children was a deeply personal sacrifice?

I mean, of course you have to give some stuff up once you have a child. I’m not saying that your life should stay exactly the same. But you shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself.

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41 Responses to “On Motherhood and Losing Myself”

  1. Ejhorne September 7, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    “Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I chose to become a parent, and then society gave me the label “mother” with all of its loaded associations.” Absolutely fab. Your post was really well written and refreshingly honest – it touched on so many important issues – thanks for sharing.

  2. Amanda Martin (writermummy) September 7, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    Amen amen.

  3. addyeB September 7, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

    YES. Exactly. That’s all I’ve got because this was spot on. I’ve struggled mightily with this since having Austin last November. I had a three month long depressive episode where I felt like I was dead after him, my third. I felt trapped. So fucking trapped and like I was fading. I so get this.

  4. barefootmedstudent September 7, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    Now you have me wondering if this happened to my mom. I will have to find a way of asking her. I don’t have kids of my own yet but I’ve been wondering about this phenomenon for a while and it kind of scares me.

    • Woollythinker September 8, 2014 at 9:19 am #

      It is scary, and awful in many ways (some not even touched on in this wonderful essay, eg having to erase your own needs – even pressing physical needs, never mind emotional and social ones – to take care of kids), and basically it’s a miracle any of us survive the early phases of motherhood. BUT it does get better. A lot better. It’s always hard, but by the time they’re in kindergarten you feel more like a person again.

      I think it’s important to talk about these problems, a lot, and to see how women specifically are screwed over by diverse and sundry factors surrounding motherhood, and maybe even work towards changing them. (Not all countries seem to have it quite so bad. It doesn’t have to be so bad.) But if you do want kids – big if – take heart, it does get better. Plus, if you have a good support network, and can access childcare and get out to work at least sometimes, those things help immeasurably. So… Don’t be scared. Be angry. But don’t be scared.

  5. Deb September 7, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

    Wonderful take on the whole social labeling concept, and we in society do so like to label. I have long identified as “mom” but as a feminist always felt some measure of guilt about it through all the stay-at-home years, the return-to-work years and everyday in between. Now with the label of “grandma” all things come into perspective a bit more. Maybe if we individually look beyond the labels associated with parenting and just accept who we are and what we do for our kids as okay then we can say to hell with socially accepted labels and simply be there for our kids in whatever way they need.

  6. AmazingSusan September 7, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on a dog's breakfast and commented:
    Maaamaaaaa!!!

  7. Palmier September 8, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    Bless you! This is so beautifully written, brutally honest and just what society needs to hear! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  8. Palmier September 8, 2014 at 12:51 am #

    Reblogged this on Palm Theory and commented:
    It is important to know what our mothers went through and what we will possibly undergo in future.

  9. michelleshenhouse September 8, 2014 at 1:44 am #

    Reblogged this on Michelle's Hen House.

  10. J September 8, 2014 at 2:35 am #

    I’ve never really put my finger on it, but I haaaaaate when my girls’ developmental team refer to me to each other as “Mom.” It sounds so… diminishing, I guess? I love being a mom. Honestly, I have for the past three years really embraced the whole idea that I didn’t have to be anyone else as long as I was Mom (obviously unhealthy, working on it). But when THEY say it, I get really uncomfortable. I want to tell them it’s not my name. I’m actually prepping myself for the upcoming IEP meetings so I’ll be ready to say “if you don’t mind, I’d actually rather be called Julie.”

  11. hhappy3220tw September 8, 2014 at 2:56 am #

    每一個人都帶著使命來在這個世界上的。

  12. MarinaSofia September 8, 2014 at 7:53 am #

    I remember almost having a heart attack when the children in my son’s class called me ‘X’s Mum’ instead of my own name or even Mrs. Something or Other (I kept my maiden name though, so that would have been a bit challenging for 6 year olds). But then, I am guilty of the same thing – I tend to remember people by their children’s names rather than their own names – my only excuse is that I don’t discriminate – I do that for both genders.

  13. Kylie September 8, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    In The Park

    She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
    Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
    A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
    Someone she loved once passed by – too late

    to feign indifference to that casual nod.
    “How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
    From his neat head unquestionably rises
    a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”

    They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
    the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
    to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”
    she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
    the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
    To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”

    Gwen Harwood

  14. zoemozer September 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Really nice and interessting post! 🙂
    much love from http://devilreturnsprada.wordpress.com/

  15. Into the Soul September 8, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Sometimes it is strange to hear my name … I can go days without anyone calling me anything other than mum. it.

