Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mommyhood vs Personhood vs My Possibly Unfounded Fears

Okay.  So I'm going to writing here as a non-mom.  I currently have a very feisty fetus making a ruckus in my increasingly humungous uterus, but I am not yet a parent. 

So I'm talking out of my proverbial placenta, folks.  (And how weird is that I suddenly have not only a baby, but a placenta in my body?  Like... it just appeared one day).


I read this article recently and it got me thinking a little bit about motherhood and what I want for my life.  The article is "The Motherhood Mystique" by Rachel Hills.  It's a short piece that quickly summarizes a book I haven't read (Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti).  It looks interesting; I just haven't gotten around to it, with all the working and sleeping and baking and fanfic reading.  These things take priority.

As I was saying.

The article touches on the idea of motherhood vs. personhood, and the inevitable "mommy wars" that seem so commonplace today, even to those of us who aren't moms.  So many people want to tell you that you're doing it wrong.  You need to sacrifice more, you need to feed your kids A, B, and C, you need to get them this certain sort of diaper, you need to keep them away from tv, you need to get them Baby Einstein videos, you need to sacrifice everything for another human being.  I have heard the latter more and more lately - that motherhood is sacrifice.  You give up your life (not necessarily literally, although childbirth still can be dangerous for some) for this tiny little infant.

But is this right?  Is it even good?  Or is it just the new face of the mommy war?

Check it out:

Jessica Valenti's book. Jessica Valenti's book.
Why Have Kids? sets itself apart from its “mummy war” predecessors with its lack of prescriptiveness. Valenti’s issue isn’t with mothers who stay home to care for their children or with those who go to work, but with a culture that presents motherhood as a non-negotiable – something every good woman ought to do – but simultaneously depicts it as “the hardest job in the world;” a difficult and unpleasant chore that can only be done properly if the mother sacrifices her freedom, body, identity, and even, if necessary, her life.
“Part of the problem – and I think the word sacrifice is exactly right – is the idea that if you’re not sacrificing all things all the time, then you’re not being a good parent,” she told me over soft drinks recently. “But what does that mean? How far do we take it? Does ‘sacrifice’ just mean not going to the movies as often, or does it mean sacrificing your mental health?”

Now, I want to focus on that last bit for a moment: mental health.  My mental health is very important to me, not just because yeah, obviously mental health is good, but because it has been at times hard-won for me, personally.  You can read about my fabulous ride with anxiety here and here and here.  If you don't feel like reading about all my lovely little neuroses, let's just say that I have dealt with anxiety in varying degrees since I was a young child.  While I have it under control 99% of the time, it's still a reality in my life.  I have been very thankful about my anxiety during this pregnancy; it's been low, almost non-existent, which I would have never guessed, based on previous health issues.

I will say that I am curious to see how my anxiety plays out after childbirth.  My hormones will go wacky again once this kiddo is born, and I'll be much more susceptible to things like postpartum depression.  My life will change, and I'll have to deal with that, with the good and the bad.  Unfortunately, many parents (especially moms) report symptoms of depression that last a long time after their kids are out of newborn diapers. 

The article goes on to say:

Once we become mothers, the narrative goes – once we become good mothers, certainly – motherhood will become the most important aspect our identities, the driving force behind our decisions, our compromises, and our value in the eyes to the people around us (sometimes literally – the latest UK research shows that new mothers can expect a $15,000 pay cut when they return to work). 

“The expectation is that your identity will be completely consumed into that of your child, if you’re a good mum,” Valenti says. “If you’re a good mother, if you’re doing it right, you should have no identity whatsoever, except for ‘so-and-so’s mum. … It does make me worried. I don’t want my daughter being raised to think that the best thing she can ever do is take care of another human being. I want her to know that she can impact the world in other ways, too.” . . .
. . . And just [as] we would hesitate to lose ourselves in any other relationship in our life, so too should we be wary of losing ourselves in our children. “The relationship you have with your child is certainly impactful. It’s one of the most important relationships you’ll have in your life,” Valenti says. “But a good relationship doesn’t necessitate you losing your identity. In fact, most people would call that a bad relationship. A good relationship is supposed to make you the best version of yourself, happier and more active. So that’s what I’m aiming for.”
I think my biggest fear about having a kiddo is just that - fear of losing my identity.  I don't mean that I'm seriously super concerned about it, but it's there.  I have a strong enough personality that I know I can be a mom and a wife and an audiology assistant (yes, I will be working after having a kid) and a writer and a friend and a consumer of way too much tea and television.  But I do recall (quite strongly) the feeling of losing a bit of myself after I married Bryan.  It wasn't anything he did either; I was just struck with this new image of myself, of being a wife.  At times it felt like extreme responsibility, like he may expect things out of me that I wasn't willing to give.  I began to think of myself in terms of stereotypes, and I became concerned about losing myself.  Of course, this never happened, and Bryan would have been upset if it had.  He wanted me, not some Stepford wife, and not a housewife.  In fact, he strongly encouraged me to get off my butt and get a job already, because really, we need the cash.

