Our Identities As Mothers

As a culture we tend to categorize people with certain callings into different identities. It’s like we have different archetypes represented in different vocations. It looks something like, “If you’re a lawyer, then you’re a greedy, suit-wearing white man” or “if you’re a nun, then you’re a nice, habit wearing old lady”. I think it can be hard for people to separate their identities from the culturally prescribed archetype. It takes an ego strength, a self-knowledge, to live outside the rigid categories we think we should fit in.

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In Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic, she dismisses the cultural archetype of the tortured artist. She exhorts artists to stop identifying with their suffering, and instead to look past it to live in the joy of their vocation. If artists don’t allow their creativity to be joyful, then they will almost resent the calling to be artists – their visceral need to create – and live their lives self-medicating their resentment.

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There is a parallel in the cultural identity of the “tortured mother” – or maybe the “overwhelmed mother” is more precise. The overwhelmed mother cannot keep all the moving parts together, her house is a mess, her children out of control, dinner not remotely nutritious. Desperation is lurking beneath each mess, each outburst, and each demand of the child. No one can possibly understand how hard her life is, and if someone acknowledges it, they are only saying the popular thing to say: “Mother’s do the hardest work.” She resents everyone for either not understanding, for not helping, or for failing to rescue her. By clinging to this self-pity, she at least gets to bolster herself in a way that assuages her loneliness and desire to be notable, beautiful, or understood.

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Sometimes I cling to the identity of the overwhelmed mother because of the nourishment it provides my self-pity. It can be hard to separate myself from that identity because sometimes that is what my life looks like. Of course mothering is hard work; of course, at times, we resent the sacrifice required, but that doesn’t mean we have to go about our lives seeking recognition as martyrs.

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The other woman, the one I aspire to be, is a beautiful, carefree mother. She doesn’t take every little mess or disobedience too seriously; she’s not threatened by the chaos. I’m not sure she really exists in pure form because that person doesn’t have any cracks. She cannot be undone – and I’m not sure you can be a human without any cracks. But this isn’t an “either/or” situation. I can be both. In truth, life can be hard and I get overwhelmed. But after a good night’s sleep sometimes I am the carefree mother, clothes unstained by spit up and yogurt, dress blowing in the breeze. We have to allow ourselves to be complex people – I am both women and more. Yes, sometimes the chaos threatens to undo me, but more often the chaos is a reflection of the beautiful vocation of motherhood, and the life I get to live.

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