One of the themes within the Mind anthology 'Please Hear What I'm Not Saying' is the identity of motherhood and the struggles (and joys) being a mother brings.
Poets have explored the label of being a mother and whether this becomes a new identity - an identity which perhaps destroys their own. They have also explored love through the lens of postpartum depression.
To explore this from a personal angle, I invited Mind poet, Leila Tualla, to guest blog today on identity and motherhood!
Our identities begin to take shape even before we are born. Most parents upon finding out they are pregnant, immediately start thinking about whether they will have a prince or princess. Pink and blue nursery color schemes emerge, as does names, and what he or she will look like or do.
Our identities can catalogue and separate us into neat little boxes if we’re not too careful. We can also let the people around us dictate our own identity, and both tensions and anxiety arise the moment when we realize that we can form our own opinions, be able to speak as our own person, and carve the identity we want.
Growing up, my parents put a lot of emphasis on my identity as the “pretty” and the “dutiful” one. My older sister had the voice and the leadership quality. I followed where she led. My younger sister was the athlete, and one who could never do anything wrong. Even as I began college, I was still following parental rules and doing everything that I was supposed to do. It wasn’t until I had a full blown anxiety attack in my dorm that I realized I didn’t want to fit in this preconceived box.
This box that my parents had long ago drawn out for their daughters.
This box that loomed far bigger than anything I owned in my 130 square feet dorm room.
When I chose my own career path and carved out what I hoped to accomplish, I assumed this box with suffocating labels would be squashed. I graduated. I got married and left my home town. Life and things seemed to go on swimmingly.
And then life reminds you to hold on tight for all the twists and turns you didn’t see coming. I gave birth to my daughter in 2012. It was the best and worst thing that had happened to me. Best because, my daughter changed how I perceived myself and my world view. She gave me a new identity and a new purpose in life. And worse because she was born nine weeks early and spent six weeks in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Every so often, I am reminded of her journey and I get flashes of memories that played out in the NICU. I remember the sounds and a blur of faces.
When I was pregnant with my son in 2015, these images seemed to follow me everywhere. Every waking moment was spent trying to delete all these faces and calm my worry. I don’t remember thinking this is the happiest day of my life when my son was born at 34 weeks, 6 days.
I moved on autopilot, smiling for the camera, “hashtagging” normalize breastfeeding photos and willing myself to bond with this infant that I didn’t want; an infant who lived inside my worry, inside my terror, and was now suckling what little energy I had. I became so great at pretending that no one could see or even pinpoint where I was coming apart. Then again, I think I’ve always been great at hiding. My childhood prepared me for keeping things in boxes; folding up these emotions and memories and tucking them away.
Little by little, a small tear.
I discovered that my bouts of rage the first few weeks of my son’s life sustained me. This anger was directed towards me, to my husband and to this body that failed me twice, and the prayers, and bargaining to a God that I became so sure muted me a long time ago.
My perfectly shaped box started to crumble.
Inside was this person that took everyone’s opinions to heart, and whose words mattered more than her own being, much to her detriment. Inside this box, was this identity that became so angry at the world for putting her in such tight restraints, that she needed to get out and be free.
I continued to lash out because I was finally starting to feel. I’d drive for hours to quiet and isolate the pain and it bubbled out frequently that I feared for my actions and sought help.
When I finally left my career, I threw myself into mommy mode and tried again to fit into this box of the “perfect mom.” But what happens when that identity causes flashbacks of pain? What happens when we feel guilty for “entertaining” the ideas of what ifs when plenty of moms lived through far worse and grief has made a permanent fixture in their home?
Motherhood, as isolating as it can be, is an ongoing process of forgiveness and grace. Forgive the messes, and give yourself the grace that what you are doing is what is best for you and your family. No matter what it looks like. No matter what box it fits in or doesn’t.
I’m learning to stop every so often and remind myself that this is not just my season, but theirs. In their childhood, in their innocence and what they’ll remember when they look back and reflect on. Our identities are fluid, and seasons of joy and grief cause shifts in who we are and what we believe we are. Our circumstances shape our identities in how we see our world, and how we respond to it. And isn’t that the most amazing thing to realize? We are not stagnant but a constant evolving thing. We are not the same today as yesterday.
So in my particular season, I am a stay at home mama. I’m a poet. I’m an author. I’m a mess. I’m a worry wart. I’m an anxious believer. I’m a wayward Catholic. I’m a sinner.
I’m a work in progress.
I’m everything that I want to be. I’m everything that I don’t want to be.
And I’m perfectly okay with all of that.
To read Leila's poem within the anthology and the 115 other poets involved, go here.