This is a post about identity. This is a post I don’t really want to write.
When I was in High School, I had this really cool art teacher. But there was another art teacher, not necessarily cooler, but younger, who used the next classroom over. She had a free period while I was in my studio art class, and a friend of mine and I used to chat with her while we were working (or procrastinating). She was in her twenties, she had a live-in boyfriend, she only taught part time so she would have time for her work. She was a feminist. She was incredibly interesting to me, as a seventeen year old artist stuck in the suburbs and unsure what was coming next. We talked a lot. One day, I don’t remember why, I told her that I had always known that I wanted to have kids, to be a mother. At the time, I considered it to be something like my second calling. I believed in fate, and I believed that I was put on this earth to make incredible artwork, and also to mother.
“Yeah but, is that really want you want, or is it just what you’ve been told you want your entire life?”
The question was like a blow. I felt insulted, I felt like my own sense of myself was being challenged. Suddenly, this woman who I had respected was under fire in my mind. Who the hell was she? She didn’t know me. She didn’t know who I was, she didn’t know what I wanted. Just because some people caved to social pressures and did things just because others told them to, that didn’t mean that was me. But it was actually a worthy question. Children, especially children who are assigned female at birth, are told so much about what to expect of our lives. The things we are told shape our perceptions (duh) and affect what we want, or what we allow ourselves to want. It is so much easier to choose from the approved list, after all.
But I really, really, wanted to be a mom.
Recently, chatting with a friend who is at a different point in her journey toward parenthood, I shared a piece of information that feels very basic to me, so basic that I forget it is surprising for others.
“I’d been dreaming about, and sometimes planning for, getting pregnant for about ten years before it actually happened.”
If you do the math in your head, that would put me at the tender age of nineteen the first time I thought, “you know, maybe I should have a baby soon?” But in all honesty, it may have been earlier than that. I was always in a hurry, I always considered the fact that I had to wait to have kids to be supremely unfair. Have you ever known something in your bones? In my bones, I knew that I was supposed to be a mom. When I was twenty three, I got a cat and joked with my friends that it was “the only way to put off having a baby.” But it wasn’t actually a joke, the joke was that I was pretending it was a joke. When I was twenty four I started researching sperm banks. My mom had had my older sister when she was twenty one, in my mind, I had already fallen behind.
I spent all of my twenties dreaming about motherhood, hoping and wishing and praying that it might be just around the corner. When I met my wife I said, “just so you know, I probably can’t get involved in anything very serious right now, I’m saving up to get pregnant this year.” A friend, when he was something like nineteen, introduce me (age twenty five) to his mother as “mom, this is Katherine, she’s my Detroit mom.” It was clear what he was saying, “this is the person who takes care of me when you can’t do it.” Maybe I should have been embarrassed, but I found that I was beaming. I wanted to be a mother so badly it was like a fire, consuming me.
Then, at twenty nine, I got pregnant.
This is a post about identity. This is a post I do not want to write. I don’t want to say the words, because they feel cliche and weak and stupid. I am sitting at my laptop, in my livingroom, and the livingroom is so utterly and completely filled with toys and kids’ books that it looks like a tiny daycare center. The baby is napping upstairs as I write this. Next to me on the couch, on one side, is a massive pile of baby socks, yet to be paired and put in his drawer. On the other side is the sleep sack he wears to bed at night when it’s cold. I just remembered I have to switch a load of laundry over. But I am sitting down to write this.
I want to be more than just a mom, goddamnit!
A few weeks ago, there were some silly little things going around facebook, those copy-paste statuses. “Comment and I’ll tell you something I admire about you!” one said, “Give me a compliment and I’ll compliment you back!” another offered. And I bit. It seemed like it was maybe a little cheesy, but hey, anything that gets us to lift each other up, right? There’s been dark times lately, we could use a little joy, a little reflection on the parts of us that are good. Maybe it was contrived, but maybe it would also be worth it?
I waited for the compliments to roll in.
“You’re such a good mom!”
“You’re such a good mom!”
“You’re such a good mom!”
And I felt the metaphorical wind entirely leave my metaphorical sails.
Look, it’s not as though I don’t want to be a good mom! I am, by definition, a mom, I am mothering as we fucking speak (we’re not actually speaking, I’m writing a blog post and you, in the future, are reading it, whatever) and if I’m going to be a mom, a “good one” is certainly the kind I want to be. I like doing things well. And also, my child is a person, and a person who matters, and so doing well at raising him seems like a thing that matters. Obviously, I’m gonna show up for him, I’m going to try my best.
But there is something profoundly lonely and isolating about knowing that, first and foremost, everyone sees me as a mother. The rest of my personality, the rest of my many titles and roles, are entirely eclipsed by my relationship to this one, individual, solitary, person. He claws at my skirts when I leave the room. He spits my own breast milk out of his mouth and onto my shirt and then laughs at me. He, well not really he but more the fact that he exists, rules almost every waking second of almost every day of my life. And the people who know me, the people who are outside of that relationship, that is all they see of me. Anything else that I was or am — wife, lover, artist, friend, daughter, sister, faggot, story-teller, cat lady, slob — is rendered invisible by the heavy weight of motherhood.
It’s ridiculous for me to resent it. After all, this is me we’re talking about. For a decade I pined for motherhood. I craved it the way I crave sweets. I knew it was an important part of me, a part of my identity that was yet to manifest in the physical world, for a decade it was just out of my reach. I was so excited for it! I knew that once I could attain it, I would be whole and complete, everything in the world that I was meant to be.
But that’s just it. Motherhood was never the end for me, it was the beginning. It was never a singular identity, it was one of many. What I craved was a rich, full, and complicated life, in which I had a child or children. I wanted to be a mother yes, but not just a mother.
And, in some ways, I’m not just a mother. Since my child was born, I have built, for the first time in my life, something like a career for myself. I’m a writer, I write words for a living. Once, I applied for a regular contributor position (which I didn’t get, but no matter) and the editor responded with “oh, I’m very familiar with your work.” I have work. In fact, I work my ass off. I happen, however, to write a lot (though not exclusively) about parenting. Writing about parenting, especially if you are a mother, is seen as a hobby, a side-hustle, not real writing, something us moms do on the side. I have a blog that is at least in large part about having a child.
I’m in a livingroom fucking covered in toys.
So I can see why “mom” might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of me. I’m not doing a whole lot over here to give you much else to work with, I realize. Maybe it’s fool-hearty in the extreme to whine about people only seeing me as a mother when I am constantly performing motherhood. Maybe in part I’ve thrown myself headlong into parenting because I wanted it for so very long, maybe it’s because the odds are very good that I will have only one child and I want to mother the crap out of him. I don’t know. I feel embarrassed to even be talking about it.
But I’m more than just a mother, I’m also something else, something else I don’t have time to think about right now because the baby is going to wake up soon and I have about three thousand things to do first.