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Playing the part

Motherhood and identity

Various aspects of motherhood and identity ebb and flow in order to meet the needs of caring for our children. But certainly there are experiences we have as mothers that also prompt a change in the shape of our identity.

By Aviva Pflock and Devra Renner

I am at a department store with my 9 year-old son. We are riding up the escalator when I notice the music. The song transports me, I am riding in my own time machine. When we reach the top, my son asks me a question. I look down at him and realize, "Wow, what a difference between hearing that song then and hearing it now." Back then I was listening to the Talking Heads and dancing on a bar in Mazatlan during my college spring break, and now I am with my son buying school clothes. And I am thinking, "What happened to that girl who danced on the bar? Is she still around? How did she become someone’s mother?" My nine year old notices that I am drifting off. He asks me again, only this time I hear the question "What are you thinking about?" Now, the question is, do I tell my son about the person I used to be? Do I explain that I’m feeling caught in the middle of not knowing how I got to where I am while also wanting to be here more than anything else too?

The circumstances that bring us to how we define our identity are unique to each mother and may in fact define each of us differently as mothers -- but no matter how you get there, motherhood and identity are contrapuntal. Various aspects of motherhood and identity ebb and flow in order to meet the needs of caring for our children. But certainly there are experiences we have as mothers that also prompt a change in the shape of our identity. Maybe it’s comparable to the chicken and the egg. Which came first? The desire to have an identity, or the desire to have one’s identity be that of a mother? Or are they one in the same? It sometimes can feel as confusing as the study of Jewish Mysticsm, known as Kabbalah. The common belief is that no one under 40 should study Kabbalah, and even if you dare to do so, the more you study, the greater your risk for losing your mind. While it is easy to say that becoming a mother certainly affects our identity (and some would argue our mind) pinpointing exactly how it all came to be this way is a challenge.

The word "identity" seems finite, as if it is merely one thing, "our identity," "my identity," yet our roles overlap and build on each other. While the word "identity" may sound one dimensional, identity has a multitude of dimensions. We can apply the same concept to the word "music." Aren’t there millions of different songs? Styles? Singers? Yet all of it is labeled “music.”

A single song can bring on a flood of memories: old boyfriends, special occasions, fashion fads, long lost acquaintances, a first kiss, the loss of a pet, a wedding day, the birth of a child. The list is endless. Identity has timelessness to it as well, yet also exists on a continuum of time as women span our life cycle. We can be daughters, wives, mothers, teachers, doctors, musicians, mechanics, and friends, and this is just part of the ever changing list of how we identify ourselves and each other. It also identifies how we present ourselves to the world, personally and professionally.

While getting dressed in the morning I am a wife. My husband and I listen to the morning news, catch the weather report and hum along to a few songs from our pre-parenting days on the radio. Once I leave the bedroom, I am a mother -- preparing lunches, reviewing homework, loading everyone into the car. Some mornings it is done with no background noise, other days a cartoon may be on TV to occupy an early riser while the others catch up. The morning drive brings an identity transition. On the way to school the music is "kids’ choice". Following drop off, I revisit myself as the girl who danced on the bar in Mazatlan as the Talking Heads play away on the radio. The music I am listening to often takes my mind to different places and may even cause me to speak or act in different ways but it does not really change who I am. If the phone rings and my son’s school needs me for something, I am still a mother. If the phone rings and I need to stop by my office, I am a dedicated employee and still a mother. If my husband calls to meet for lunch, I am a loving wife and still a mother. I can be each of these things as easily as I can change the station on my radio. It doesn’t mean that I will never go back to my favorite station; it just means that I enjoy a little variety every now and then.

Maybe an identity crisis is formed with the realization that time has marched on and you are listening to a new drummer. Your music is now on the oldies station, you aren’t even classic rock anymore. Oh the hurt! A woman’s own childhood is also a component of what makes up her identity as a mother. Your own mother or father rocks you to sleep, many years later you rock your own baby. The music is the same, the lullaby is one you remember, yet the experiences are identified differently. Feel the identity shift from your own childhood experiences to that of your motherhood experience. You are remembering your past, the child you once were, now an adult, creating an experience for your own child to remember should they listen to the same lullaby with their child. Something as simple as a lullaby, a familiar tune of childhood, evolves into far more, it morphs thru generations, attaching to it different identities all within the role of "mothering."

I’m back at the top of the escalator with my son. Now I hear his question, "What are you thinking about?" I look down at my son, his eyes all on me, his mother. I answer, "I am thinking about the first time I heard this song. I was in Mazatlan, Mexico during my college spring break. I was dancing on top of a bar to this song by the Talking Heads." My son takes a long hard look at me and replies, "Cool!"

mmo : september 2005

Devra Renner and Aviva Pflock are the co-authors (with Julie Bort) of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, & Raise Happier Kids (2005) and are the founders of Parentopia.net. Devra lives in Virginia and is a clinical social worker and the mother of two sons. Aviva is a certified parent education and child-development specialist living in Colorado. She is the mother of two daughters and one son. The authors are currently working on a book on motherhood and identity.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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