Thursday, October 11, 2012

Being Us First

I read an article the other day, given to me by my good friend, Mary, a thoughtful woman, a talented teacher, and a grounded human in that groooovy kind of way who is perfectly fit without working out and always seems to give the best greeting cards for the right occasion. She also happens to be an extraordinary mother. I'm constantly in awe.

Anyway, she sent me an article the other day that I just haven't been able to stop thinking about. "I'm Not a 'Mother First'" is an article written by Jessica Valenti for The Nation's online magazine. To be upfront, part of what I liked so much about this article was that I agree with most of it and have voiced my own personal concern for this idea; the idea that now that I am a mother, I must somehow give in my Individual Identity Card and pick up my Only a Mom Card. Future images of people asking me who I was and responding, "Rafa's mom or Husband's wife," seemed to really scare me. As a "stay-at-home" parent, I had worked hard to get to know people at Husband's job. Mainly because I'm social but also so that people knew me as Jen Legra (since I kept my maiden name) and not as Mike's wife or Mrs. ________ and only that. I like Jen Legra. I've always liked Jen Legra. I always wanted to be someone's mom and wife. I just never wanted to be only that.

But what has kept me meditating on this article wasn't just that I liked reading someone else's view of what I already thought, but rather that what she was saying was realistically dangerous. "...there's a danger in returning to an ideal where women's most important identity is relational rather than individual." By most important identity being "relational" Valenti refers to our most important identity being wives, mothers, daughters, etc. and if our most important identity is relational than what does that mean? Does that mean that my identity must be attached to someone else in order to make sense... in order to matter?

By attaching our identity to that of another person, as noble as it may seem, makes us vulnerable: politically and personally.

Politically, as Valenti so beautifully puts it, "identifying as a mom first in a culture that pays lip service to parenthood without actually supporting it has consequence." We say that being a mom is the hardest and most important job, yet what do we really do to encourage that? In Germany, Parliament was debating a law that would pay mothers to stay home with their infants. In France, public child care truly supports working women. It doesn't cost a fortune equal to a monthly income and actually fulfills its promise of quality care. In Norway, voted the #1 best place to be a mother by the international organization Save the Children, parents are given a full year of paid leave to spend time with their infant. Those practices support mothers with action not lip service.

Hugs and smiles are great payment, but not one senator or governor or CEO that I know of is paid in them. I like a good "Thanks. Job well done" as much as the next person but it shouldn't be my only source of income. I can't provide for my children, doing the hardest job there is with kisses, can I? If so, my student loans are getting paid off tomorrow. I mean, saying that mothers hold our country together and that being a mother is the hardest job there is seems like a lot of empty talk when there are no incentive programs or retirement matches being offered for being a mom, for being the holder of this "incredibly important job."

Personally, as mothers we sometimes believe that self sacrifice is the only path to Good Momville. Unless we are giving something up (our job, our free time, our identity), we aren't as good of a mom as our more "unselfish" counterparts. " It's no wonder that as free thinking and confident as person as I am - with, of course, my own insecurities - when I became a mother I was swimming, drowning in doubt. When Valenti said:

"To be a truly committed parent, women are expected to be mothers above all else - we're "moms  first"... means that women are expected to be everything - and give up anything - for their children. Whatever women do that seems to separate them from "true"motherhood is misguided, or at worst, selfish. If we formula-feed we're not giving our babies the best start in life. If we work outside the home [and Heaven forbid we work outside the home without even financial reward, like let's say, hmmm.... I don't know, an aspiring writer?!], we must do it with tremendous guilt and anxiety. Time away from our children in the form of an occasional movie or hobby is seen as a treat rather than an expected part of living a full life."

the clouds of heaven parted and I heard angels sing because I had spent so much of my first few months of motherhood being taken over by thoughts of "you are not good enough" and feelings of "you are too selfish for this job." I realized luckily, quicker than most, that keeping my identity didn't mean that I loved my daughter any less. In fact, I'd argue that by being myself first and someone's attached identity second, I'm actually doing my daughter justice. I'm especially doing my daughter justice who might one day grow up and be someone's wife or someone's mother and uncertain if she could be herself first.

Inevitably, I can hear some women saying, "But I like being known as Mrs. Blank, wife of Mr. Blank or mother of Blankety Blank. That's fine but I just ask that you ask yourself why you need to be Mrs. Anything when you only have to be You. Better yet, ask your husband how he would feel being called Mr. You throughout his entire history of knowing someone. Even Husband, a very free thinker himself, would have to admit that being called Mr. Jen Legra for his whole existence, would not be cool.

Being Baby's mother or Husband's wife is a part of who I am but it isn't solely who I exist to be. Owning our own identity is a crucial part of making changes that benefit us, and let's face it, changes that would benefit more people than just mothers, like maybe the children who have an at home, present parent for starters. That could do a lot for our society.

We don't have to give up everything. I'm not saying that being a mother isn't as good a reason as any to lose my identity, I'm simply saying that I don't have to lose my identity to be a mother and I'm not saying that I wouldn't die for my daughter, but while I'm alive I don't have to roll over and play dead.

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