Removing the Mask of Motherhood
on the role that roles play in stunting our identities.
On Thursday, as we were leaving the home of some friends, I instructed my two year old to say goodbye. He acknowledged them one by one. “Bye, Azola. See you soon, Azola. See you later, Azola.” My friends have a two year old named Azola. They also have their own names, but in my child’s mind they are one entity, derivative of and in service to Azola.
My husband and I got married very quickly. There were just weeks between when I met his mother and the day she became my mother-in-law. I remember avoiding calling her any name at all to circumvent the sin of misnaming her. And as time went on, it became a question stranger and more awkward to ask: “What do I call you? How do you want to be named?”
When I brought it up to my husband, he told me that in his culture, parents take on the name of their firstborn. His mother, upon delivering him unto the world, was called Mama Femi. The mother of Femi. Her name became derivative of his existence.
My son has this toy microphone my Nana got for him after seeing him rap into the round end of a spoon. He likes to press the microphone into the faces of those in the room with a singular command.
“State ya name,” he says, expectantly.
“My name is MOMMY,” I recite, with the cadence of someone about to freestyle. But he whisks the mic away, always. Mommy is all he needs to know about who I am.
I answer to the role itself, my identity swallowed up by the eternal task at hand.
Last weekend I went to the emergency room, alone, late at night. It was the first time I had been without my kids since a date night in July. It was the first time I had been without any other person at all since I gave birth in January. And while an invisible string connected me to my two kids at home, I was hyper aware of how no one else could see that tether. I could not lean on motherhood to identify myself. In that space I was a woman with no definitions, no edges, no outline. I was an anonymous somebody with unkempt hair, mystery stains on her shirt, sleepless circles beneath her eyes, dirty fingernails.
I found myself alluding to my children in the quick conversations about my symptoms.
“Well I was taking my son out of the bath and when I walked by the mirror I noticed _____.” But the doctors didn’t care about the bath or my son. The patient was me, the name on my wristband was not Mommy.
But I am so tangled up in my children, I forget how to be without them.
In March I was on a panel about self care, and before the panel began, I passed the baby to my husband and attempted to introduce myself to another panelist. Without the cuteness of my newborn as an icebreaker, I found myself tongue-tied, unable to maintain a conversation. I couldn’t remember what I used to say to people before I only talked about my children. I saw in her face that I was not making sense. I felt panicked and incoherent. Vulnerable. Small.
E told me last week that her mother once shared that she was pregnant as often as she was because it was the only time she felt sane in her twenties. E said that there’s something powerful to being able to fulfill that kind of need in society. That maybe that was the point for some of us. To exist solely so that others can exist.
“I am starting to wonder if that’s who I am,” she said.
At first I bristled, but then I wondered, too. Isn’t that how I’d been living? My investment in mothering has gotten to the point where I have no identity outside of it, no clear cut sense of myself beyond the straightforward borders of motherhood.
Like at the park yesterday afternoon, when exhaustion came crashing down on me. I felt the familiar words “I’m tired,” beginning to form in my mouth, but I swallowed them. Because when I played out the rest of the conversation in my head, I recognized that it wouldn’t follow the framework it often does. When I say that I’m tired, people instinctually ask “Ah, long night with the kids?” And I say, “Yup, the little one’s teething,” or “Yup, can you believe he’s almost three and still won’t sleep through the night?”
But the kids had slept soundly the night before. They didn’t rise until 9am. And when they woke, my husband put them in the bath, made them breakfast, put on cartoons. I slept until 11AM. I was tired because of something harder to pin down, something deep inside of me was tired, something I didn’t want to talk about, something that had to do with who I am and have been long before motherhood kept me up at night.
And sitting on the park bench wrestling with the ability to express a basic declaration of how I felt, I began to confront a question I’ve been circling since I became pregnant:
Has motherhood swallowed me whole or have I been burying myself in it?
There’s a comforting quality to fulfilling a role. There’s a lure to a predetermined course. A fast track out of the work of learning to be who you are. There are endless resources on how a mother should conduct herself. I can research how to best react to any given scenario. Motherhood is a me I can master. A pre-packaged purpose. When I move through the world as a mother I am a comprehensive statement.
But if I don’t don the mask of motherhood, I am only more questions. I require a closer look. I am something to be figured out, a riddle, a puzzle. A problem I fear will dissatisfy me when it’s solved. So I run from myself, busy myself to get away from myself, bounce myself off of others to distort myself, cloak the visage of motherhood over my blankness, cover the question mark.
My husband and I talk a lot about what we will do when our children are grown. We say our 40s will make up for what we’ve sacrificed of our 20s. We say that we’ll travel, stay up late, sleep in, thrust ourselves into all the creative work we’re neglecting now. But if I continue down this road, when the tether is snipped and the children have grown and moved on, will there be anything left of myself to return to? Or will I be faced with the same questions in a much larger void, searching in a black hole the size of a galaxy for relics of myself?
Even now, I battle the impulse to close this with reflections on my duty to show my children a woman sure of herself, to not stunt them with my clinging, to teach them independence by modeling independence. But this essay is not about my children, it’s about me. If I am to explore the unknown corners of who I am, I will do it for myself. I am a cause noble enough for self indulgence. I will sit alone in uncomfortable rooms, unsure of myself as I learn to be certain. I will get to know myself for the sole purpose of making myself known. If that means fumbling through painful interaction, searching through the deep space of me for something to say, I will don my brightest blankness and cringe my way through it.
I don’t begin or end at mothering. It’s just something that I do now. It’s a part of me that bloomed from the vast valleys that I am. I am 25 and learning to sit in those valleys for the first time. Not to pull weeds or anticipate storms or sigh at the towering height of the surrounding mountains. I sit alone in the overflowing emptiness and inhale.