  16. sallyparnisartist September 8, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    Your posts are so spot on. I can identify with all of this and especially the light bulb moment with respect to my own beloved Mother. Whose name is Barbara. 🙂

  17. cllgarrison September 8, 2014 at 11:41 pm #

    Reblogged this on CARLI GARRISON and commented:
    Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the “mother” me and the “wife” me and the actual me and who I was before. Five months into this SAHM thing and it’s really been on my mind lately! She says it perfectly, as usual.

  18. Ann (aka Bill's mom and Robert's mom) September 9, 2014 at 1:12 am #

    Parents are known as “mother of —” or “father of —-” in other places around the world, according to
    https://www.fbiic.gov/public/2008/nov/Naming_practice_guide_UK_2006.pdf:

    “17.7 The following components may also be included in a full version of an Arabic name:

    a. ancestral name: derived from an honoured ancestor, this name typically begins with Al- or ibn:
    e.g. Al-Husain, ibn Sau’d;

    b. honorific title as parent: Abu… (N. Africa Bu / Bou) meaning ‘father of…’ and Umm… meaning ‘mother of…’ can be added to the beginning of a name in conjunction with the name of the individual’s eldest child, usually the eldest son:
    e.g. Abu Muhammad – ‘father of Muhammad’
    Umm Muhammad – ‘mother of Muhammad’.”

  19. Josie September 9, 2014 at 9:04 am #

    Oh my goodness yes! I signed up to ‘parent’, not ‘mother’! Well spoken.

  20. Louise September 9, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    Great post – I’ve often felt this and tried to work through the thought process of what should change when you become a parent (because things obviously do and the world is no longer all about you in a very clear way) and what shouldn’t (ie: you are still you and entitled to exist on some level separate from motherhood).

    Always a struggle between the two; between the views others place on you and the motherhood role – this is wonderfully written!

  21. Perdita September 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    One of my own mother’s pieces of advice to me (I am pregnant) seemed odd until I read this… “always call each other by your names when talking to each other, even in front of the baby…” – I can see now why it seems such a good idea. And I was never confused or anything as a child (in fact I was more surprised when I remember realising some of my friends didn’t know their mum or dad’s real names). I still call them mum and dad – but they call each other their names and always have.
    I wonder if it is because she is also a teacher (as am I) … a job where you become “Miss” with no name (or marital status) and no identity bar the caregiver – sometimes in the eyes of male bosses too – unless you are careful.

  22. aqilaqamar September 11, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Motherhood doesn’t only mean that you become a mother. When women become mothers they are not simply that. It is hard to make a mainstream society reconcile with labels and how they are horrible many a times to live under.

  23. Penny September 13, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    My son used to refer to himself in the first and third person sometimes when he was first learning to speak,he would say “Me go do this” or “Boy go play now”. Role titles and grammar are all part of language acquisition, I thought it was fascinating, this went along with mispronunciation of words and so forth too….but the role designation of Mum or Mom or Mama is a powerful one, and of course one of the first ones, dada and grans and anties and uncs and cuzzies coming along soon afterwards! I am sure linguists and sociologists have a field day with all this!

  24. Alison V. September 18, 2014 at 1:00 am #

    I don’t have children yet. But I just wanted to say that this was amazing; so moving

  25. Karin December 9, 2015 at 11:36 pm #

    This really resonated with me today. Thank you for writing it.

  26. Fiora December 10, 2015 at 6:06 am #

    I love being a mom, and always have. It IS an important role and it IS something that distinguishes you and every single one of us who takes on this amazing, incredibly difficult, and sometimes frightening path–it is also the path of great sacrifice to bringing a life into being, through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood, while also being a person in your own right of course (though those first few years can sometimes seem otherwise). But that balance shifts and that title is a title of honor. Just as there are titles of honor everywhere in societies.
    The issues you bring up are not issues of being a mom, exactly, but of being a mom in a society that no longer honors that role, that title, nor provides the support of either other moms, of the infrastructure of community that the role requires to do well (yet, still we superheras find a way to do it well–somehow), of the feeding of heart and soul and body that for millions of generations did automatically come with the title. Now, in too many ways in our society, unless you still are part of a very strong extended family, a very supportive “old-fashioned” community and neighborhood where everyone knows everyone, you will not know those supports. You will not get that feeding of heart and soul and body from your co-workers, your online friends (well, maybe some), your neighbors you’ve not learned the names of and who haven’t learned yours. Not from your family who lives thousands of miles away or from whom you (or they) ran many years ago as they acted out the hardships of an ever increasingly corporate, for-profit society and you drew from them in pain.

