A Mothers’ Day Secret

Here’s a secret:

I am, basically, the same person that I was before I had a kid. I am still just as selfish. I am still just as petty, as cruel, as small minded. I am still wondering what the fuck am I going to be when I grow up.

Maybe you’re not. Maybe parenthood was a revelation, a small but complete revolution in the halls of your psyche. But me? I’m still Arwyn. Everything I did before, I still do. Everything I was bad at before, I still fail to do. My house is still a mess, clutter is still the default state of my house and mind, I still alternate between concocting plans to take over the world and barely clinging to the skin of sanity trying to simply survive each day.

Because motherhood isn’t a magic cure. I didn’t have a baby and suddenly wake up a morning person, minivan in the drive way, clothes picked out, and lunch already packed. I wasn’t that person before I had a kid, and I’m not her now. I don’t think I ever will be her, and some days I’m really ok with that.

We have this idea that when a woman birth/adopt/partner with a parent, she becomes A Mother. And we have all kinds of idealized notions of what A Mother looks like and acts like and accomplishes in a single day. But the truth is — my truth is, at least, though I suspect you’ll find it true of others as well — that it doesn’t work that way. I may have, eventually, over time, become mom to my kid, but that transformation into A Mother I was supposed to undergo never came.

I have changed, because change is inevitable. My life has changed — if for no other reason than now I’m trying to keep two humans alive through the day instead of just one — but the habits and patterns of my life largely haven’t. And the me-underneath-all is still here, still as bewildered and confused and scared and cocky and self-centered as ever, wondering when someone will notice that the transformation never occurred, waiting for The Mother to come save me and do things properly.

And that’s the thing: she’s never coming. I don’t think she ever came for my mom, either, and isn’t that a terrifying thought to the part of me still two years old, who remembers climbing into my mother’s lap like I was ascending into heaven, being granted audience with Love Herself and welcomed unreservedly thereby.

Because The Mother is a myth, and all those women we assign to her pedestal are rather more like me than they are like the Perfection Incarnate whose face I stared into. Even after adolescence, even after seeing my mom’s imperfections, her bad habits, her failures and shortcomings, her encroaching crows feet and lengthening greys, even after fighting with her over issues both substantial and trivial, I never lost the idea that she was A Mother. And when I look at myself and my motherhood and find it lacking in any significant capitalizations, I feel I have failed.

But the failure isn’t in me — it’s in a Hallmark society that puts the capitals there to start with. The problem is a culture that puts women-with-children on unattainable pedestals. The problem is the group-think that says women with children are somehow fundamentally different from (and better morally though inferior intellectually to) women without children.

The truth is — we’re not.

We never become A Mother except in the eyes of our children; we muddle along, muttering prayers and curses under our breath and hoping we don’t fuck things up too badly, and our children (though we fuck them up inevitably, though not usually irreparably) are the ones who see us as angels (or devils), as Love (or Hate) Incarnate, as significant capitalizations. Whether we do well by them or earn our disownments, some part of them sees us always through the eyes of a two year old, capitalized, Their Mother.

One day they’ll grow up, and they might have kids (or they might not) and wait for their selves to be improved, their parenthood made profound — and then they might realize that Their Mother was only ever a person, struggling to fill up the enormous space they had assigned to her.

The truth is, all mothers are only this: only you (whether you have kids or not), only me. Only gloriously imperfect, entirely human, completely lacking in capitals.

Terrifying. And wonderful.

Happy mothers’ day.

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18 Responses to A Mothers’ Day Secret

  1. Rosemary Cottage

    I didn’t have a baby and suddenly wake up a morning person, minivan in the drive way, clothes picked out, and lunch already packed. I wasn’t that person before I had a kid

    See, neither was I. Not before. But after, I gradually turned into that person. It took a little while (although less time than you’d think; having a non-supportive co-parent means that because you have to do everything by yourself… you do), and it took some painful learning experiences (taking a toddler to A&E for suspected paracetamol overdose is certainly one way to learn that you need to screw the tops on medicine bottles properly) but it happened.

