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Performing Motherhood

As I think about what I am writing I feel pulled to self-identify my position, like I use to a lifetime ago when the work of Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Smith started to shape how I understand womanhood.

I’m a white middle-class cis woman who, in my parenting (as in all parts of my life), navigates the influence of social norms, the needs of my family, my own gut, and more often now, my own needs.

This is hard to talk about because well, it feels risky. And it’s possibly going to get hard for both of us-you the reader and me.

Like many of my friends I work to practice attachment parenting (or my version of it) which all started with the birth of my first daughter (We will need another blog to talk about the privilege in this). Our girls have always been central to our lives and honestly before we moved to Nova Scotia, the lives of my siblings. In their early years, you could find anyone of us wearing them at any given point. There was a deep sense of connection and almost a circle of support, safety, and love surrounding them. I couldn’t have asked for a more ideal way to introduce them to the world.

During the earlier years I spent most of my time “following my gut”, joyfully meeting the needs of my kids and family. Somewhere in all of this though, things went South…. Guilt, shame and anxiety came to visit frequently whenever I even thought about meeting my own needs (going out with my friends, taking a nap etc…). There was a physiological response to leaving my kids - a weighted sense of uneasiness, that I chalked up to “an innate biological need to be with them at all times”. I understood my approach as progressive and in support of a healthier life for my girls. Swept up in a deeply rooted belief that selflessness would serve my daughters’ wellbeing I almost went mad. Literally.

We are going to save you from the details here and get into a juicy chat about what the hell went wrong….

Even then I was aware that my body was being regulated by the current (and very historical) social norms of motherhood as well as the cultural beliefs around being a “productive” human being. What really messed me up was that although I knew that the ideal images of motherhood that required soft, caring, selflessness were bullshit I still felt compelled to play the game. To be clear I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t compassionately meet our children’s physical and emotional needs, it just feels really important to explore how the impossible rules around motherhood came to show up in my body even when I knew they were unrealistic and part of a larger set of cultural rules I did not believe in.

I was stuck in this space where my body communicated something entirely different than my mind and heart knew to be true. There was a gap in my intellectual and physical experience and my physical responses seemed to have a stronger hold on my emotions. This is where my work on embodiment began. Where I learned that long before becoming a mother society had primed my body by slapping cultural rules about motherhood on it -and I absorbed them making it so, so next to impossible to raise my children in an empowering way….where I mattered too (even under the guise of “progressive parenting”).

I started to unravel (because it turns out you cannot only give…. ) although it wasn’t obvious to the rest of the world. My solid connection with my girls, the cloth diapers, organic homemade baby food, expensive baby carriers were all symbols of my success at progressive parenting (and my privileged middle-class white ass). I seemed to be rocking this motherhood thing… My performance was amazing and I was losing myself in a way that almost destroyed me…

Two things are clear here: First, although my parenting approach fed deeper connection with our children, it did not balance this with meeting some of my most basic needs (because it was also heavily influenced by the societal image of the perfect mother). Second, this was all happening in a culture where money making is central to our values (and sense of self-worth). A space where we still hear people say “you don’t work” or “you have time off “ when you are home parenting… erasing the valuable and sometimes exhausting labour involved in this very act. To be clear I am fully aware of the privilege that allows me to be home with my kids when they need me. The thing is that it is difficult, painful even, to navigate these two almost opposing cultural values around motherhood and being a productive (read economically successful) human being. It is hard to be in a place where you are constantly trying to prove your worth (that will never come because you are not making money) and failing to perfectly mirror whatever the current image of supermom is.

We so often talk about the need for women to make time for themselves… to fill their own buckets (quoting my 9 year old). But to successfully do this we need to look at the larger cultural space and the different values that shape our experience. For example, in a culture where our sense of worth is largely tied to our ability to generate income, it is difficult to imagine stay at home (or part-time working) moms feeling comfortable to (or deserving of) taking time for themselves if they have already unconsciously embodied the view that they have it easy and are not contributing. There is something potentially powerful and freeing in seeing the larger forces at play. Understanding this has loosened the grip of these social influences on my physical body. Now, on a good day, when the sensations that come with guilt and shame show up -I know they are simply a visit from social rules that I have long embodied. Rules that occasionally now lose their hold…

This blog is really an invitation to start a conversation about what pushes and pulls us, where we find agency and how we navigate it all… I would love to hear about your experiences!

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