I’ve been thinking over the last few days (well, in truth over the last three and a half years) about what it means for me to be a mother.  Before I go any further, I must say I love being a mum to my gorgeous, funny, clever little girl.  But it has also been a fairly devastating experience in some ways too, in terms of who I am and how I view myself.

The reason I’ve found myself thinking about it again is primarily through looking at motherhood again through the lens of others’ experiences.  A couple of friends who have become mums over the last 18 months have been having fairly difficult times, and I have related absolutely to what they’ve been going through.  And this has led to me coming across a book called ‘A Life’s Work’ by Rachel Cusk, which is basically a warts and all kind of book about motherhood.  But two things for me are making it stand out from the crowd:

  • it is not written in a chick-lit style, for poor baby-brained mums who can’t cope with polysyllabic words and complex sentence structure. 
  • it recognises, profoundly, how much of a violation of your sense of self motherhood can be. 

Let me explain why these are important to me.  I have devoured (almost literally) an inordinate number of books about parenthood since the moment I found out I was pregnant.  It’s kind of my default setting for getting to grips with an unfamiliar situation (unless the unfamiliar situation is also a bit boring, but that’s another story).  So I have read a LOT of books, varying from the practical manuals, the cheery guides, the ‘humorous autobiographical accounts’, the verging-on-misery-lit accounts of how it nearly went horribly wrong.  And whilst they were often helpful, entertaining and illuminating, they rarely went much beyond skin-deep.

The thing I struggled with most in the early days and weeks after my daughter was born was just how much of myself was lost.  I had never considered myself a selfish person but parenthood (and to be absolutely specific motherhood, because I don’t think it is the same for fathers) instantly demanded I set aside everything for the sake of this tiny helpless autocrat who now ruled our world.  Of course I had known that, practically, that would be the case, that I’d have to make do with little or no sleep for a good while, that I’d have to juggle looking after my baby with simple things like having a shower.  But it felt like much more than that, like part of me was just missing, the part which thought independently, which even moved independently (anyone who has finally got a crying baby to sleep in their arms, and then finds them self trapped in that position for the next couple of hours for fear of waking the baby – and their wrath – again will know exactly what I mean).  I knew who I was before, but who was I now?

Rachel Cusk touches on this in her introduction to ‘A Life’s Work’:

Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed.  Another person has existed within her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness.  When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them.  To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.

This sums it up so well for me.  Yet some mums just seem to slip into that role as easily as they would change clothes, as if there is no division or sense of loss for them.  It certainly wasn’t what I’d expected, and it would have been nice to know that motherhood brings layer upon layer of changes and struggles, and they’re not all to do with lack of sleep or loss of a social life.

As time has gone by I’ve adjusted and got used to this new version of me.  I am much more aware of my failings, but perhaps that’s a good thing.  At least I can’t kid myself I’m any kind of angel.  More positively, I’ve also begun to get good at certain things.  I am much more impatient, but much more able to recognise when I need to practice patience and can now more easily make that choice.  I am discovering too that truth from Ecclesiastes 3:  there really is a time for everything.  I may feel sad about no longer doing the things I used to love doing (for example, I used to be really involved in youth work at our church, but now have a very limited involvement), but it’s both exciting and liberating to see that for now my focus needs to be closer to home. 

I don’t think being a mum is all I am, but ,since the day my daughter was born, it has underwritten all I am.   And I’m glad, because this means that I have the privilege of sharing my life with my daughter and my husband.  We are becoming the people we are meant to be, bit by bit, together.