Monday, May 14, 2012

The Motherhood-identity Paradox

The Motherhood-Identity Paradox.

I have been a mother most of my adult life. Surely I have learned more through the years than that play dough is the work of the devil? Currently I am a mother to a toddler, two pre-schoolers, a teenager and a young adult. Yes. I must have done something really bad in a former life to deserve this!

At first, when I had a baby in my very early twenties (i.e. twenty one), I had a complete identity crisis melt down. Who was I?  And how could I be who I thought I was AND be a mother AND be who I thought a mother should be? Yes – I thought about things way too much.  Mothering, I soon discovered, was in the doing. The child created the mother, to a certain extent. I responded to needs and to the personality demands of the child. The screaming, never sleeping child with multiple allergies and much projectile puking as it happened. Then another child, a very different child, soon followed. That was a good thing - less time to think. But the bad thing was I felt that whoever I had been had disappeared. Consumed into the constant mountain of domestic tasks; swallowed into the maw of white fluffy nappies. Yes. That’s cloth nappies. For two.

But the thing was, in my late teens and very early twenties, I didn’t really have a strong identity to start with! People who knew me then would disagree. But, you see, I had a strong image. Not identity. I had a strong look, a creative outlook, coloured hair and wild clothes. But clothes do not maketh the (wo)man, just the semblance of girl who seems confident because her hair is green. What little strength of character I had would be better termed as a weakness of character. And that small kernel of identity certainly got battered around by motherhood - like a punching bag on a spring. That “doiiiinnnng!” sound reverberating in my ears and stars swirling over my head.

To complicate things further, the prior teenage years had been fraught. There had been a long illness as well as a significant grief that continued to simmer away on the back burner through my young adult days. I had also lost my father as a small child and becoming a parent actually brought this loss to the fore -  because suddenly I saw exactly what a parent’s love was and realised I had missed out on huge chunk of this throughout my life. 

So there I was – I had lost the small identity I had in the form of a colourful sartorial image (no time for creative clothes play with and two children under 2), was with a domineering partner - oh yes – I hadn’t mentioned that have I? Add that in to the picture ok? Like a big blob of ugly paint in the middle of the picture, obscuring the best bits!  Who would have thought that bad self worth + misplaced pride + youth + fear of loss + unresolved grief + absent father  would  = bad relationship choices? Oh okay – well it’s obvious in hindsight! But you weren’t there, okay?! I had lost many friendships by moving interstate, had no family around me, was in a whirl of confronting old grief that haunted me from the past and could see no hope for my future. So you can see it doesn’t look good, does it?

But I did survive and here I am with three more children. As I forged my identity it merged with being a mother. My strength of character grew from leaving said blob-on-the-landscape partner, going to university, exploring my creativity, getting out of the house. Hooray! And through having more children and continuing to mother the two I already had. I have often wondered how different the impact on motherhood is on the identity of someone who has children later in life? 

Anyone who has studied creative writing or Aristotle will tell you that character is action – characters are what they do. (Especially in my old world of screen writing.) But is this true? Am I what I do? Because then I am a maid. Am I who I am in spite of what I do? No, because that would be to negate the tasks that surround parenting. I am both – in spite of what I do and because of what I do and because of the combination of both. It’s a complex interaction of role, individual, thought and action. While performing mundane domestic and not so mundane parenting tasks, I have an internal world happening of thoughts and ideas which I express through action and thought and speech and song and movement and every molecule.  I inject my personality into my mothering and mothering injects itself back into who I am.

The mother and child relationship is like a feedback loop of identity and need. A mother reacts to demands of the child. A child reacts to a mother. While both exerting their individuality. This constant circling creates the electricity of love and the gravitational pull that holds together the cosmos which is family. But the individual must retain cohesion or it will be smashed into subatomic particles like being an experiment in the Large HadronCollider. At best, I think we mothers experience a quantum flux of a mother/individual paradox like Schrodinger’s cat, alive and dead. Simultaneously. I am”Mum/Julianne” in simultaneous flux.

