Can I Be A Mom And Still Be Me?

Women describe motherhood like a cliff: It’s a leap of faith that no one knows if she’ll survive.

Now that I’m pregnant with my first child, I keep hearing about all the things I’ll never do again: sleep eight solid hours… have sex… get drunk… wear a bikini… travel… save money… have adult conversations not about poo… change plans spontaneously.

It’s hard not to get depressed with all the negative messages I keep hearing. I’m looking over the precipice, wondering what I’ll have to give up to raise a child. What I’m most afraid of is the idea that motherhood fundamentally changes — or worse, erases — a woman’s core identity.

I’m afraid of losing my identity because I have no role models for a type of mothering that is not all-consuming. My own mom had seven kids in 11 years, because she’s the type who just loves babies and toddlers. She stayed home while raising us, then became a children’s librarian, and she loves spending all day with kids.

But looking back at her life, I know I couldn’t do what she did. My mom made her children her entire life, and even if that was right for her, it would be wrong for me.

A few months ago, my cousin Jenny had twins. Three weeks before the babies were born, she had to leave her job to go on bed rest. She posted about it on Facebook, saying she was sorry to leave because she loves her job.

This is what my mother posted in response: “And so it begins – the babies take over your life, your own wants and needs are put aside in favor of theirs, and you stop being Jenny and start being mommy. Isn’t it awesome!!! You are a great mama already! If you want to learn how to knit or something I’ll be happy to teach you. Prayers are with you and your little angels.”

I could not figure out why anyone would say this to a woman about to have children.

That comment reminded me of the way people in a sorority who got hazed feel entitled to haze the next group. My mom assumes it’s only fair that self-erasure happens to younger moms because she got erased too.

Facebook is the site of much of the self-erasure I see in young mothers. As my friends have had children, their profiles have changed from duck-face party pictures to baby-in-bathtub shots. Where they once posted interesting thoughts on politics, celebrities, and cultural events they’d attended, now they post only about their babies’ bodily functions. Their profile pictures, the icons that represent their online identities, now show other people–their children.

To me, there’s no better way to say publicly, “My identity has been sacrificed on the altar of motherhood.”

My mom thinks being a good mom is measured by how much you sacrifice. Do you know what I call this? A martyr complex. Every parent makes sacrifices, but is that really something to celebrate? Shouldn’t the goal be to minimize the amount of sacrifice necessary? My mom told me that she didn’t read anything longer than a picture book or a magazine article for a solid decade. Maybe she never enjoyed reading as much as I do, but that is a sacrifice I would never make for any reason.

As far as I’m concerned, the less I give up of myself, the more there is left of me to do the job of being a mom. If I take the time to keep myself mentally sharp and emotionally well, that can only benefit my children. A calm, happy mom is better than a stressed, overwhelmed mom, right?

I deal with this fear of losing my identity by creating strange, untenable rules. Like: I will never watch a single sporting event for my child because I find them indescribably boring…. My daughter will have a short pixie haircut until she can care for her own hair…. My child will wear only hand-me-downs and Goodwill clothes until he complains about it…. And I will not spend any money on toys until a child requests a particular toy by name.

I tell myself these little rules will save me time and energy and protect my core self from drowning in the deluge of a child’s needs.

Of course, that’s all bullshit. These rules will not hold up in real life, and I know it. They’re a comforting fiction I allow myself for now, because I haven’t yet figured out what it means to be a mom without sacrificing so much that it makes me crazy. Even now, my mom’s version of motherhood is so ingrained in me that I have to fight feelings of guilt over the selfishness of making limits of any kind on the things that I am willing to do for my child.

What I’m really afraid of is how much I’m going to love this kid. I’m afraid I’m going to love him so much that I stop caring about my own needs and forget who I am. I’m afraid that this love will be so monstrous and all-consuming that sacrifices will become dangerously easy. I will love this child more than I love myself, so it will be only natural to put myself second again and again, until it becomes an entrenched pattern that makes me disappear. It will be easier to give in to my own desire to make the kid happy than to hold back even a small bit of time and energy for myself.

I keep telling myself I’ll fight it, though. Motherhood will tilt my world toward my child. With the ground under me slanted like that, I’ll have to work to keep my balance. I’ll have to check in with myself every day to be sure that my own needs are being met, as well as the child’s. I know this constant tug-of-war will be overwhelming. And I wonder if my mom chose the easier course: to stop fighting for herself and just let the children take over her life.

It’s kind of a cliche for a pregnant woman to go on about how she’ll be a totally different kind of mother from her own mom, and then when the baby arrives, she falls into the patterns she knows, and realizes why her mom made the choices she did. I hope that a bit of self-awareness both makes it okay when this happens and helps me to recognize when I’ve gone too far.

Either way, I’ll have a new understanding and empathy for my mom and all mothers. I’ll have made the leap off that cliff. I have faith that it’ll be worth the plunge.

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I grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio with my six siblings, attending Catholic schools and reading a lot. From there, I went to Centre College, then got an MA in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. In 2008, I moved to Nashville and started teaching. My blog (www.mereader.wordpress.com) focuses on book reviews.

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35 comments

  • Thank you for posting this article. I realize this is an older post, but it explained how I’ve been feeling, as I’ve tried to dissect my thoughts for weeks. The comments were also extremely helpful, and I wanted to share my thoughts for those who, like me, may read this in the future.

    I have a very strong, independent mother. She’s always been unapologetically herself, and she never changed the pace in her step (literally) to accommodate my brother and I while we were growing up. She spoke to us as though we were friends, and her attitude was more of “keep up,” rather than, “I need to form to your needs.” My mother’s world was herself, plus us. Her best kept secrets were ours too. I remember my family sometimes telling me, “Your mother can be so selfish.” I always resented them for thinking that, because she isn’t. Yes, she always did what she wanted and how she wanted, but through her actions we learned the meaning of something sacred, of a bond so deep that I don’t know “love” is the right descriptor. Yes, she loves us unconditionally, wholly, completely. She is affectionate, gentle, nurturing and caring. But more than that, she taught us to be who were meant to be, and then she let us be that. She hated the outdoors, and would refuse to join my grandparents and us for camping trips. When my brother decided to play golf, she told him, “I support you, but I probably will never watch you play.” When I told her I wanted to be a cheerleader she said, “Are you sure? I never liked cheerleaders,” and I said, “Yes,” and that’s exactly what she wanted, her greatest hope: Her honesty in exchange for my own. I was 100% me, and she didn’t sacrifice who she is to help me find that. I suppose that, in many ways, creates a vision of motherhood that doesn’t seem to be understood by many. I love my mom. She is my greatest inspiration, and my best friend.

    I think of my own independence as the single most important thing in my life. My self-identity is my home, my answers, and my story. Without it, I cannot exist. Without it, I cannot show my children that their stories may differ from mine, and that’s okay. My job as a mother is to show them the way, and allow them to choose their own path when they’re ready. So, no, motherhood cannot be the summation of a process. No, I’m not selfish for expressing my likes/dislikes to my kids. In turn, they too learn how to be themselves unapologetically.

  • Great Post thanks for sharing.

  • This is a wonderful post on motherhood especially for those facing fear of motherhood, or questions surrounding wanting kids / not wanting kids. THanx

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