17 different women, 36 crazy children, 0 babies in utero
Adventures, Advice and Questions from a group of Mormon women who met in Queens, NY and have now scattered all over the place.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Split Identity

It's been three weeks since my dissertation defense, the culmination of 7 1/2 years of a PhD program. I've been turning over a post in my mind for a while now, and while we've been busy with all sorts of things, the honest truth is that I haven't been able to push through a post. I tried to start writing something several times, and words just haven't flowed.

My feelings about the entire experience are all jumbled. I have my share of bitterness about the process, pure relief that it's all over, of course, and anxiety about the future and what I will do. I can't succintly put into words how grad school has influenced me. Really, it's incalculable, but I am (of course!) a different person that the day I stepped into Canon Hall for the first time. All that I've learned, the accomplishments making it through grad school have required of me, friendships, sharpened opinions about a range of topics, and disillusionment with the establishment of academia.

But the influence that I've been thinking most about is how my identity has become tied up in the work I have been doing for so long. Before I was married, before I had children, I was in graduate school. Being a graduate student has been a core piece of my identity. As part and parcel of that, I stepped on a career path of sorts and have been treading on it each additional month it's taken me to finish. My advisor, other students, and most everyone in my office assumes that I will follow in the footsteps of the other students that have passed through the program and take some kind of full time job.

At the opposite end of my identity spectrum is the life represented by my mother and MIL. Both chose early on to not work in favor of mothering and a domestic life. I have often felt that they (and others in the church) expect that I will not work, and that graduate school is something I just needed to finish, education for the pure sake of learning.

How can I explain to either camp the profound ambivalence I feel? That I want to ensure that my chidren are growing emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically, that they are well cared for and happy, and that our relationships as members of a family are growing? But at the same time, how I want to continue--if even slowly--to grow and develop this very different and separate portion of my life. These are both important parts of who I am. I feel so divided and unsure how I want to and how I should reconcile these two pieces into one cohesive identity now that grad school is over.

I'm not necessarily asking for advice--I know we'll come to a solution. But for me, the definition of my identity remains somewhat illusive. Do any of you feel identity conflicts? Do you feel you've lost a portion of yourself since becoming a mother? Do you rejoice in that or mourn it? Or both, depending on the day?!? Have you found a way to expand your identity to include all that you want? Or are you setting a portion of it aside for the time being?


  • I have definitely felt a split personality, and the urges to be a mother or to be working are more intense when I am around people in that particular "field". I do feel (for myself), that i am not with it enough to be a super mom. Ive tried. I get cranky, confused and destructive. SO for the time being, I have chosen to be a mom. I think since i made this choice i am going to do it FULL out and the best I can. When the time comes, I know i will have the opportunity to persue my acting career once more and I will do that FULL out and the best that I can. The thing I focus on now besides trying to be a good mother, is finding out what I really like to do. my tastes have changed quite a bit and I am trying new things. I love having the freedom to explore and venture out into uncharted waters. I like to live a life that shows my children that you can learn and be educated, and even follow your dreams while raising a family...even if you have to wait awhile for a dream or two to come to fruition. There are plenty of things that I desire to do that I can do while being a parent, but unfortunately being a working actress is not one of them. But i also will not give it up for the rest of my life and look back in regret. I can have my cake and eat it too....its just some of it will be waiting for me in the freezer!
    lots of luck with your identity Michelle. I think while it is frustrating some days, but its great to have more than one so you dont get bored!
    posted by Blogger ksl at 4/04/2006 06:22:00 AM  

  • Michelle, I find your post very poignant--especially since I'm just a week or so away from assuming the identity of "mother" for the first time. I've wondered my whole life how I will react personally to this moment. How it will change me. How I will handle it as it transforms me.

    I've already felt the effects. While I love being pregnant and I've found great satisfaction in throwing myself into preparations for our baby's birth, I have also spent the last 7-8 months with almost no conversations with other people about the work and interests that have occupied my life and identified ME up to this point in my life. Moving to a new ward/state/country at 6 months pregnant means that most of the people I interact with on a daily and weekly basis see only my pregnant tummy and haven't discovered that just recently I was teaching at a university, preparing a manuscript for publication, editing, proofreading, and participating in a whole slew of activities that had nothing to do with mothering.

    While no part of me is ashamed or resentful of taking on motherhood, I do miss (already! am I headed for trouble?) the intellectual work that I used to do--and selfishly, perhaps pridefully(?), I miss being known/recognized for the work that I've cared about and loved for years now.

    So, yes, I definitely identify with your identity crisis.