    And when I left my husband, within the space of a few months I was almost a hyper version of her, because I had to be. That’s not that I don’t make mistakes (of course I do) but I can honestly say my personality has changed, and it appears to have changed irrevocably. (I mean, on the nights my ex has the child, I don’t go out living it up usually; I tend to stay in and cook meals for the freezer for the next few days.) I carry nappy wipes and plasters with me even if I don’t have my child with me, for example.

    And I’m not waiting for The Mother to come and save me because there’s only me (in fact, I’m estranged from my own mother, as it happens, not sure if that has any bearing on this), and I know this.

    And maybe it’s deeply un-feminist (like I care!) but I actually do strive, to some extent, to be The Mother. Or at least, how to put it, to get all the different parts of what I see as my “job” done right as often as I can. Like any job.

    Not just in terms of trying to get the way I parent right (although that’s a big part of it) but also the little things. One thing I discovered is that it’s all very well parenting unconditionally with empathy and understanding but if you’re out and about and your child is hungry and you haven’t remembered to bring any food with you (and you can’t afford to go to a café) then it doesn’t matter how much I empathise with that hunger, I still haven’t done that part of my job properly.

    (Just like, if I haven’t done the minutes of a meeting in time to send them out for the next one, I haven’t done a part of my job properly.)

    And like any job, I remember this mistake, and I put procedures in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Whether that’s always having some snack food in the house that I can quickly put in a shopping bag, or whether that’s diarising a deadline for the minutes.

    I really have waffled now.

  2. Mothers are people. Becoming a mother is a miracle all right. Who can forget the birth of their child? But this miracle does not come with an instruction book. It is hard work (and fun, and tears, and laughter) from start to finish. And the woman aho does it is the same person as the little girl who remembers being mothered herself. Older for sure, hopefully more mature, but with the same faults and virtues as before getting pregnant. Just with a very different life situation: another life calling her mother, with all the joys, work and problems that implies. Hallmark pushes an ideal Mother, don’t believe it. Just do the best you can, one thing at a time (or maybe more if you learn multitasking, something very useful for mothers). Do be proud of being a mother, do not worry you are not a good one. Depending on their stage of development and current relationship, your child will call you everything from ‘the best Mom in the world’ to very hurtful names. The important thing is that you are a mother, something only half of the race even is capable physically of becoming, and here is a father who wishes every mom in the world had a Happy Mothers Day.

  3. I often feel this way about adulthood in general. As a kid, the grown ups had all the answers and knew what to do. As I became an adult myself, I wondered when that moment would come that I’d suddenly have it all together; at 36, I’ve pretty much given up hope. Sure, I’m capable of much more than I was at 18, but that’s only because I’ve added things one at a time and learned along the way.

    The main trait of A Mother is being selfless…I’m not that. I also don’t think that I SHOULD be selfless. My own mother was a martyr to us when we were growing up. Even looking at her objectively now, she was A Mother. I appreciate all that she gave to me, even though I sometimes feel judged by her when she offers her “free advice” about how I should be parenting my daughter. The thing is, one of the best things I learned from her was now NOT to parent. I’m not going to lose myself completely in my child. I’m not going to overprotect her to the point that she’s afraid of the world. My mom did a great job, but I want to fix a few things.

  4. Perhaps what’s needed is a sort of Fawcett Society Tshirt for Mothers. Because I *did* turn into a mother overnight – but that didn’t alter my personality for me, or my behaviours (though I chose to alter some of them myself, when I realised that damaging behaviours I modelled would be passed on; I’m a lot more selfish now, for example, than before I had children).

    • Ailbhe — just a side note, but it kills me (not in the funny-haha-good way) when I see stores selling “This is what a feminist looks like” tshirts, in size S, M, L, and XL. ‘Cuz, y’know, can’t have bigger than XL people being the face of feminism! Arghsigh.

      The whole mother-as-identity thing is weird. Lots of people have it as a big part of their identity (and that’s fine), but I don’t. I mean, I’m my kid’s mom, but not only am I not A Mother, I don’t really even identify as “a mom”. (And that’s not some weird political statement, that’s “….wait, you mean me??” when I hear people talk about “moms”.) Which is probably a whole ‘nother post.

