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Me and D.: Motherhood and Identity

By Nancy Trevarthen Hodges

I woke up one day to find that I had a husband, a child, and a house.  It seemed like just a few months prior, I had been an overworked professional in the glamourous world of social science survey research.  I had recently been married, with no immediate plans for children. In fact, I kept hearing about how difficult it was for women “of age” to become pregnant.  And I had been doing everything one is not supposed to do in order to conceive – loads of caffeine, hot baths, much stress and travel.  Apparently the universe decided to throw me a curve ball.

How would motherhood affect my identity?  I admit with some embarrassment that I was one of those people who bases their self-esteem on their business card.  I was a “survey director” for a well-respected research company, and I regularly martyred myself for the cause.  So how would I deal with the inevitable changes in self-perception and definition once I became “mother?”

The shifts one experiences in identity are highly specific to the style of mothering one chooses.  Moreover, the ways in which one’s identity becomes altered depends upon one’s reaction to motherhood – is the new mother elated, in love?  Is she overwhelmed and struggling to negotiate the new relationship?  Does she have sufficient support from a social network or is she on her own?

I had come from a childhood rife with separation and loss.  My mother had been ill when I was quite young; I spent my infancy and early childhood with my grandmother.  My father left our family when I was five.  So I knew what it felt like, in both the short and long term, to be separated from a parent – and I didn’t want that for my child (nor to re-experience it myself).  Taking the standard maternity leave of six weeks, to return to a 50+ hour per week job, would not work for me.  But would I be able to easily replace “full-time professional woman” with “full-time mother” and “part-time survey researcher?”

The questions I had to confront were many: are we just a conglomeration of roles - many times, competing roles?  Do our many roles, competing and / or complimentary, define us – are they our identity?  Our roles, of course, are social and do not exist in a vacuum.  Roles require an “other.”  What do we do when the “other” is a small, soft, screaming, dependent person?

My thoughts about identity, self, and what it means to be a woman have been profoundly changed. This is how it happened: I entered the “motherworld.”

More about Me
I am a sociologist / survey researcher in my early 40s who is currently “staying home,” not working for pay, raising a two-year-old son (we’ll call him “D.”).  Becoming a mother happened quite accidentally – I found myself pregnant after three months of marriage. My maternity-leave plan was to take five months off of work following the birth of the baby and then work “part-time from home” (telecommuting).  I chose not to go back to work full-time because I did not want to be separated from my child.  My career had involved long hours and some travel, which I wanted to avoid.  Telecommuting for 50 hours per month, managing a study with which I was well-acquainted, seemed like it would be easy.  Several other mothers in my industry suggested that this would be a perfect arrangement.

And so I fully intended for my transition back to work to be smooth.  I advertised for help with childcare, signed a telecommuting agreement with my employer, and set up a
 home office.  The idea was that I could combine “mother” with “survey director” fairly easily.         But that didn’t happen... the nature of my job was such that I needed to be available via email and telephone daily, if not hourly.  I was expected to not only manage a major study, but also conduct marketing for new grants and contracts as well as publish and present scholarly work.

It’s not that I didn’t know how to multi-task; I had made a living multi-tasking.  Managing survey projects, I monitored budgets, employee performance, project schedules, and data quality.  Hell, I even planned an entire wedding (my own) while working about 50 hours a week.  The issue that had changed for me was one of quality control: the quality of life in my home – the sanity and well-being of myself, my partner, and D.  Had I been living in close proximity to family or friends who could take care of my child while I worked, I may have been able to hold onto my “worker” self.  I did have paid help, but only on a limited basis. And perhaps if I had been ten years younger, I might have had more energy.

As luck would have it, my young son developed unusually early – crawling and walking on the early end of the spectrum.  Keeping track of this seemingly crazy person while I attempted to work was maddening.   The result was that my identity as a “worker,” “mother,” and “sane person” became frustrated.  I was too tired, strained, and pulled in competing directions to raise my child well.  Much of this was informed by the nature of my child and the parenting style I chose.  D. was not only very active and quite literally climbing the walls, he did not “sleep through the night” – an issue I was  unwilling to force.  I nursed him on-demand, and I had not gotten more than four hours of continuous sleep for going on a year.  I was not martyring myself – I felt strongly that these choices were in D.’s best interest.  But something had to give.

So after working for 17 months, I took a leave of absence from my career.  And the odd thing is, I really don’t miss being “survey director.”  Being with someone I love all day generally puts me in a good mood.  Many women with whom I worked told me that I would be bored “at home,” and that I’d crave the intellectual stimulation of work and the company of coworkers.  But that just didn’t happen for me – mind you, my career was stressful, sometimes intellectually challenging, often frustrating and demanding, and very egg-heady – with a lack of social interaction.  Let’s just say that the preferred method of communication was email... even for people with offices within 20 feet of each other.

And here I am.  For the past six months, I have been a full-time, stay-at-home mother.  I don’t lack social interaction at all.  On the contrary, since D.’s birth, we have been involved in child enrichment programs (music, art) and social groups such as new-mother support groups, play groups, and online discussion groups.  This involvement has been an important peg in the emerging identity of “mother.”  In some ways, I learned how to negotiate this new self through observing others.  And though I felt a bit like a failure for having to “take time away from work,” I was reassured by the fact that smart and high-functioning women had made the same choice.     