With a kiddo, it's different.  Bryan could obviously take care of himself, but an infant can't do the same.  I'll be the mom.  Although Bryan will be able to take care of our son just as well as I can, he won't be able to feed the baby if I haven't pumped breastmilk recently.  He works in the Village (about 20 minutes away), so I'll be the one taking little Mister to daycare and feeding him throughout the day.  I'm the one carrying our baby; I'll be the one to birth him, to feed him from my own body.

It's a hell of a lot of responsibility.

I want to lose myself in this experience in that I want to immerse myself in all the wonderfulness that motherhood brings, but I don't want to actually lose myself.  I've carved out bits and pieces of who I am as an adult, as a woman, as a person.  I don't want to lose any aspect of myself because I become Mom.  I don't want to be seen primarily as Little Mister's Mom.  I want to be seen as Jessica. Because I like who I am.

Here's the thing, though: I already feel like things have changed.  When I mention that I'll be working after having the baby, I sometimes feel judgement from stay-at-home moms.  "But who will watch him?"  Daycare.  It's less than 60 feet away from my office, and I can do feedings on my break.  I won't be around my kiddo all day, it's true.  But I will be able to feel accomplished at my job, and my kiddo will be able to interact with other babies.  He'll (hopefully) learn how to share at an early age, and he'll have tons of social interaction with his peers.  And when he goes home with me and his dad at the end of the night, he'll be around parents who have waited all day to see him.  Parents who haven't heard him cry and scream for hours (hopefully that won't happen).  Of course, we won't be around him all the time to see the little awesome things he does, or the cute new faces that he makes.  There are good and bad parts to it. 

I think (and once again, speaking as a non-parent, here) that motherhood needs to intentional.  I think it's very easy for lots of stay-at-home moms in particular to feel like their entire identity becomes "Mom."  While I am very excited to bear that name, I don't want to lose my own.  I'm going to try my best to wear all of these hats respectfully and responsibly.  I want to honor my child and his life, but I also want to honor my own. I want to keep myself, and my mental health, while enjoying this new miracle.

Does that make sense?

Does anyone have any suggestions as far as how to do this in a real, practical way?  Am I worrying about nothing?  Or is there a real concern here that others have felt?

As always, I'm open to opinions, comments, and bad jokes.


  1. I had these same worries when I was pregnant! Right after the baby was born, when things were new and very difficult, I couldn’t imagine how I would take care of a newborn and write a dissertation at the same time. I pretty much decided that it was impossible and that I would have to give up on my whole graduate student identity in order to be a good Mom. Over time these feelings passed and I realized that my identity is never just made up of one thing or another. My identity is made up of many different aspects of my life, and becoming a Mom just added a new section. In fact, although this sounds cliché, I can’t imagine my identity anymore without the Mom part. My advice: hang in there! Things REALLY do get easier as the baby gets older and more independent; when there are big changes in life it takes time to adapt, and I think it’s the same for your identity, it needs time to adapt as well. Try not to look at it as though aspects of yourself need to be lost in order to accept new parts, but rather that the new aspects are just added into the big (messy?) mix that is already there!

    PS: I think you and Bryan are going to be amazing parents! :)

  2. Hmmmm...

    First, for me, the transition to Wife was much more difficult than transition to Mom. I had post-partum depression for at least 6 months after marrying Kevin (is it partum? no? post-whatever). It was actually a very dark time for me, and I was worried about history repeating itself after I had Evelyn. It didn't though, and I was completely fine in that respect. So please know that although it is a risk, it isn't inevitable.

    Second, I think becoming a mother does change your identity. Or maybe not change, but add to. You are still Jessica. That is the constant; that does not change. Other things can be added to your identity (wife, mom, friend) or subtracted (thank god "middle-school student" gets subtracted). But you're still Jessica.

    There are moments of motherhood when your identity might get buried for a little while, and I feel like that's okay. It's still there, waiting until other urgent matters are dealt with. It may take a few months to work the kinks out, but it will unravel.

    And there are moments when I want nothing more than to be Evelyn's mama. I feel fine with her taking over and absorbing me for a little while. And there are other moments when I get so sick of her that I don't even want to see her for a day (that's what grandparents are for). Overall, being a mom is amazing, regardless of how you do it.

    I understand your worries and fears - they aren't unfounded. But things will simple fall into place once you have your son. It isn't as hard as people make it out to be. And you can DEFINITELY be a mom and change the world.

    Just my thoughts. Way more than two cents.