    Claudia Bushman, a very wise mother and academic, whom I was privileged to get to know during a summer of researching with her husband, said to me once over lunch: When I was with my academic friends, they thought of me as "a mother"; when I was with my mother friends, they thought of me as "an academic." I never quite fit into either camp.

    How many of us feel that? Perhaps that sense of dislocation--in either world--can be an identity itself. We're women who break the mold. We don't limit ourselves to just one identity. We're willing to take on the discomfort (and perhaps disapproval from others?) of living with the ambiguity you've expressed and creating something meaningful--for ourselves, our families, our children, our colleagues--out of it.
    posted by Blogger sunny at 4/04/2006 06:54:00 AM  

  • One last thought: as someone who has known you for years, Michelle, and throughout the end of your graduate school experience, I can say that I don't expect "the end of graduate school" to change who you are completely. I think your identity will continue to include an academic side. It's a part of you and I think, on some level, it will always influence you and be recognized by others. I don't think it will be lost completely, even if following the career path your professional colleagues have chosen isn't possible at the moment.
    posted by Blogger sunny at 4/04/2006 07:03:00 AM  

  • Both, depending on the day. Hands down, both.

    I do not hold a post-graduate degree or know the particular challenges that come with such a long academic sacrafice and accomplishment, but I did formerly have an exciting career that I loved. Now I stay home full-time with my two (any day, three) kids.

    There are days when I want to put my head through the wall because I feel like "I" am utterly lost. There are also days when I feel fulfilled and pretty satisfied being an at-home mom.

    By becomming a mother and choosing to shelf my career, I did set aside a part of myself. It's not lost, I know where it is, but I don't get to use it everyday. It certainly required me to change my focus and, really, it's a leap of faith too. I don't think any of us are super-mom or can do it all, everyday. The examples and cliches abound of women who burn thier candle at both ends and end up burnt out.

    I have not found a way, at this stage while my children are so young, to include all that I wish for and want in who I am. But I also try very hard to do things to help myself remember the parts of me that are "aside" for now. Sometimes this means putting myself first- not something mom's do very often, and I still struggle with being ok with that. However, my sanity requires it, and I am a better mother when I take care of me, too. Delicate ballance, here.

    The solution for me, not necessarily for everyone, was to begin a consulting/design company from home. I know many women who use this route to keep themselves sharp, while still being mom full or mostly full-time. It may not be everything I want for myself, but it is a satisfactory compromise.

    As far as fitting in with either peer group, or our mother's expectations for us, women can be so unkind to one another- but that's another topic.
    posted by Blogger Tracy M at 4/04/2006 09:23:00 AM  

  • Thank you for your post. I have also felt pulled in many directions as I try to decide who I am. I guess the beauty (and in some cases the pain) of living as an LDS woman now is that we have the opportunity to face this crisis. We have the opportunity to be capable, educated, working, stay at home, sometimes insane, barely hanging on to reality moms, wives and women. One thing I have learned is that no matter what path you take, as long as you own it, it's yours. For good or bad...it's your life, your choice. And in owning your choices, it allows you to grow from them even if they're "wrong," "right," "sideways," "backwards," or "otherwise." I just really respect that even without knowing the outcome of your schooling, you thought enough of yourself to finish. If I had daughters, I would like them to know your story.
    posted by Blogger Maralise at 4/04/2006 11:08:00 AM  

  • Maybe I am still in the throes of new mommyhood, but I do not feel the pull of work AT ALL. Prior to the birth of my daughter a few months ago, I had the perfect job - lots of responsibility, interesting projects, great coworkers, excellent compensation.

    While preggo, I had planned on returning to work part-time. It made sense and I had it all mapped out. I would have the best of both worlds. Lots of women do it, how hard could it be?

    Then I actually had the baby in my arms and the whole part-time plan flew out the window. I fell totally love with this tiny little girl. My whole person was now redefined as her mom and I loved it. There is no way that I could fathom leaving her in someone else's care while I worked. (BTW, there was a great article in the Ensign in December that really spoke to how I was feeling. It was written by a women who was surprised at how much she loved being a mom.)

    I am so grateful to be a member of church where we are supported in staying home with our kids. Most of the voices in my life were telling me to return to work. This was not what I really wanted and I am so grateful that I had the words of modern prophets to help guide me in making my decision. There is so much in our culture that doesn’t value motherhood and it is wonderful to have a voice that affirms my desire to stay home with my baby.

    I know for a fact that I personally would not feel this content staying home with my baby if I had not gone to grad school and worked in my profession for a few years. I would always be wondering if I really could cut it in the workforce and wondering if the grass was greener on the other side.

    I know mommyhood might not always be as fun as it is right now and that a change in my family’s financial status could necessitate a return to the workforce, but I am so grateful that my only job right now is to grow my baby.
    posted by Anonymous Liz at 4/04/2006 12:54:00 PM  

  • Liz, I had a similar experience - I actually did go back to work part-time for 3 months when my son was 3 months old, and I remember how glad I was that I did, because it helped me to know that staying home was 100% what I needed to do. I couldn't imagine not being there with my little man every minute, and so that's what I did.

    That was over 2 years ago now. And I don't regret it doing it then, but things change over time. Suddenly I have a little person, not a baby, who doesn't need me to entertain him and keep him alive quite as actively as he did when he was new. Yes, he need stimulation and teaching and repremanding and directing, but he also needs space to learn things on his own. So I find myself with a lot more down time, and a lot of thinking about who I am and what I contribute to the world. And I'm trying to figure out what, in addition to shaping this child, I want and need to do with my life. Unlike Michelle, I don't know what that passion is that calls to me. In some ways, I suppose this makes me lucky because I don't feel divided between two worlds that don't necessarily exist well with each other. But on the other hand, I'm having a difficult time picturing who I am apart from a mom, something that I need to do for myself. Shaleen wrote a post a while back that spoke to this feeling. There are pieces of me that are not "filled up" by my mom role, so my question (and the question that so many of us have) is how do I fill that and still take care of my family?
    posted by Blogger marian at 4/04/2006 02:00:00 PM  

  • I have often found other people's expectations of me to be completely paralyzing. The way I get my legs back under me is to form my own expectations as I am daily guided by the spirit.

    I like to think of my identity as something that can never be labeled because it is a shape-shifter of sorts. It adapts, conforms, grows and shrinks daily, monthly, yearly as my life changes and opportunities come and go.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 4/04/2006 02:38:00 PM  

  • Oh Carrie...ever the wise oak tree old soul mother. Thank you for your comment that was not too long, not too short, but the perfect amount. Come home.....wah. They're painting over my art wall tomorrow.

    I digress.

    Michelle-I do not feel that I have lost a portion of myself b/c of motherhood. I feel that motherhood has brought out better qualities in me and strengethened many of my weaknesses (of course motherhood has also introduced a whole new set of weaknesses).

    I would say that I have not put a portion of my identity aside, but I have put a portion of my career aside. If I were child-less there would be a long list of career-related activities that I would be participating in. Classes, networking events, coachings, and I would attend many more auditions. I would invest more time and money into my business.

    Sacrificing that list of things does not mean I am sacrificing my identity, but perhaps a small part of my ambition. The struggle for me is letting go of that. My identity remains intact, and I actually involve my children in that professional part of me much more than most working mothers, because my kids are "on the job" with me 80% of the time.

    KSL- it IS great to have more than one personality...I mean identity.

    Sunny-I like your comment about how CB talked about how she was known depending on what circle she was in. In the professional world I stand out b/c I have kids (but only if they are with me)...and I like that. It reminds me that I am a lucky woman to be a mother.

    Maralise-I love agency. I love that we can own our lives. I am starting to come to grips with the reality that it is only my (and DH) choice how many kids I have...and I shouldn't have to answer to anyone...and on that note...

    Why do I feel pressure to be this or that? I cannot think of one instance when one person told me that I needed to be a stay at home mother and have x number of kids. Yes the First Presidency has stressed women be present in the home, but I haven't had anyone in my direct life put undo pressure or specific expectations on me. I have felt lots of support from all of my family (the "safe" ones) and friends...carrie I am interested to know who these "other people" are and what expecatations they are putting on you. Is it work people? family?
    posted by Blogger Kage at 4/04/2006 05:13:00 PM  

  • Great post, Michelle, the questioning of who we “are” in light of our many responsibilities. For myself, I confess I don’t really feel much ambivalence about being a mom and an academic mainly because my hold on both of them is tenuous at best. I won’t feel like a successful academic until I get tenure somewhere (which, as you will understand, is NOT the best definition of success), and who knows if I’ll EVER feel like a successful mother☺.

    Unlike most contributors to this blog, I don’t get to choose whether I work or not: if I want the bills to be paid, I have to work. Now, I don’t have to do the work I do as an academic, but it’s what I trained to do (7 years after the BA), and though I’m waiting for a career opening as a professional TV flipper, it hasn’t happened yet, so this is what I’m stuck with (and yes, recently, I feel like I’m stuck—but that’s a whole other post). And after getting my baby, I actually had a moment in some silly meeting where I thought, “This is where I belong. I know how to do this.” I feel even more at home in a classroom—like I’m competent and making a significant societal contribution.

