It happened again a few days ago. Someone asked me what I write about.
I, naturally, wanted to jump into a hole.
I would venture to guess that there are few other occupations where people get as cagey about a simple inquiry into what, exactly, they do as some writers get when asked about their chosen subject matter. If you sell cars, you probably don’t have an existential crisis when someone asks you at a party what make of automobile you shill. Teachers don’t start questioning every decision they’ve ever made when they’re asked what and who they teach. But writers sell a little bit of themselves every time they put some words out there for the (theoretical) masses to read. When it comes down to it, all we have are our experiences, ideas, and the net of words that holds them together. We become so transparent that our identities are located in the things we say.
So without fail, almost every time I’m asked what I primarily write about and I say motherhood and my family, I clam up. Not only am I writing – a practice that requires me to have an incredible amount of confidence in myself – but I am writing about the most terrifying, fantastic place I’ve ever been.
The intersection of my maternal and writer identities is a *slightly* vulnerable spot for me, laden with all kinds of anxieties.
They are going to read what I write and think I’m a terrible mother.
They are going to read what I write and think that I’m a wonderful mother, and then I’ll be a liar for presenting myself that way.
They are going to read what I write and think I’m vapid and empty.
Or, maybe worst of all,
They are never going to read what I write because they’ve written me off from the start as a one-dimensional human being who derives her meaning from a single role she plays in another person’s life.
I’m only a mother.
Of course, these thoughts I’m putting into the minds of these fictional readers are really just the voices of my own insecurities. We are often more cruel to ourselves than anyone else would ever be. Whenever I find myself trapped in that self-loathing labyrinth, I try to convince myself that I should be hard on myself because doing so prepares me for the harshest condemnation some faceless critic of my writing and parenting chops could ever throw at me.
The truth, though, is that no one is that cruel (or at least, no one that I really care about). I am the one who sees my identity retreat into my child as she grows. I am the one who encourages other moms to find a hobby outside of their kids, but then realizes that the one thing I have going for myself outside of parenting her – writing – is centered around that part of my life. Being the primary caregiver to a toddler is my life right now. I’m thinking about my daughter all the time, even when I’m sleeping. My default setting has become Emily, Cee’s Mom.
I know I’m not alone; I’ve seen many parents suffer an identity crisis when their children reach the toddler years. It’s hard to avoid this inclination to place all your chips in the parenting pile right when your child is demanding more of you than s/he ever has before. We live in a time where we believe that if we don’t make ourselves available to our children 24/7, we’re short-changing them. Be present, we’re told, and we err on the side of caution by whittling away at our own identities. We can always give a little more, and we do until we realize that we haven’t been completely alone and lost in an activity we derive pure joy from – an activity that has nothing to do with our kid - in six months. Several months ago, a friend whose kids are now leaving home gave me some advice that has echoed in my brain every day since then:
Don’t put all your eggs in the mommy basket like I did. Leave a couple out for down the road when you want to be Emily. The transition will be easier.
I always just assumed that if I created so-called “me time” each day, I’d be immunized against any shred of soccer mom germ that lay dormant in my system. When I was pregnant, I swore to never be a mombie. Even now, I constantly remind myself that the best thing I could do for C is take care of myself. But the irony of the fact that I try to make time for myself because I want to be better for her is not lost on me. Emily – not the wife, not the mother, not the maker of quesadillas – is a good enough cause, worth edifying for her own benefit and not for that of others. And therein lies the problem: once you become a parent, it becomes so easy to believe that parenthood trumps any other priority in your life. By today’s new parenting protocols, you’re failing your kids if your every action is not directed towards their benefit.
That can’t be healthy. For anyone.
Parenthood can be a lot like bananas. If you pack a banana in your lunchbag along with a sandwich, a cookie, and carrot sticks, your entire lunch is going to be tasting like a banana by noon. And while you may love bananas, they are not great accompaniment for every meal on the planet. Many a leftover pizza has been ruined when it was parked next to a loaf of banana bread in the fridge. Parenthood, similarly, has a way of taking over. As a new mom, I stood with one foot in my life pre-child and the other in the new-to-me motherhood territory. Back then, motherhood was still a novelty and I wrote about it with the wide eyes of discovery and amazement. But all that time, I was quietly taking on the heavy mantel of my new responsibilities and letting it inform every single decision and choice I made each day. Where I once cooked a meal because I enjoyed the interaction my hands made with the food and the skills I developed, I now hurriedly get through the task because I dread Cee coming into the kitchen and throwing a fit when I won’t let her eat the raw chicken I’m preparing. I used to take her on walks in the park so I could get her to sleep and I’d have an hour or so of peace and exercise. Now, when we go on walks and we stop every five feet to look at a bird or a rock, I can’t assume I’ll ever get my pace up long enough to qualify our outing as exercise. Even when I get out of the house by myself and meet up with friends, I check my phone every fifteen minutes to make sure I haven’t missed any calls from home alerting me of a crisis only I can fix.
I am Mommy even when there is no one within earshot there to call me that.
Namely, on my blog.
I don’t think I even need to clarify that I adore my daughter and that I am eternally grateful for my position in her life and hers in mine. But sometimes when I look through my portfolio and I see piece after piece after piece about her, I feel melancholy for the person I used to be. I wonder what I’d be doing right now if I weren’t a mother, what I’d be writing about. I fear that the part of me that stands alone and isn’t defined by a role I serve in the life of another person is being erased. My writing is a reflection of my life, and both are all about my child and who I am to her. But there’s so much more to me. At least, I think there is.
So what’s the takeaway? How should I respond to those feelings of self-loathing that arise when I’m asked what I write about and I have to admit that it’s my family? What should I do when I feel ashamed that the only words I have in my mouth are ones that speak to my amazement of who my daughter is?
During my moments of most intense self-doubt, my mother has always told me to remove myself from the situation and look at that person who remains. The Emily who I find standing before me loves hard. She isn’t perfect, but no one is expecting her to be. She is a good person. My mom tells me to look at this person and love her like crazy because she deserves that love.
And right now, that girl is a mom to a toddler. She loves writing about her toddler. (She apparently loves referring to herself in the third person, but like we said, she’s not perfect.) She knows in her heart of hearts that she will always be her, no matter what kind of writer she may be or who’s calling her Mommy.
Maybe it’s time for me to give myself permission to mother myself as much as I mother the people around me.
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