As a young girl, I had a constant daydream about myself as a mother. I feel like I was born with the desire to have children, and my expectations of that looming destiny never waned. I even knew what sort of mother I would be. All of it hinged on an image of myself, babe in arms, with every hair in place, feeling serene and content. This had a lot to do with my mother, Annabelle.
My early childhood, for the most part, plays itself in my mind through a series of vignettes, forever in a dreaminess that one recalls only the fondest of memories. My mother is in every scene, if not physically, then audibly. Her voice is warm and gentle. Omnipresent. I have no memory of those early years that omits her.
Before all this mothering however, my mother was something else. She was young and carefree. A brave, adventurous girl who loved the sea and read poetry. She once spoke with a fake British accent so spot on, people would gather to hear it. She loved fiercely, and had an abundance of friends. And yet she was unafraid to be alone, often sitting in a bookstore by herself, holding a long cigarette between french-manicured fingers in one hand, and a coffee in the other.
She sang, she acted in plays, she wrote. She wrote beautifully.
Bernie, an old friend of my mother’s once shared about how in their first semester as English majors, my mother wrote an essay about the death of her grandmother.
She ended her essay with these two lines:
“They say it was a cloudy day, the day my grandmother was buried. I would not know, I could not see.”
She was, the purest form of artist. Open and raw, and undaunted. She was that rare thing, both artist and muse. And from a very young age, she had the gift of elevating the human condition into something beautiful or tragic, or both. Before all this mothering, Annabelle was something else.
In my late twenties, with marriage and children on the horizon, I found myself the recipient of particular advice from my mother. It was the same thing her mother had told her. Have your own life apart from your children, Ina.
Some days the advice had a lightness to it, other days it was sentimental. Her voice would crack when she said it. Other days it was full of foreboding. Like the voice of someone who had fallen for a trap.
And there I was, still filled with dreams of a carefree motherhood, I remember thinking, oh but that’s easy mom. I didn’t know what I was talking about.
What does it even mean?
Mothers are often told, Go have ME time. Make sure you do things for yourself. Go out with your friends. Go back to work. Have a career. Don’t let yourself go. They make a compendium of protective wisdom for motherhood—a way forward. But they don’t get to the heart of it.
Motherhood is a calling. A life-changing, world-upside-down-turning-force that goes far beyond just the dirty nappies and sleepless nights. It is altering and brutal. This hit me truly and only, after I became a mother.
I remember the moment my 3-month old daughter had raging eczema in her ears, and me thinking it was a serious ear infection, called the hospital in a panic while she cried endlessly in my arms. I remember thinking, Oh my God. I’m not cut out for this. And those random days when my children were very little, and I lay in bed in a rare moment of solitude and silence, and suddenly, this overwhelming urge to remember who I was.
That is what my mother meant to tell me. Yes you are a mother, but before that you are a person. Your own unique person, motherhood or not.
In Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, Emma Evans laments…
“I often think that motherhood, in its physical aspects, is like one of those trying disorders such as hay fever or asthma, which receive verbal sympathy but no real consideration, in view of their lack of fatality.”
Under normal circumstances, one doesn’t die simply from being a mother. But losing yourself, and everything that comes with that self and that life, is a kind of death.
Personally, I feel lucky that I can work from home and that my work as a creative allows me much more time than most with my children. Many women don’t have that choice. It was all about the kids in their first years, and I would never change that. But then came a point, fully-knowing what was required of me as a mother, that I would include, among the many things that had to be done, a commitment to preserving my identity. One day the kids will be all grown-up, one day they will leave. And if you don’t remember yourself NOW when they are still little, in that future, in that empty house, finding yourself again will be a much lonelier task. And will it be too late?
Perhaps to some, my mother’s advice goes against the very nature of motherhood. Motherhood is about sacrifice and selflessness, of course it is, and she embodied that. Her advice is not to neglect your children, but simply, to have your own life too. It is not easy, nothing is easy with motherhood, but it is not impossible. In fact, it’s almost natural.
You as a person will inform the way you are as a mother, and not the other way around. We all need to cover the non-negotiables—that our children are happy, healthy, protected, and loved. But the way you choose to do that is entirely up to you. Just as every child is different, every mother is too.
If you are on the cusp of motherhood, or like me, in the thick of it, I hope you come to this realisation without guilt or regret. There is no line to be drawn between who you are and your motherhood. Be yourself. Your children deserve to know who you are.
Some of the happiest memories I have as a child were that of being loved by my mother. Of sleeping in her bedroom on the floor beside her bed, of having her hold me at the height of an illness, of seeing her and my father attend every single childhood gig I ever attempted. The smell of her room, of her clothes. The memory of her always being there.
But also, I remember with bittersweet joy the times when she was just herself. Crafting some wild project, attempting a kitchen experiment, playing her music while she put on her makeup, singing in front of a crowd, walking in the rain, gushing to herself over a gorgeous line in a book. I was happiest when she was.
Over the years, there were times when those moments were diminished. She would tell me later, that she wished she did this or did that, that if she could go back some things would be done differently. But she never failed to tell me in the same breath, “But then I wouldn’t have you.”
I wish I had a time machine and I could travel “Back to the Future” style, to when Annabelle was 30-something, with four kids taking over her life, so I could tell her, “It’s OK. Keep singing, keep dancing. Go audition for that thing. Write that book!”
I know you Mom, I’ve always known you. And I love you.
It is not too late.
*Photo by Issara Willenskomer