But then motherhood also opens up opportunities to understand growing up and life on an intimate scale. As your child grows up, you tune into the realities of each developmental stage and a really interesting thing happens. You re-experience each phase with your child. When they are five you are transported to being five- you are able to tune in, reassess what happened to you and reflect. I’ve done this all the way along and again repeated with each child and it grants me a precious perspective on my life. Away from the limitations of that age, and through the lens of motherhood, we can better understand our own mother’s choices and better understand ourselves. It’s like studying the universe and getting a powerful telescope that allows you to see back through time - to view yourself up close again. So you live your lifetime over with an acute awareness and it really helps many things to make sense and to gain a better understanding of your world. Of yourself.

As I have parented a baby through to adulthood, I have realised the cosmos that is family is expanding. It isn’t that you are no longer close to your child, it is just that the interactions and impact on identity becomes less. The gravitational pull is less.  A baby is considered, “your baby” , “my baby”. A toddler is “my little boy”. You are responsible for many of the choices of how they are. But although a young adult is “your daughter”, they are their own person. And they are not necessarily who you think they are, or who you thought they were going to be, or who you think they should be. To a certain extent you have to realise your little baby is gone. Your toddler is gone. The little girl is gone. Even, that the idea of who you thought that child was and would be, is gone. Accept it. They are who they have to be, who they have become and who they are becoming.

Does this impact on who you are as a mother? Well yes, it does. Does it impact on who you are as an individual? How can it not? Occasionally there’ll be a asteroid that comes flying off the grown up child that hits you and can hurt. It can make you realise some mistakes you have made, some of your inadequacies as an individual and perhaps some things you were blind to as a mother. Occasionally you’ll be warmed by their brilliance, which can also come unexpected. Sometimes you’ll stand back and watch as they implode. Sometimes you can’t stop seeing the child in the adult even though there is only a shadow of that child there.

Despite the impact the child has on you as a mother, and on you as a person, children are not your possessions. They are their own planet that has its own orbit through all facets of life. Letting them free to do this without fear that your gravity will be disrupted requires some strength of character, which, fortunately, I now have. Because being a mother has been the making of me, but seeing my children grow up will certainly not be my undoing. There's probably a quantum physics equation for that.


  1. Impressive. You blog post today certainly gave me a lot to think about. I've been through a lot of what you are writing about. I've often felt myself lost in being a mother until I realized that that is the one thing I've done that I've loved the most. I love being a mother, whoever I am, my #1 occupation has been being a mother. My three children are now adults and I've never missed anyone as much as I missed my children when they left home. We work all these years to make them independent, then feel so sad when they leave us. They were my companions for so many years and I miss that but am so proud that they are now the beautiful adults they have become. I'm rambling, but I enjoyed your post so much and it gave me so much to be thankful for on this day, Mother's Day. Thank you.

    1. It's hard being a mother sometimes, isn't it Irene! To feel lost in it and then have your role diminish as they get older. It can be hard to navigate. It's such a huge chunk of our lives and a huge chunk of who we are. Hope you had a wonderful mother's day. Mothers are very important people!!!

  2. Hi Julianne,
    I started off finding your post quite difficult to read as I am not lucky enough to be a mother. However the warmth and honesty of your writing really drew me in --as it always does -- and I got a lot out of it. I think that you deserve a BIG audience. And your children are all very lucky to be descended from such a circumspect person.

    1. I often wonder if I would be a different person if I wasn't a mother and I know I would be - not better or worse, just different.I became a mother at such a young age and I admit without much thought! It just happened. It is something hard to compartmentalise - as is being an artist, like you are, I think.

  3. You are one mighty talented maid. Mother. Artist. Julianne. I honestly don't know how you can write long, thoughtful posts like this as well crochet gorgeous collars and all the other things that you do! Honestly, Julianne - how the hell do you manage it with five kids? Do you not sleep?