Letting Go of the Mother I Was for the Woman I Might Be
Since I had my first child almost fifteen years ago, at the age of twenty-two, I have not had a career. I have conceived of myself, when the notion of career is referenced, primarily as a mother. Any economic activity I have been involved in along the way, any volunteer activities, were adjuncts to that primary, central role. What I wanted to be was a mother -- other things as well, certainly -- but a mother was my first obligation, the large middle bubble on my mind map from which all other notions sprung.
I have three sons, the youngest of which is now seven. And a year and a half ago, I started writing again; a longtime practice that had been mostly abandoned over the years of cloth diapers, of parent-teacher conferences and shopping trips. My husband was more than supportive of this. He had been telling me to. Mike believes in my writing more than I do, despite my sitting at the computer long past when it is time to start dinner and other irritating things. I wrote. I threw a little blog up onto the internet, patched together with craft glue and scissors on a Blogspot page, and some friends and relatives read it. Then some strangers read it. Within the last six months, I became interested in page views, in guest posts, in putting up quality content. My blog stopped being something I did merely to amuse myself.
And somewhere in this process, I was changed. Sitting at my computer at the end of a day that has consisted of writing, planning my writing and thinking about writing, I realized I had started to conceive of myself as a writer first and a mother second. How hard to type those words -- the words that seem to betray those whom I love most.
But, my story goes like this: All my young life I knew I would go to college, get a degree and be brilliant. In difficulty or victory, I counted on it, with the arrogance of the only child. I knew I would go out into the world and do something wonderful. I took my own lazy sweet time, making college span five years and getting no further than my general ed., but, all the while, I was being told by professors that I was brilliant and full of potential. So my present was this mediocre life of coffee shops and cigarettes and AA meetings, but my future was a promise of greatness.
And then I got pregnant.
It all turned on a dime. I never got my degree. I ended up in an unstable marriage, waiting for my electricity to be turned off. I threw my intellectual focus into reading reams of books on the subjects of child development and education. I taught pre-school with my child in tow. Periodically, I would form a plan to do something that looked like a career identity. I lead an important environmental committee and thought that might turn into a paying job as a project manager. I was trained as a volunteer in a transformative education and I thought I might be able to lead a course, if I first went through years of training about as rigorous as a Shao-Lin monk's. I wrote a column for a newspaper.
But everything I did was always just potentiality. When I went back to school, I got pregnant again. When I was ready to take the next step with something, I became distracted and disorganized and trashed it. So, I ended up just being Mama. Which was fine.
But here I am writing and, at some point, it dawns on me: it's no longer a hobby. It's my job. And it is somehow my real job, more than the one that pays me, although I take that one very seriously. So I am now working over forty hours a week, between both jobs, and doing this with a chronic illness. I still have all the unpaid jobs I had before, based on my being the one who worked part-time: make dinner, shop, plan trips, plan birthdays, buy teacher gifts, field all logistics. I am dropping the ball left and right. I lack motivation. And I'm furious. Why the frack, I think, do I have to do everything?
You have to understand that I make $10k at my regular, part-time job and all this writing, however large in my mind, doesn't generate a cent. Comments and page views are not redeemable at the grocery store. I am telling myself that I never will be able to succeed as a writer if I don't treat it as a real job, but I half wonder if I am just being self-indulgent. Should I instead look for a way to make cash writing copy? Should I stop posting free content on my blog day after day and do something respectable?
And inside, all this emotion is boiling over and screaming: It is my turn now! I have waited. I have diapered. I have attended soccer practice. I have meal planned. And I have been the person who keeps it all going for everyone. When do I get to do what gives me joy? When do I get to throw my full weight behind a dream and see -- just see -- if I can damn well do it? But I know that this a luxury most people never have. My own husband doesn't have it. Were he to tell me tomorrow that he wants to quit his job and go to seminary, which he might just love, could I support that? I squirm to imagine. So, I am troubled by the fact that my family might need me to keep doing what I do: working, making lunches, updating calendars, packing bags for a number of more years before I really have the right to say that I want to play writer and they can pack their own damn lunch.
The biggest sticking point for me is the idea of settling for a messy house, a messy life. The thought of it hearkens back to a time when I felt an enormous lack of control over my life, a time when I felt as tossed and stained as the laundry scattered on my floor. When I got divorced and then later had my third child, somehow I re-made myself to be organized. I never, ever was before. When I did this, I felt I had mastered something that had forever kept me under its thumb. And the thought of letting go of this crutch of organized officiousness feels like picking up a bottle. It feels like falling off a cliff.
Perfectionism. It is always hard to know where the devastating urge to make the world flawless is what has me, and when, conversely, I am just being honest about what I need to avoid going crazy. Maybe those two are really the same. Looking at this also requires asking myself again what the perfect mother even is. Is it one who has made your lunch, folded your clothes, attended your soccer practice, hosted your play date and corrected your homework with you, or is the woman who you watched bound and determined to invest in her dreams and yours, to teach you that you could do it yourself? The truth is probably somewhere in between. We all need a sandwich in our lunch boxes. We all need someone to help us fix the mess we made of our book report. And we all need someone to believe that we are bigger than we think we can be, and to show us that a life can be lived this way.
My third child took the last little bit of mother in me that I had. I have no extra mother left. What is there is sort of stretched out like taffy. Sweet but brittle when stale. Each incremental stage of growth that this child makes is accompanied by an urge to push. I want my body back, my bed back, my brain back. So everything happens by committee. This Wednesday that my son is seven my mother has him because it is a Wednesday, which is her day with him. I did not insist that I have him because it is his birthday. I love him, but everyone is welcome to have a scoop. I've got lots, you know.
I suppose it is always dangerous to be defined by another person, even if that person is the product of one's own DNA, one's most honest love, one's heart walking. I was so often told, at twenty-one, that I was too young and stupid to have a kid, that I became very stubborn in my definition of myself. I was told I wouldn't be able to deal with natural childbirth and so I endured it even though my labor lasted a week. I was told I wouldn't have enough milk, and so I called La Leche League, pumped, prayed, and prevailed even though my baby was a premie and kept falling asleep at the breast. I nursed until my sons were old enough to drive me crazy. I'm stubborn, and I ended up being a career mommy because I wanted to say screw you to the perceived chorus line of feminist critics that were letting me know that I had ruined my life. All anyone has to do to get me to do anything is to tell me not to. The mother I have been is an answer for my accidents. She is the filling of a need, the proving of a point, the solution to a quandary. And she is a reliable source of love. I trust this woman implicitly. She knows what she is about. So, I find it hard, very hard to let go of this mother that I was.
But I feel pulled toward the future, pressed out of the earth and away from the comfort of warm soil into heat and hail and wind. I feel compelled to make a different self, to shift just so to allow the writer to occupy her place next to the mother. I feel curious how the two will knit together, what will be left behind and what brought along. Every time I have been here, pressed out of the earth by the force of a dream, coughed up into my future by the past, I have grown stronger.This faith in who I might be made me a mother in the beginning. So, perhaps it can make me now a mother to my own ambitions.
But if I am being made anew, first I am being broken. I lie in broken bits of mother on the ground. Broken bits of wife. I am trying to see if the pieces can be made to resemble a writer. I am trying to see if, when whole, the reflection in those pieces, cracked and warped though they may be, is my own.
Photo Credit: Cea.