The Dyad and Choices
What I found immediately after becoming “mother” was that my identity as an individual had been replaced by a dyad.  This dyad was the new self – “my baby and me.”  In any other context, I would assume that the loss of individuality would be close to a natural death.  But the contrary was true, knowing that my individual self would return (well, hopefully) once the child was shepherded through his early childhood.  I could then devote my time to intellectual pursuits and other interests, paid or not paid – depending upon my material condition.

My choices in mothering have been somewhat unconventional – cloth-diapering, extended breast-feeding, no long separations from the child.  These choices have added another description to my identity – “hippie” and “alternative parent.”  I did not seek this alternative path in order to inform my identity, but rather because these choices melded with my personal philosophy about the market economy and the planet.  But because I did not have a lot of support in terms of “help,” these choices meant that I spent more time doing some level of drudgery than if I’d used disposable diapers or infant formula, for example.  Laundering diapers, nursing, and toting the baby around with me all took time and energy.  The point is that I was willing to spend time doing these tasks because I felt that they would benefit the dyad long-term, with less harm to the planet.  And because I was devoting time to these tasks, I had less time to devote to paid work.

The choices any mother makes, all of which inform the dynamic of identity, are tied to where one sits on the social stratification system.  I was able choose not to bring money into my household because my partner earned enough to cover our living expenses.  Because of this, I could take the time I wanted to care for D. and myself.  In my 20s, or even 30s, my identity as “feminist” would have had a hard time reconciling this. But now, being supported by a partner does not feel at all like a sell-out.  I am raising a child and managing a household – I am mother, partner, domestic diva.  And I like it.

My Physical Self
I attended graduate school in Sociology at the height of political correctness – it was the mid-90s and we were taught that human beings are socially constructed.  Period.  We are defined by our interactions with societal institutions and social convention regarding gender, class, and race.  We are not really physical beings with drives and “instincts.”  Those are for animals – and we certainly aren’t animals!  To say so would be dangerous – it could open women and racial minorities and the disabled up for discrimination by the patriarchy (those pesky white males), who would assert that if we are different biologically or physically, then surely we are inferior and we should not hold positions of power, earn equal pay, or join meaningfully in public discourse.

This all sounds fine when discussed in classrooms by those lucky enough to be receiving a graduate education (a very thin slice of the general population).  But after giving birth, this is what happened: D. and I had a biochemical connection that, for lack of a better term, blew me away.  We were physically in synch with each other in terms of feeding and sleeping cycles.  I intuitively knew when he needed a diaper change, when he woke to nurse, and when he needed to sleep.  This formidable biochemical connection defined our relationship for the first year of D.’s life.

I challenge the idea that I am not a biological being – I was able to sustain a nursling without anything but my milk.  And I did so with a highly intuitive, non-critical-thinking  methodology; I let myself live in my body.  “Mother” was much more than just a new role; I was profoundly struck by the physical connection I had with the baby.  And yes, this was mediated and enabled by the choices I was able to make based on my material condition.

Other Mothers
The sad part about my journey is how my choices seem to separate me from other women.  I was shocked to find that a real sense of difference and disconnectedness exists between working mothers and non-working mothers.  I am sure someone much more astute than myself has researched this and written about it.  I can write here only about my own experience.  Living in a large American city, I am lucky to be part of a community of like-minded mothers.  But I have other friends and former colleagues who I admire and respect – working mothers who made choices different from mine, for a myriad of reasons that are really none of my business.  These other mothers and me, we seem to have lost our rapport and common purpose.  I don’t understand it, but I think it has something to do with the way in which “mother” defines us and how in some ways it becomes a dirty word.

There’s a competitiveness in mothering that baffles me.  I was telling a close friend about a funny thing D. had said while potty-training.  She interrupted me sharply and said something to the effect of “He’s not even two; he can’t possibly be aware; you could traumatize him by potty-training this early!”  What my friend didn’t know is that in the world of “alternative parenting,” child-lead potty-training is quite common and many children who wear cloth diapers initiate it as early as 14 months of age.  This process requires mother or some other full-time care-giver to be with the child constantly – something a working mother in a conventional 9-to-5 job would be hard-pressed to do.  My friend emailed me later to apologize for speaking so sharply, explaining that she thought I was criticizing her parenting.  She added that we both felt “raw about the whole working thing.”  I didn’t feel raw about my choice at all, but my friend assumed I did.  The point is that my choices in mothering have affected a 20-year friendship.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 How does this relate to identity?  Perhaps those who are able to hold onto “accountant” or “teacher” cannot relate to or appreciate the seeming singularity of “stay at home mom.”  Is being supported financially by a partner a slap in the face to the sisterhood, to feminism?  Am I a failure or a light-weight for not being able to negotiate the interplay of “worker” and “mother?”  How can I make “mother-work” esteemable enough to sustain my new identity?

I don’t know what’s next for me as D. moves from toddler to preschooler to first-grader, but I do know that my identity is fluid and not fixed.  Certainly, it exists within a specific time and space and is informed by a million different variables.  Today, our biochemical connection is less primary to our relationship, and I wonder what will happen when D. sleeps for eight whole hours and stops nursing completely.  Hopefully I’ll get enough sleep at that point to muse more meaningfully about motherhood, and to write more eloquently.

Acknowledgments: many thanks to all the moms I’ve met on my journey, and especially the women of thelmachicago.


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