“Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery
Upon becoming mothers, our identities as women are all too often subsumed by the mother role. We seemingly cease to be “whole” persons and tend to identify with, and allow ourselves to become primarily defined by, this one aspect of ourselves.
In effect, there’s a splintering of the female identity that tends to occur post-motherhood and is often accompanied by feelings of isolation and abandonment — physical and emotional — following childbirth. We become divorced from our prior selves as we go from sexual beings (whose sex can be a source of creative energy and power) to reproductive beings and consequently can feel a real disconnect from our prior lives.
During my children’s newborn stages, when I was in the throes of what I didn’t realize at the time was postpartum depression, I internalized it all and believed I needed to change in order to fit the role. Fun, freedom, and adventure became distant memories, replaced by feedings, sleep schedules, and chronic boredom.
Much of this dissonance, in my view, can be traced to the archetype of the Mother, which is deeply ingrained in our culture (irrespective of faith) and which many of us internalize when we become mothers.
We effectively split our identities and cease to be whole individuals but rather become framed by this Mother archetype who’s supposed to be virtuous, pure, virginal, self-sacrificing and, above all, loves unconditionally without any expectation of love in return.
We become defined by our relationships, as mothers and wives, rather than as individuals and, as a result, cede not only our parts of our identity but our power as well. That is, in defining ourselves by these roles, we become limited by them.
Becoming a mother can certainly be a part of our purpose in life — an important and, for some, even a primary one at that — but it doesn’t have to be our only purpose as women. We are multi-faceted beings whose goals can encompass much more than just raising our children. We are also responsible for realizing that purpose which does not need to end when our children enter this world. It’s time for society to reframe its view of women and mothers and reject the limited notion of motherhood that strips away parts of our identities as women and leaves us incomplete.
Among the most harmful aspects of the Mother archetype are the conflicting notions of self-sacrifice and unconditional love.
The very idea that we should give love without receiving it in return leads to fundamentally imbalanced relationships. Moreover, how can we be a constant source of love without a sense of self-love, which is negated by our self-sacrifice? Indeed, how can we love ourselves when we’re led to believe that it’s selfish to prioritize ourselves over our children, to have our needs met over theirs? The reality is that we need to be able to achieve self-love so that we don’t become depleted and unsourced, which can lead to a great deal of anger or resentment.
At the same time, we need to stop judging ourselves and each other as mothers as well as those who choose not to have children. The limited notion of motherhood often pits women against each other. We see it play out in many stories: working moms versus stay-at-home moms; breast-feeding moms versus bottle moms; organic moms versus the who-gives-a-shit-about-pesticides moms; free-range moms versus helicopter moms; and thin versus less-than-thin moms. A large part of the reason for these divisions is because so many of us remain divided within ourselves. We cannot process the social expectations of motherhood, expectations about “bringing up bébé”, without sublimating ourselves to them. There is too much noise and too little opportunity to listen to our own truth, which is overshadowed by petty differences. When mothers tear other mothers down, more often than not it’s because they can’t make their peace with how judged they feel in their own roles and, as a result, they end up projecting their own internalized judgment and dissatisfaction onto others.
My existence as a woman should not be defined solely by child-bearing and child-rearing. I am, first and foremost, a woman. Yes, I chose to have children, but I refuse to allow that choice to be all that I am. At my core, I have managed to find a deep reservoir of love which helps me find the patience I need to be present for my children while I pursue the things in my life that fuel my passions.
It’s not just about finding balance, but about being able to find complete partnership with those I love. To me, that’s what motherhood is about, deep and abiding partnership. And, if we want a greater society that includes equality and a world that is based in compassion, then it’s time to elevate women as equals and support motherhood in a way that is both beneficial to women and children so neither feels abandoned.
“The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery