Adding the status of mother to your identity is a bit like adding saffron to a recipe. If you’re not careful, it can overwhelm the entire dish and end up being the only discernible flavour.
When I had my first baby, I waited for a long time to feel like a mother. I was vigilant, always on the lookout for that big change that everyone talked about, that momentous time when I would suddenly feel different. But as those early days turned into weeks and months, I continued to feel disappointingly like myself. Eventually, I had to concede that I was, after all, the same person who just happened to be a mother now as well.
I was interested to discover, however, that other people were inclined to buy into the myth of the identity-transforming power of motherhood. People who didn’t know me well often expressed surprise when I told them I had children. “But you don’t look like a mother,” they would exclaim with some disbelief.
I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered until they would hastily tell me that they meant it as a compliment, obviously, because the assumption was, who wants to look like a mother?
I had heard and read so much about women feeling erased or subsumed or engulfed by motherhood, that I hoped to maintain some sense of myself
I was bemused by these comments; there was a world of inference in them. What did a mother look like anyway? And why was it such a bad thing to look like one? Was it because motherhood is sometimes seen as the place where sexiness goes to die? Those crude phrases like “Yummy Mummy” and MILF floated into my mind. When you think about it, they can only really exist meaningfully within the context of a norm that infers mummies are not yummy.
A part of me was grateful to be told that I didn’t look like a mother. I had heard and read so much about women feeling erased or subsumed or engulfed by motherhood, that I hoped to maintain some sense of myself.
I had always defined myself by my work, so I thought it was important to keep working. If I stopped working, I asked myself, who or what would I be? The answer that came unbidden was: just a mother.
I was shocked at my involuntary thoughts because I truly believe that being a parent is one of the most valuable things a person can do, but in reality the public-facing image of parenthood, and motherhood in particular, is not exactly high-status.
I broached the topic with a stay-at-home mother I know. She happens to be one of the smartest people I have ever met, just casually hiding out in domesticity like a Bengal tiger at a petting farm. She acknowledged that she is often dismissed or passed over at social events when people discover she doesn’t work. Something changes in the conversation: she is downgraded to just a mother.
With a little care and attention, we could learn to view motherhood in a similar way to how we view fatherhood, as just another one of a multitude of facets that make up a person’s identity
I know of another woman who desperately wants to, and is financially able to stay at home with her children, but is afraid to because she knows she will have to take a social status hit of exactly this kind. With prejudices and assumptions like these at play, it’s no wonder that some women fear losing themselves after becoming mothers.
In her poem Transfiguration, the American poet Kate Baer says she dreamed herself into a mother, but then she “had to/ dream her back into a woman.” I think sometimes we forget that mothers were women (or people) first. In an interview last year Baer said, “every time I had a baby I felt knocked back. I felt constantly behind. I felt so down that I had to look at the whole situation and kind of start taking back my time, taking back my body, taking back my career.”
When it comes to identity, I think we are all beautiful mosaics of the millions of tiny tiles of our lived experiences. These tiles shift around all the time, sometimes overlapping, sometimes complementing, sometimes obscuring, but we are always that kaleidoscopic multiplicity of self, even if you can’t always tell to look at us.
And isn’t that one of the biggest fears we have as people? That we won’t be seen, that we will be misunderstood, flattened or reduced to just one dull facet of ourselves instead of being seen as the shimmering infinite whole we know ourselves to be.
I don’t mind so much any more if people misidentify me. I enjoy not conforming to expectations anyway. But surely, with a little care and attention, we could learn to view motherhood in a similar way to how we view fatherhood, as just another one of a multitude of facets that make up a person’s identity.
With a little education of our palates, perhaps we could learn to taste the saffron and still discern the many other flavours beneath.