Thursday, September 17, 2015

who are you, mama?

When I was six months pregnant, I got my favorite parenting advice so far. I was slouched at my desk, which was overflowing with everything necessary to help me wrap up a school year as assistant director at a child care center and begin another summer as director of a day camp program - lists and binders and first aid kits and behavior charts and emergency cards and Post-its. So many Post-its. I was staring sadly at one Post-it, which simply said, "Friday."

What I was supposed to remember about Friday was beyond me.

My pregnant brain was an engine refusing to turn over. I'm detail-oriented and an insufferable perfectionist, and slip-ups like this were becoming more frequent - only writing partial Post-it reminders, forgetting to finish paperwork, missing meetings. Tears burned behind my eyes (hormones, ugh) as I tried to remember what the hell Friday meant. A phone conference? A child observation? A potluck, an absent teacher, a fire drill?

"Hey, Cathy! How's it going, Mama?"

A smiling face appeared around my office door - a longtime parent at the center. She and I chatted for a minute, and I made a self-deprecating joke about the Post-it cliffhanger and how frustrating it was to (semi-) function with a brain that was devolving into sludge. The mom leaned towards me and smiled so kindly, I thought I might really cry.

"You know," she said, "you're going to have to learn to have some compassion for yourself. It's not easy, motherhood."


When my daughter was two months old, we had A Night. We were still waking her to eat every three hours around the clock because she was slow to gain weight, and I was pumping every three hours around the clock, too. I hadn't had more than a couple hours of consecutive sleep since she'd been born. I was...a little tired.

I remember vividly standing next to our bed with my crying baby in my arms. She needed help falling back asleep, and I felt inexplicably compelled - required - to be the one to help her. I was still on maternity leave, and my husband had to get up for work in the morning, and, after all, I was this baby's mom. It was my job to help her, to fix whatever was wrong. 

But I couldn't. I was out of patience and energy and, frankly, love. I was so damn tired. I stood next to our bed, swaying and bawling as Rowan swayed and bawled with me, and J.J. pleaded with me to let him give it a try. He'd comforted her at night plenty of times before, but I was stuck on the fact that I wasn't able to make everything right on that particular night. Hormones and sleep deprivation sucked me into a mental vortex where all my supposed parenting inadequacies were laid out before me, and I wailed to J.J.: "I'm just not the mom I thought I'd be."


I'll tell you what: I'm a social worker and early childhood educator by trade. Compassion for others is the foundation of both of my Masters degrees. But to extend that compassion towards myself, as the mom from my work suggested? That was a foreign concept to me. It's a concept I've held carefully in my heart ever since that conversation, and one that, with practice, I get better at remembering: Be compassionate towards myself.

Because that mom was right - it's not easy, motherhood. I mean, how could it be, given the massive identity shift in becoming a parent? Two years in, me and a lot of my fellow new moms are still feeling unsure of who we are. It's similar to puberty, where you spend a few years held captive by hormones, watching certainties melt into ambivalence, and battling to figure out your place in a world that seems brand-new and overwhelming. Except this time, it feels like your skills and your Self are on display - in the form of your child.

The tricky thing is, we're not necessarily who we thought we'd be as moms. We grasp around, many of us, holding on desperately and irrationally to the illusion of the moms we pictured ourselves as. There are so many hoped-for parts of my identity that I fought for after having a child, and only because I thought they would be the parts to define me. Things like working mom, consistent cook, babywearer, and nursing mom. And there are the parts of my identity that I didn't expect, and that I've struggled to claim simply because they were a surprise: stay-at-home mom, terrible nighttime parent, new-mom-group fanatic, motherless mother, and nap tyrant.

Likewise, the shift is difficult because we're not necessarily satisfied with who we've become as moms. I never consciously predicted that becoming a mom would bring only positive changes in my identity, but apparently that myth was simmering there below the surface (probably alongside whatever the hell was supposed to be on the rest of that "Friday" Post-it). After all, becoming a parent changes everything, right? 

Well, yes. Everything changes...except what doesn't. Motherhood has changed me by turning me into the most authentic version of myself - both the best version and the worst version. I'm still who I was, and I'm still not what I wasn't. I'm still not a triathlete, fashionable, good at correspondence, a gardener, laid-back, or non-awkwardly gracious when someone else picks up the tab. I still don't know how to pronounce dachshund, or pecan, or teetotaler, or Fiat. I still sometimes don't know if it's a pot or a pan. I'm still bothered that the violin sound on the musical puzzle isn't violinny enough, and that my economy-sized yogurt container rims get crusty. I'm still me, layered within these new clothes of motherhood.

What's hard to know is whether I'm satisfied with that, and whether I'm enough.

What makes it easier to grow towards satisfaction and believing in my mothering aptitude is exactly what the mom from my work prescribed: compassion for myself. And what makes it easier for me to learn compassion towards myself is realizing this: that I'd always want my daughter to be compassionate towards herself.

If (when) Rowan struggles with major identity shifts throughout her life, here's what I would want her to know: It's okay. It's normal. It's important. It's expected. Your identity is not static, and it's not supposed to be. You're supposed to struggle through the shift. It's a new identity. It's uncomfortable, maybe; doesn't fit quite right yet. Give it time, and understand the significance of allowing time and the world to change you. Who would we be if we stood by unaffected as everything around us changed?

When I look at it this way, through a lens of compassion, everything comes more sharply into focus. I'm not supposed to be the same person I was at sixteen, nor the same person I was before I was a mom. But it's possible that I'm on the path to being a better version of myself. Since becoming a mom, I'm more peaceful, truer to myself, more able to say no, possessing quite fewer fucks to give, closer to tears at any given moment, quicker to laugh, happier. Happier. Happier. I have no energy for that which doesn't nourish my essential self; I can't fake it anymore, which has allowed me to let go of toxic influences. Over time, I've grown exponentially more confident in my parenting skills (though it wasn't hard to rise from "I think my newborn might be excessively lethargic because she sleeps a lot"). I'm better able to confess and own my Sorry-Not-Sorrys. I'm becoming more myself

I may not necessarily be the mother I thought I'd be, but I'm also not the mother I'll always be. I am capable of, and expected to, change. There's a lot of hope and power contained within that truth. Everything changes...and it will keep on changing.


So - who are you, Mama? It's okay if you don't know. You don't have to. Things have changed for you. But? It's enough that you are you. Your (perceived) imperfections aren't the same as inadequacies; you are enough, in part because of your imperfections. They're what make you human, relatable, and well-rounded. You are someone whose light shines brightly these days, even if you can't tell for the dark. And the beauty of it all is that who you are? Is a fluid concept. The aspects you're dissatisfied with can shift. The parts you take pride in can flourish.

And if you're having a hard time believing this? Think about your child. Your child isn't perfect (sorry). Your child has meltdowns and moments of irrationality and sugar cravings and quirks and challenges. She's not always patient, she doesn't always sleep as much as she should, she could stand to eat a few more vegetables. But? You love that kid so, so, so much. Just the way she is, and just because she's her. And you hope beyond hope that she'll always be able to see the lovable version of herself that she is in your eyes.

So look again at yourself, Mama. Take out the filter cultivated by society, by patriarchy, by mean girls, by racism, by your ex, by anxiety, by doubt, by judgment, and by the fact that you are undergoing a radical identity shift. Instead, insert the filter with which you see your child. Look again, with compassion. 

Who do you see now?

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