Motherhood and identity

photo by Bob Packert

I stood in my gown frozen by the moment that had just passed, the room around me buzzed with beautifully dressed people.  I was at a Hospital gala event with my husband, in the middle of his first year of residency training.  Having just had our first child, I was stuffed like a sausage into my dress, so my confidence was far from its peak to begin with. The conversation had begun innocuously enough, with an introduction, and cordial small talk.  She was a fellow physician who worked with my husband.  A moment before she had innocently asked, “So what do you do?”  For the first time ever the words “I am a staying home with our new baby” would cross my lips, and I will never forget their immediate effect.  I had answered with pride, still excited at becoming a new mother.   Her reaction stunned me as the smile on her face faded, her eyes glazed, and subtly searched the room for an escape.   She excused herself with a polite, “oh, well, it was nice to meet you.” and moved on.  As I watched her walk away, the strangest thing happened, an internal voice shouted after her.” Wait! But I used to work on Hollywood movies! I have travelled all around the world! I’m a Scuba Diver! I really am an interesting person!!”  I was shocked by my internal reaction.  What was that!? What was the sudden plea for validity that sprang into motion?!  My whole life I had wanted nothing more than to become a mother, and was thrilled that I was able to stay home with my baby.   If this was what I had wanted so badly for myself, why was that external validation suddenly so important to me?

After that evening, I became interested in the identity shift that takes place when a woman first becomes a mother.  Whether she works, stays home, or does both part time, I believe in no judgment, there is no right or wrong.  It is such a personal, case-by-case decision; there is only what is right for each individual. In the end, women need to do what makes them the best mother, and what is best for their family, in any permutation.  Personally, although I had always wanted to be a stay at home mother, I loved my job, so when the time came I had tried to stay on part time.  I quickly figured out that after what I would pay for child care, I would take home about $100.00 a month, and in the end it did not make sense.  There is much ado about the effect of retirement on men, and how it impacts their identity.  I believe women who leave careers behind to stay home with their kids go through a similar identity shift.  Mothers who go back to work have to deal with a new paradigm as well.  I have been quizzing women, testing a theory since that night.  I wonder how much of what a woman’s mother did in the last generation, may dictate the daughter’s decision when she becomes a mother herself.  My own mother was a career woman with a Ph.D., as amazing as she was both as a woman, and mother, as a latch key kid, I idolized my neighbor who was home with her kids.  I know that is where the strong desire for me to stay home with my own kids came from.  I have a friend with the opposite experience, she decided she never wanted to be a domestic servant, and be in a position of financial dependency, as she viewed the situation of her stay at home mother.  Today she is a successful career woman, with a family.    I would love to hear your own experiences with this issue, and how they may relate to your own mother’s experience.

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