  5. I some ways, I am absolutely the same. In other ways, I have turned around 180 degress, much to my surprise. I’ve been meaning to write something about the unexpected transformation for a while. This might inspire me to just do it (if I can find the time. Ineffective time management – one of those things that has not changed so much, and as a mom I now have a lot more to do during the time I have)

    • Shana — “Ineffective time management – one of those things that has not changed so much, and as a mom I now have a lot more to do during the time I have” ME TOO. I mean, um, I would know nothing about that? At all? Ever? Definitely not?

      I hope you get a chance to write that post — I’d love to read it. :)

  6. Thank you Arwyn, from someone who has chosen a profession that supports mothers and babies but has also chosen to remain childless. I am no less than someone who is a biological or adoptive ‘mother,’ and I am very nurturing and maternal. Some are childless like me, but haven’t chosen this path. Examples are through infertility, miscarriage or death of a child. Others may regret their current status; maybe they were pressured to put a child up for adoption when they got pregnant as teens or had an abortion they wish that they hadn’t had. In several of those situations, many still consider themselves mothers though you might not see their little ones playing at the playground. I feel for those people and am very in tuned, because I know they are getting the same questions and treatment in our culture that I am and that grieves me. Having kids doesn’t make a person virtuous overnight. There are people out in the world doing mean things, and if the mean-doers have kids, they just happen to be parents who are doing mean things in the world, just as they did before they became parents, now with possibly greater repercussions to our society than if they didn’t have power and influence of little people now dependent of them.

  7. There’s a lot of BIG issues you’re touching on in this post, and in some ways I agree and in others I don’t quite.

    I definitely agree with Laura, in that becoming a parent in no way makes anyone a “better” person than anyone else. That’s dumb. It’s a shame people think that way.

    I don’t think having kids makes you virtuous or perfect overnight. But it does change your life completely and irrevocably, overnight. In many ways i am still the same person as I was before having a child… and in many ways I am very, very different. Because I *have* to be, in order to take care of my child. My day-to-day life is entirely different, even the things I do when I have free time are very different. The way I think, feel make decisions is very different. I’ve had to change many things in order to better take care of this person who depends on me. And I guess that’s a distinction I wonder about in what you’re saying, that there are changes to the “essence” of who you are, vs the daily routine of what you do, how you spend your time, what you think about, etc. Does changing the latter mean a change in the former? I wonder how separate the two truly are.

    I do grieve not becoming the mother I had hoped I would be. But I also always knew I wouldn’t be perfect, and embrace the concept of being “good enough.” It is scary to think about trying to live up to the image my children will have of me… but I trust they will always love me, even when they realize all my flaws, just as I do my own parents.

    • Marcy — I agree, having a kid inevitably, radically changes one’s life. I just don’t think it necessarily changes who one fundamentally is. It certainly didn’t for me, at least not in the complete, embettering way some part of me was expecting. And yes, because my life (my daily routine, how I spend my time, what I think about) has changed, perforce the essence of who I am has changed — but not that much.

      Who I am affected how I chose to parent (lazily, lovingly, introvertedly); so, although the details of my life have changed radically, the currents (if we imagine life as a stream or river) have not. I don’t go to movies anymore, but I’m still someone who likes escapism. I don’t go out for notcoffee at midnight anymore (at least not with my partner), but I’m still a night owl. I have a kid to help keep safe and sane (which includes making sure he has something to do), but I still like spending the days hanging around at home. The details have changed, but the fundamentals of my personality haven’t.

      And like I said — that might not be true of everyone. Parenting is definitely a profoundly affecting task, and some people might be more fundamentally changed than I am — I certainly am open to that possibility. But I don’t believe that most of us had a kid and then woke up suddenly a better, more with-it person — though many of us woke up with the sudden determination to be better.

      If someone became all the good parts of what it means to be A Mother, it was because human-she chose to, and worked at it, and probably flubbed up a lot, and tried again. It was through her own, human effort, and I honor her for it.

      For me, I’m with you in embracing imperfection and good enough.

  8. I cannot speak for Arwyn, but I would definitely agree that your life totally changes when you have a child, and over time may those changes may change the person that is now the parent(for better or for worse, depending). I think that the ‘parents are better than non-parents attitude’ is not easily recognizable even to those that keep threads of it in their world view or ways of life.

