The mantle of ‘mother’ has never sat easily upon me.
Whilst the entry of my children into my life has filled me with moments of breathtaking joy and contentment, I cannot say that the transition of my identity, my definition of self from who I was pre-children to that of mother was an easy one.
It has been a long journey.
At times, a painful process. I have often felt that in order for the mother in me to be born, alongside that of my children, something in me needed to be given up.
At times, the sadness and grief of this journey weighed heavily, buffered only by my love for my children.
The truth is that, at times, I miss my old life. I miss the freedom, the unknowingly selfish ability to sleep when I wanted, to engage in conversation uninterrupted and to embrace life and all its creative opportunities. I miss time to complete a thought without the demands of another asserting themselves.
My days are now filled with tantrums, ‘why’ questions, ballet lessons and play dates. Nappy changes and washing, endless washing. My sleep is interrupted, my clothes constantly stained, my days filled with the tedium of routine.
And though there are moments of joy, moments of bliss, there is a pervasive fear that all along something intrinsic about me – the ‘me’ who is not identified as somebody’s other – is slowly disappearing. Fading into gray.
So it was with quiet excitement that I looked forward to the day that my last-born child would enter childcare. A light was appearing on the horizon. To know that for two days a week I would have the gift of time to myself, to work and re-enter the world again felt exhilarating.
I counted down the days. It was as if, for so many years, I had been holding my breath. The promise of time to myself felt like a chance to breathe again.
Yet come the first day an unexpected sadness greeted me. As I left my son in the arms of his carer, I found my eyes welling with tears. I held myself together until I opened the car door. From there the tears flowed freely until I was home and faced with a suddenly very empty, and very quiet house. It was not that I had doubts about the care he would receive, nor that he would eventually settle in. I knew I would miss him and yet my sadness felt somehow more complex and subtle. My identity was about to undergo another transition.
On a symbolic level it was the end of an era.
Being my last child, I was no longer a ‘stay at home mum’ and whilst at times that mantle had chafed me to the core, I knew I was grieving its demise. My identity suddenly felt up for negotiation. I was a mother, but what else would I be?
All too clearly I suddenly realised that from that day on, my influence over my children was surely lessening. Knowing that this was the result of a decision I had made – to return to work – made it no easier. If anything, there was a nagging sense of guilt. To retain something of myself, I had made the decision to place my child in the care of a stranger.
As I sipped my first child-free cup of tea in years, I felt the deafening silence of my empty house. A complex ambivalence that so many mothers know so well settled upon me. Guilt, that I had chosen ‘me’ above my child, relief, that there was something of ‘me’ left to choose.
I sipped my tea. I started to breathe.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem