We were enjoying margaritas and fancy tacos after a gallery event when a friend shared with me one of her most recent projects. “I’m trying to spend more time as… you know… Katie*. The Katie as opposed to the mom.”
She went on for a couple minutes about things she didn’t enjoy doing – playing kickball or going to soccer games, maybe, I don’t know; I was having trouble paying attention. Finally I stopped her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t understand. What do you mean being Katie instead of Mom? Who the heck are you when you’re Mom?” I was genuinely confused by this delineation.
“See? That’s why I told my therapist I need to spend more time with you,” she laughed. She elaborated, “You know, there are so many things you have to do as a mom that you don’t necessarily want to do.”
“But you’re always you,” I insisted.
Apparently, as I learned from Katie, there is a school of thought that suggests Motherhood is a separate experience and even identity from Personhood. Motherhood is caring and giving and selfless and tireless. Mother feeds, cleans, caters, chauffeurs, entertains, and guides.
I disagree. Motherhood is many things, but it is not the replacement, even temporarily, of a person’s very being.
Motherhood is one of many roles a woman can play. It is an evolving stage of life and, at times, a list of tasks: feed, clean, cater, chauffeur, entertain, guide. But it is always a whole person doing those jobs. Furthermore, I am not merely the tasks I do, and neither is my motherhood defined by them – because motherhood is a relationship.
…motherhood makes sense when you realize that it’s a relationship. Loving and nurturing your child is the relationship you have with your child. That’s why when you have a bad day as an adult, you still want your mom (if you have a good relationship with your mom) even though she isn’t making your meals, changing your clothes for you, driving you to work, or doing any of the stuff moms of kids do.
All the stuff that has to be done for kids, though, those things are jobs. Changing diapers, researching carseats, driving to soccer practice, washing clothes, catching vomit with your hand, putting to bed, filling out forms, searching out a replacement wubbie on the internet, making lunches, making dinner, making breakfast, making snacks. Many of those tasks are not that brain-intensive, and are not valued highly, across all societies. That’s why a) motherhood sucks so much, b) it’s devalued so much, and c) wealthy women have always outsourced as many of those tasks as they could, until recently, so they got the relationship but not the jobs.
–Magda Pecsenye, askmoxie.org
How can I possibly expect to have a healthy, functional, satisfying relationship with my children if I show up as anything but my absolutely authentic self?
Make no mistake: the mother-child relationship is not the same as a friendship, just like it isn’t the same as a relationship between spouses. Relationships are not identical and in many cases they are not equal; there is a distinct difference in power and responsibility between a parent and a child.
In my relationship with my children right now, I am in charge of their safety and their well-being. I am responsible for them in a way they will likely never be responsible for me. My love for them is also deeper and more complex than their love for me, which is why I take a weird joy in sacrificing big chunks of my life for their growth and happiness and they have to be reminded daily to get their dirty underwear off my floor.
Embracing the relationship of motherhood does not mean being your child’s best friend, but it does mean honoring your role as a whole person in the two-person dynamic.
It means my kids know I listen to music that isn’t sung by life-sized puppets and watch TV shows that aren’t about preteens at summer camp. It means they know I love fried chicken and the color pink, and that I will always love Prince more than anyone else. It means they know I have a tendency to be cheer loudly and dance in the aisle of the grocery store, and that sometimes I stay in bed all day because I am too tired and overwhelmed to do anything else. It means they know that I try to speak up when someone hurts my feelings because I think my feelings matter, and also that I’m learning to apologize more often and fix less. It means that I will almost always be nicest to the person who is nicest to me and that I will not under any circumstances accompany them on a night hike through any incarnation of wilderness.
As with any relationship, there are boundaries. My kids don’t get to watch True Blood with me and they can’t listen to TuPac until they are old enough to understand nuance. I didn’t tell my toddlers about my inability to finish college as a young mom, just like I didn’t tell my neighbor about my marital challenges upon first meeting her. I share new parts of myself with my kids over time, as appropriate, as they and our relationships develop and mature.
But holding back does not mean becoming someone other than myself, ever.
I do Mom jobs and make Mom rules and set Mom boundaries, but I do not put on a Mom Mask.
Sometimes this bites me in the ass. I don’t enjoy the crown of Supreme and Perfect Ruler in my home because everyone has seen too many of my flaws. I am not infallible, and my children often seem hell-bent on disproving my philosophies on everything from “acceptable hygiene” to “origins of the Universe.” At least once a day I regret my decision to relate to my children rather than mold obedient subjects.
On the plus side, this sometimes inconvenient honesty challenges me in remarkable ways. If I need my children to see a better example than I need to become a better one. If I want to teach my children to have strength of character, I have to work harder to cultivate character in myself. My commitment to authenticity forces me to work towards a version of myself I’m proud to reveal to my kids.
That’s not to say my relationships with my children are perfect; they are even less perfect than my relationship with my husband. I have spent hours wondering if I’m pushing too hard or not hard enough, if I should be more or less involved in their day-to-day activities, if I should have put my foot down more on room cleaning or going to church. I am by no means a parenting expert.
But on this one thing I am confident, so confident that I give the same advice to my children.
Be yourself. You don’t have to show all of yourself to anyone, but always make sure what you share is true. At the very least, you’ll know that whatever happens next is real, and you will not have lost yourself in the process.
What say you? Do you feel like you can be your real self with your kids?
*Story told with permission. Name changed to ensure my friends keep having drinks and interesting conversations with me.