motherhood and identity
Mother’s Day, like most secular holidays in the western world, is indisputably about milking sentiment to sell things. Still, if the sentiment is sincere and received with gratitude (generally true when someone acknowledges their mom), then the fact that a million brunches get sold on a sunny morning hardly seems a crime.
For those who are not artists (and let’s face it, most of us are not artists) we often choose to shape our lives based on the demands of others. By this I mean we use our talent, energy and time to do work in the service of others’ needs, or at others’ direction, or in cooperation with others. Both in purpose and execution, our efforts are at least sometimes outwardly-focused. And for this we sometimes obtain a return (we get paid) or which we do out of love or devotion (tending to our children, parents, friends) or duty (voting, volunteering).
A life “of service” is not one of utter self-abnegation, indeed, it is often highly fulfilling: one’s craft, or just the sheer effort of work can martial our abilities and energies wonderfully. Work can be fun. If we have been lucky and/or smart enough to learn a skill which is in demand and which people will seriously ante up for, we can convert our labours into considerable personal enjoyment and advantage, too. This is even more true in the unpaid-work department: there is almost nothing quite as satisfying as a moment of good parenting (not being tone deaf, actually understanding and helping the poor creature navigate through growing up, it’s pretty damned cool really).
We often don’t realize it, but devotion to something outside of ourselves can be a liberating experience. Some months ago my kid organized a crew of middle-schoolers to volunteer at the local food bank. Afterwards, she was glowing and giddy – “I’m so happy!” Was it a sense of fulfillment at helping the disadvantaged, making a difference, etc etc? Nope. After some thought, she explained that it was just great not to be a self-absorbed teenager for a few hours – to do something that had nothing to do with herself, her grades, her friends or her future.
This makes sense to me. It is possible to be happy, not thinking about yourself. Years ago, an old friend asked me how it was that I could have set aside all the things which used to mean so much to me – music, poetry, writing, drama and such things –to devote myself to the few things that other people needed me to do (work, basically – along with driving the car, that’s all I’m any good for, really).
I considered my answer.
“The trick” I said, “is to not exist.”
This was not a complaint. It was just a fact. It’s possible to become a version of yourself, by never giving yourself what you need. The demands of the world – those you have adopted voluntarily, those imposed upon you – are the vessel into which the water is poured. The water takes its shape. Your identity merges with what you do, with your “role” in the outer world (lawyer, father, etc). Your own sense of self is tied so completely to your duties, your sense of calm hinges on the knowledge that things are getting done, that slowly, you become the doing.
In our culture this is particular true for mothers, who notwithstanding heroic efforts to remain engaged in other aspects of life (career, community, personal well-being, hobbies and so on), largely inhabit the role of “mom” without release. The needs of others are so comprehensive and the alternatives so pale and emotionally secondary, many women disappear from the world, from themselves, in the role of motherhood. They take the shape of the vase completely.
The trick, you see, is to not exist.
But that’s all it is. A trick. A sleight of hand. An illusion. The water can hold the shape of the vase only so long as the jug isn’t tipped over, or cracks. And of course, there’s only so much of yourself you can pour into a vessel before it overflows. And when those things happen, it makes a terrible mess.
Every parent knows something about pouring herself or himself into their child’s life. What they often do not prepare for is being spit out or spilled out, everywhere and nowhere. Who and what are we then? This is the danger inherent in letting outward circumstances or demands define us. Once someone is a parent – and in particular, a mother – it is a permanent identity, fluctuating in demands and authority (the former seem to escalate as the latter declines). Yet even in the deepest moments of parenting, or in the performance of any all-encompassing duty when “the trick is to not exist”, the soul can only go so long in a foreign shape. You have to give yourself to yourself, just a little, if only to be better at what you’re doing 23 hours a day.
Mothers’ Day is an entirely good thing, whether you start it out as I did driving at 8 a.m. to a little French bakery for something better than your own cooking, or like the folks crowding patios taking their mothers out for lunch. Honestly, who put more work in on your behalf than your mother? (hopefully your answer to that is “I did” but if that didn’t spring to mind, you probably didn’t.) So go ahead and give great thanks to she who is your mother.
But no annual festival in May is necessary to remind someone she is “mom”. What we need instead, perhaps, is a holiday to remind mom that she is also somebody else.
Till then, Happy Mothers’ Day.