    I can tell you that I feel this idea and practices that support it or lack of practices that are supportive or inclusive of non-parents is alive and well even if people do not overtly state so. I have noticed it in every one of the suburbs that I have lived in or visited in the US, and that is many. I really wasn’t looking for it, I’m the type to believe in the best of people. ( The only big city that I’ve lived in was Tokyo, so I can’t say I have much experience outside of small towns and suburbs.)

    I say good for anyone who wants to be a better person, with better thought patterns, habits and other such good-doing. And if kids are your motive, that’s great too.

  9. Things people have said to me or asked me or how I was treated for being childless is so emotionally loaded for me that I’m sorry that I can’t give specific examples. I just can’t spend my energy on that right now, and part of healing for me is not rehashing such painful things in too much detail; so sorry if I opened up a can of worms and bail. I just want to let you know that my defense of my comments will only be able to go so far. Thanks to everyone for being open minded and I wish the best for you.

  10. Thanks Arwyn, for sharing that little (big?) secret.
    There have been times when I have felt like an outsider in mothers’ groups, like I’m really a non-mother who just happened to have a baby and then by some loophole was allowed into these gatherings where everyone else is really A Mother. But I’ve had to convince myself that that is how everyone else got there too, and quite possibly they are all also just ‘people-with-children’ and many now feel they need to act the part of A Mother.
    Having said that I do think having a child has changed me, not overnight, but gradually over time. But I do not think these changes are necessarily qualitatively different from changes which might happen to other people who are engaged in non-child-rearing activities. We all change over time – we are all changed by the work we do, the relationships we have. Putting the change into A Mother on a pedestal is not helpful or realistic.
    Becoming a (non-capitalised) mother has helped me see my own mother more as a person than A Mother. And that’s been a very positive thing for our relationship.

  11. I remember having this same revelation — was it during pregnancy, or in the newborn phase? I can’t remember now. But it suddenly came to me: My mother was just a screwed up person, too. She didn’t have all the answers. I only thought she did. And it probably freaked her out as much as I was feeling freaked out now.

    Thank you for this.

  12. I still alternate between concocting plans to take over the world and barely clinging to the skin of sanity trying to simply survive each day.

    I am so glad you included this line. Not that I don’t appreciate the rest of the post, but this is the one I needed to hear today. Because it is me to a T and I was beginning to wonder if I was crazy!

  13. Phoenix_Rising

    Your statement about not changing in the fact of “still being Arwyn” makes a lot of sense to me. I think, in fact (if anything), that I am more “Phoenix_Rising” now than before the birth of my babe because I have to be. One of the things that changed instantly for me was that realization that there was now this glorious little being who (at the time) relied on me for absolutely everything. I had to be *more* in order to do that. I’m not sure if that will make sense or not to anyone else. In some ways that has changed me as a person, in other ways not at all. I still work for the same causes that I did pre-child. I still believe in (and wish I could rely on) the equality in a relationship with a significant other. I still desperately want to make this world a better place. Now I simply have one more big reason to work for this better-ness, this equality, this movement of the status quo. Does that make me a Mother? No. I have to say though, there is nothing I love more than the sound of that little voice calling me “mommy”. Well, maybe curling up against the warm sleeping body of said child and listening to his little snores. <3

    And this part right here:
    "We never become A Mother except in the eyes of our children; we muddle along, muttering prayers and curses under our breath and hoping we don’t fuck things up too badly, and our children (though we fuck them up inevitably, though not usually irreparably) are the ones who see us as angels (or devils), as Love (or Hate) Incarnate, as significant capitalizations. Whether we do well by them or earn our disownments, some part of them sees us always through the eyes of a two year old, capitalized, Their Mother."
    I love it. I am quite envious of your gift with words :)

  14. Happy belated Mother’s Day. And thank you, again, for rocking my world with a fabulous post. :)

  15. Belatedly, happy Mother’s Day, and I love this post.

    Most of what changed was my life, not me. But interestingly I’m doing much better these days because after I had my son, I wanted him to love some of the things I’d loved when I was little – and so went back to doing them, or began doing things my mother did.

    And found I had missed some, and never having missed others that I liked them now. Heh.

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