Motherhood gave me an identity crisis. Solving it was simple, but it wasn’t easy.
“Where are you, Mama? Are you lost?” my 4-year-old daughter once called from the yard. I was sitting behind a plant pulling weeds, and she couldn’t see me. For her, I was miles away, lost in the wilderness. “Don’t get lost, Mama,” she said.
I have two kids, a son and a daughter who are now teenagers. When I first became a mom, it was June 2000. I was 33 years old and thought I was emotionally mature enough not to lose myself and my hard-earned independence to motherhood.
I told friends and colleagues that we’d get together, we’d go out, we would carry on as if nothing had changed. I’d just have my little guy with me to entertain us, or he’d be at home with Daddy or a sitter.
But after he was born, everything was different. All I wanted to do was stare at him. I didn’t leave the house for 10 days. I was oddly content in a puddle of fluids — breast milk, spit-up, sweat and tears. I loved being a mom.
We had our second child, our daughter, in 2004. I further embraced motherhood, adding modifiers to claim it as my new identity: I’m a home-schooling mama of two, a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) and a part-time freelancer. I’m a breast-feeding mom. A home-birth mom. A Buddhist mom. I’m a vegetarian natural mama who rejects fast food, plastic toys, screen time and mainstream everything.
There were times when I hugged my new adjectives tighter than my babies — maybe because I couldn’t hold on to who I used to be. Everything was slippery.
As new moms, we proclaim that we won’t give up our careers/sex lives/independence/identities — fill in the blank — just because we had a baby. We don’t want to lose what we were before. So we go in strong. Then slowly we learn that motherhood should be called “otherhood” — the relentless caring for others and not the self. Diaper changes at 2 a.m., sleepless nights, fevers, rashes. Snacks and snacks and snacks and snacks. Lunches and dinners and smoothies and shopping. Errands and baths and books. Making beds, sweeping messes, wiping butts and noses. Who is caring for the mother? We certainly don’t have the energy to care for ourselves.
We tell ourselves, “It’ll be easier when they’re older.” We suck this promise like a pacifier.
We want to be good moms, to succeed, to do it right, so we erect towers for our new identities. Buy products. Start blogs and Instagram accounts. Crafting our shrines to the self. I know because I do it, too.
We strive to be better than we were before we became mothers, better than our own mothers were, but we fail again and again, succumbing to the daily grind of normalcy.
When my kids were young I home-schooled them, working long freelance shifts at night while they slept. This added up to spending a lot of time at home and a lot of time with my kids. A lot of time with my kids. I loved it. And it wore me down. I craved alone time so I could lasso my loose edges back from the bodies and emotions of my children and pull them back into myself. I was completely intertwined with my children and desperate for a separate self. I wanted to be me again. I wanted time alone so I could feel myself. Think my own thoughts. Feel my own feelings, not my child’s. My exuberance rotted into resistance. And at the same time I didn’t want to be anyone or anything else. I wanted only to be a mother. They were my life, my everything. I was so confused.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t manage to be more detached. I was stuck in an identity crisis: longing for the “old me” and at the same time unable to remember who the old me was. Nor did I know who the “new me” was.
Looking for answers, I started learning to meditate and learned about the Buddhist concept of interbeing taught by Thich Nhat Hanh — that all things are interconnected. The Zen master says: “In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters.”
I was certainly causing my husband and our children to suffer, because I was miserable. I needed to add some happiness to our family ecosystem. And I needed to start with myself. I signed up for a drawing course at our community college. I started hiking several days a week. I made a commitment to meditate more and started a yoga class. I made myself a priority and reclaimed my relationship with myself. Deepening my interests outside the home was an act of inclusivity to all my different personas. All the versions of me were welcome and supported. My happiness brought joy to the whole family.
Even though on the surface it looked like I was “all in” as a mom, I had been resisting my motherhood and trying to escape it to find myself. But I didn’t need to escape my children, or escape my role as mother, to solve my identity crisis. I needed to accept my children and my role as a mother — our interconnectedness — more deeply. To let it all in, but not at the expense of my own happiness.
What I needed to do was simple, but it wasn’t easy.
I worked on changing my mind-set from “stuck with the kids” to “choosing to be with the kids.” When days were hard and long, I changed my mantra from “I can’t do this” to “I can do this.” I dove in, got silly, became an expert on Pokémon and Playmobil, sometimes allowed dirty laundry and dishes to pile up. Children naturally occupy the present moment, and when I met them there, I was free of fear.
You can’t separate the mother from the child or the child from the mother. Without the mother, the child would not exist. Without the child, the mother would not exist. And if we lose ourselves, our children also lose us.
“Mama! I was calling you and you didn’t come. Where were you?” yells my now-14-year-old daughter. Most of the time wanting me to disappear, but not completely. Still assuming I will always be close by.
“Don’t get lost, Mama” echoes in my memory.
I did get lost.
I lost myself in the inexplicably tender and cavernous love for my children.
And in losing myself, I found myself.
Leslie Davis lives in Ojai, Calif., with her husband and two teenagers. She writes to discover who she is and is not. She has been published in Mothering Magazine, Lion’s Roar, the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and the Mindfulness Bell. She is writing a memoir about healing through mindful parenting.
This blog was originally published on October 4, 2018, on the Washington Post website