BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES
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BREAKING OUT OF THE MOMMY BOX
By Jami Ingledue
When we have kids, it’s like we, as people, disappear into the vastness of motherhood. We are completely subsumed by their enormous need for us, which fills our whole world and pushes everything else out past the edges. Everything else, even basic survival things like sleeping and eating and peeing, is eclipsed by their endless need, like an exploding star that immediately covers our entire universe.
Where do we go? Are we still there, underneath the debris? For me, it felt like sometimes I had been scattered to the universe by that exploding star, and would never be able to collect all the pieces again.
I remember talking about this with a wise mother and grandmother—how I didn’t seem to enjoy the things I used to enjoy, didn’t want to do the things I used to love. I was just so tired, and when I had any scraps of time I just wanted to rest. “You’ll come back to yourself,” she replied.
I did not know I would lose myself. I was not prepared for the disappearance.
Self-care is simply coming back to ourselves. It’s remembering, after we come out of the exhausted fog of diapers and night feedings, that we have a self in there still, and that we have needs too. That our needs are just as important as everyone else’s, and there is a cost for denying them. And in the family everybody pays the price when one person’s needs are deeply unmet.
Our identities are blown to bits by motherhood. This can be a great thing, because it is the only way we can really expand and remake ourselves into this new thing called a mother. Like dividing perennials—maybe it hurts to get sliced down the middle, but that’s how we get them to grow bigger.
If we can bring the pieces back together, that is. If we can gather ourselves back up, gloriously and messily expanded, and assert our personhood again; reshape our hearts into something that is bigger and newly shaped, but still US.
And if we don’t? If we don’t come back to ourselves as a whole person? There is a cost for denying our own needs.
That cost is bitterness and resentment. It’s making ourselves smaller and smaller to fit into that little box of motherhood, when we should be expanding. It’s spending our whole lives being what everyone tells us we should be, and never finding out what we really truly are.
We all know people like this, or had those moments in life when we’ve been like this. Small and bitter, because nothing is enough. Passing judgment on others, because it makes us feel better about ourselves, for a moment. If we don’t take responsibility for our needs, it’s easy to become passive-aggressive, inflicting small wounds on others to express our own resentment, always turning attention to our sacrifices, always looking to blame others for our own unmet needs. Moments when we become Mommy Martyrs. But nothing will ever be enough for a martyr, because nothing will ever fill the hole where their Self is supposed to be.
Motherhood can be such a tight box. Does any other role in our society demand so much? Our cultural narrative says that only moms should sacrifice all that they are, all the time. (And it’s an even bigger burden for women of color.) Women can have their identities uniquely subsumed by motherhood, so that it is the only vehicle for achievement, fulfillment, identity.
Self-care is often spoken of in terms of bubble baths and yoga because rest and reflection and alone time are so often what is sorely lacking for moms. (This is frustrating for people without the privileges of time and money; and for women of color, who already have the constant stress of living in a racist society.) But those are just a means to self-care; it is not the end itself. The end itself is becoming whole again, fulfilling our own needs so that we can be our fullest, most authentic, thriving selves. The end is wrestling back control of our own identities.
When our needs are deeply unmet, when we don’t even allow ourselves to HAVE needs, when we don’t feel worthy of having our needs met—thriving for ourselves is impossible, but it’s also much harder to show up for others. We tend to get irritable and easily triggered. We have no patience or tolerance. And we become more and more resentful of those around us who constantly need our attention and energy—and this often means our kids. We are better mothers when our needs are filled, NOT when we sacrifice everything all the time.
We are talking so much now about self-care for moms because we are only starting to consider it. Mothers have been doing the free labor of society since forever, and that sacrifice has been expected and taken for granted.
You don’t hear much about self-care for men; it is already a given. (At least on a surface level; many men have not been given the tools for emotional self-care.) To put it in stark terms, men are accustomed to feeling they have the right to fulfill their needs. Women are not. Mothers especially are not. That’s why we are having this cultural conversation about it: we have to convince ourselves that it’s ok to even have needs.
The self-sacrifice of motherhood is a beautiful thing, don’t get me wrong. And we feel the pull, the drive to protect and care for these helpless beings that were given to us. It feels right, it feels like this is what humans were meant to do. The bond of care is mysterious and frightening in its ferocity.
But it can only take us so far. If we stay in that box, we will never grow as big as we are meant to be. We must come back to ourselves, new and bigger and without apology. We must give our families the gift of knowing us as our true authentic selves, and in turn show them how to be their truest selves. This often makes a mess of everything for a while. That’s ok. It’s a small price to pay if it leads us to thriving.
And the world needs us thriving, Mamas. The world doesn’t need more mommy martyrs. We can be so much more when we are beautifully expanded by this fierce love, when we are lit up and shining with the light of our souls. And we can’t do that from a small, tight box.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?—Mary Oliver
Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 6, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She also spends a large amount of time ringing her senators and has begun a chapter of MOMS DEMAND ACTION. She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.
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This is such an important topic and perspective. So many of us mothers are hit with new responsibilities, roles, emotions, etc. in the midst of sleep deprivation and a total shift of priority from self to taking care of others. In the midst, we often feel alone with high expectations and little help and time for refreshing. Better support for women in this time is an investment in our society as a whole.
Wonderful perspective and advice! If only we could get this message to ALL new mothers. Life-saving wisdom.
I love this post; what a soothing read. Thank you!