    But for me, I was lucky. I was part of a very profoundly supportive and spiritual community of friends, I am part of a strongly connected extended family. I grew up in a time before we had decided that one is only worthy of love, support, a home, and food, if one earns money through an outside job, and a time when staying at home to raise children was not automatically isolating from the adult world, because there were other adults right next door and down the street doing the same thing. And we knew each other and were friends, as our kids knew each other and were friends. We laughed and shared and enjoyed each other and each other’s children. And when we were sick or tired, or just couldn’t figure it out, we had each other too.

    I am so very sorry that isn’t your experience. You deserve to have that society and that community and you deserve to have that title be the one of honor–true honor and respect–that I am quite sure the nurse meant when she said she was handing your newborn to “Mom”. I honor you.

    • Rebecca July 5, 2016 at 12:45 am #

      Your comment makes me weep in sadness. I long for your experience, and thought, somehow, other moms would be warriors by my side, ready to nurture and fight through the tough times. Instead I found they are just like high-schoolers, fighting amongst themselves and having very little kindness and empathy for one another. I sit alone, with a heavy heart, thinking that motherhood may have been the wrong choice for me. So I weep and I am happy to know that places like yours still exist…it gives me a little bit of hope.

  27. Kurobana December 11, 2015 at 3:05 am #

    “For a long time I’d thought that I would never grow up to be my mother, because my mother’s life had always seemed so constrained and limited. Now I saw that I was the one who had limited it.”
    This is brilliant. Now that I’m mostly grown and looking for a career, my mom has been telling me about how good she was at her accounting job. She was the only woman working in accounting and not secretarial. And she was also a pianist but mostly stopped playing after my siblings and I were born…
    Now she’s a massage therapist. It seems like a lot of women get back into careers once their children are grown, but raising children is such a big task that it’s hard to do a career and kids at the same time. It makes me want to have a society like Plato’s Republic, where the children are raised by the village. I know it wouldn’t work because adults want to lay claim to their own, but it would be nice to work more towards making the walls of the nuclear family more permeable. Society is so pocketed and closed-off… I wish there were more public places where people could just hang out and do stuff together without having to buy something or have an itinerary.

  28. DrFresh December 12, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    Its super cool! Your write up reminded me of the novel, “The Joy of Motherhood.” You know, society has a way of forging a title for each one of us. Motherhood is indeed, a beautiful thing to behold. Can’t wait to be a father too…

  29. ladysands May 6, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    Quite the writeup. At some point during parenting we all struggle with this identity crisis. Is it ok for me to be known as just mom? Is this what I want my entire life to be about? In the end we accept that it is ok. Its ok to love the mom label and whoever else we choose to become. Its ok to be mom before everything else. Check out my post on being accepting of how far we have come https://raisingprincesblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/still-ungrateful/

  30. Dana May 6, 2016 at 11:53 am #

    Beautifully said. I felt much of the same way, and 8 years after my daughter’s birth, I’m still picking up and sorting through the pieces.

  31. littlebearthoughts May 7, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    As somebody who is having a baby soon, it’s nice to hear this perspective on motherhood. How do you make sure you don’t lose yourself or is it inevitable?

  32. DrAllie June 9, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

    What a great post. As someone about embark on the motherhood journey.. this is something I’m afraid of. I’ve spent 30 years becoming me, building a name, a career, a person.. Does that all fade once I become a mum? How do you hold onto yourself through this journey?

  33. Honest Tea's Journal July 19, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    Being a mom is the most difficult job or task that I have had to take on. I’ve said it time and time again. I’ve worked full time attended school full time, worked part time simultaneously and still never been as tired as I am now with my growing toddler. The labels kill me, the assumption or presumption that family or being a “wife” or a “mother” is something that everyone needs to do. I disagree wholeheartidly. I think that as women, we can do whatever we decide is right for us, the fact that we sacrifice so much kills me, and I can’t agree more it should be parental leave not “maternity” leave as if we are the only ones in the equation, although sometimes I feel like we the women get cheated in that equation.

  34. tiffysquid October 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm #

    This all sounds very familiar to me… but I’ve experienced an aspect that isn’t covered by the post above. That is the profound, “spiritual” (ugh, that word!) transformation engendered not just by being a parent, being a mother, but *by losing my identity.* There’s a reason so many religions, and cults for that matter, strip away the trappings of material identity in their followers or at least their nuns and monks. To get to the real guts of self and life, you have to remove those veils. What’s underneath? Are you still even a person? Only one way to find out! GO THERE.

    And it turns out that’s a side effect of modern motherhood. It’s terrifying and a huge big exhausting slog, but personally, I feel like it’s brought me something amazing and big. It’s slapped down my notions of what’s important. My child is entering school now and I’m getting some of my old identity back — working more, making art more, etc. But I hope I don’t lose the weird insights I’ve gained from this difficult baby-little-kid phase.

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