This weekend, listening to NPR, I heard someone say that he doesn’t really think of himself in the singular anymore, but he thinks of himself as existing within his family unit. He went on to explain that much of his self-identity currently includes his partner and his kids. I nodded in agreement, and then startled. How was it possible that I knew exactly what he meant?
So much of our cultural language around marriage and motherhood is cloaked in the language of warnings. Our narrative around creating a new family has a lot to do with the idea of “losing yourself.” Marriage will make you miserable, as your personal happiness is subsumed by your partner’s needs. Motherhood is something you lose yourself in, as your career, fashion, and basic health needs are deemed less worthy than the needs of your small offspring. And while I was not terrifically scared of marriage, I went into motherhood on the defensive. I was going to watch out! I was going to always remember date night, and make sure I stayed number one, and didn’t end up in sweats all the time.
But it turned out I was defending myself against a paper tiger. For me, the joy of motherhood has been the ability to let go of that rigid sense of self, and that in so doing, a richer sense of self has been born.
I mean, just to clarify, my fashion is better than it used to be, because happy people should definitely wear purple pleather mini-skirts, amiright? And there are profound ways where my identity as a person and my identity as a mother simply don’t intersect. After a lot of careful thought, I’ve realized that I don’t work to support my family, or to model a feeling of personal success to my kid. (Well, I mean, I do those things too. God bless paying the rent.) But primarily, I work because I love it. And while I hope that me pursing my professional life teaches my children something about being fulfilled individuals, I’m doing it because I need to do it, pure and simple.
But I don’t want to go on date nights all the time; I want to hang out with my family. I no longer think of myself as just me: I think of myself as myself, and my kid, and my husband. It’s not that I think of myself relationally: as a mother and a wife. It’s that I think of myself collectively: I am me, and I’m also part of them.
On APW, we talk a lot about the idea of “the baby family.” When I first got married, I realized with startling clarity that I hadn’t just said vows and had a party; I’d created a brand-new family. It was a new family, a baby family, and it needed protecting and tending to. In the earliest years of marriage, we spent a lot of time nurturing that new entity. We created rituals. We said no to people. We set boundaries. We had uncomfortable conversations. We negotiated and renegotiated what being a family meant. Slowly, the roots of that family took hold, and one day it went from slowly growing to thriving.
I remember last year, after having my baby, a delightfully well-meaning commenter wished the best of luck to my baby family. And I realized we were nothing like a baby family anymore. It wasn’t just because we had a baby. It was just that time had passed, and all of that nurturing had paid off.
These days, when I think of my family, I think of my husband and my baby. I think of them when I think about who I am. It turns out I’m not number one, or number two, or number three, or number I-forgot-to-put-myself-on-my-own-list. I’m us. And I’m me, too. And it’s magical.
This month, as we approach the holidays, we’re going to talk about how family identities shift. We’re going to talk about becoming our own families, and being part of bigger families. We’ll talk about creating intentional families, and claiming the strengths of our families of origin. We’re going to talk about joys and sorrows, and totally flat-out crazy bits. Because y’all, it’s family month. For better and for worse.
Photo: Personal for APW