    Which leads to the reasons I don’t really feel my identity as a mom: I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. In fact, I’ve been contemplating writing a post entitled “Motherhood isn’t COMPLETELY awful” but thought I would offend many. (So here I go anyway, but quietly tucked away in someone else’s original post.) I just did NOT have the experience that Liz, Marion, and so many moms I know had when I got my baby. I fell in love, sure, but did NOT care for the whole motherhood thing. I’m starting to kind of like it more now but only because AF has stopped shifting to her alternate personality as Griselda the Wildebeast so often, which allows me to feel like I’m a little competent and, if not making a significant contribution, at least not permanently damaging a precious little soul. Maybe I feel this way about motherhood because I didn’t carry AF in my body for nine months (the phone call came the day AFTER she was born), maybe it’s because my hubby takes care of AF at least as much as I do so I feel no guilt about leaving her while I work, maybe I’m just a horrible mother/person, or maybe motherhood isn’t a monolithic status that can be easily described. (Btw, I’m NOT saying I don’t love my daughter; everyone I’ve tried to tell I didn’t love motherhood to told me I would like it more when I loved my daughter more. Please don’t make me try to prove I love her—just believe she is the center of my world.)

    But isn’t it interesting that I only want to claim identity for things that I think I’m good at? If you asked me right now who I am, I’d say “daughter,” (almost 4 decades of experience), “wife” (both JD and I are pretty happy with me), and “teacher” (notice, I would not say “scholar” or even “academic”). Gosh, I’m hoping I don’t have to wait four decades before I can identify myself as “mother.”
    posted by Blogger newmom at 4/04/2006 05:46:00 PM  

  • newmom, in no way should you take my "staying home was 100% what I needed to do. I couldn't imagine not being there with my little man every minute" and continue the statement with "and boy did I love every minute." HAH. Not true. And I had many a night /morning / afternoon where I was convinced that, although I loved him enough to kill for him, perhaps Max would be better off raised by someone else. The "can I send him back now" thoughts. I still have them. I think you hit on something when you guess that maybe you're being harder on yourself and doubting yourself more because AF didn't spring from your body. We all have NO IDEA WHAT THE HECK WE'RE DOING. We're just closing our eyes (in some cases holding our noses) and jumping in. Motherhood is not something to love all the time for everyone - heck, if it was, we'd have nothing to blog about!
    posted by Blogger marian at 4/04/2006 06:53:00 PM  

  • newmom-I really liked your post, especially your perspective on identifying things that you are good at. I guess I would not tell someone that I can be identified as explosive, a yeller (at times), neatfreak, manipulative, really scared of rodents, non-snowbaorder (or all the other things I suck at).

    This paragraph:

    "Unlike most contributors to this blog, I don’t get to choose whether I work or not: if I want the bills to be paid, I have to work...and though I’m waiting for a career opening as a professional TV flipper, it hasn’t happened yet..."

    makes me pause. Are you calling SAHM's tv-flippers? Just wondering. I'm pretty sure you are not. At least I hope not.

    Also, I am excited to read your upcoming posts on these various subjects, especially that last paragraph...it's gonna be good. Don't analyze that last terribley grammatically incorrect sentence.
    posted by Blogger Kage at 4/04/2006 06:56:00 PM  

  • newmom,

    I really wish you had made the post you talked about. We don't mind if once in a while a post gets people's panties in a twist! Actually, I bet you would be surprised at how many women would identify with everything you are feeling. And I am certain 100% of moms would identify with at least part of what you are feeling. We all must have superior acting skills if you think moms just know exactly how to be a mom. Or maybe you just didn't notice us when we were stumbling around with our first five month old baby. There is nothing wrong with you, we have all been down that path and I doubt what you are feeling has much to do with AF's non-incubation in your womb. And whoever it was that told you that when you love your daughter more, you will like motherhood more is on some sort of halucinogens (or I guess she might be far removed from young motherhood or at the very least--she is in the vocal minority on this one).
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 4/04/2006 08:35:00 PM  

  • After reading all the comments, I just have to toss one into the stream..
    I am relate to everything that has been said! I think it is difficult to find our ideal "place in the world" no matter what our career/familial circumstances are.. mainly because life doesn't go as we have planned, for the most part. But as a mother of 2, and with all the desires and hope within me to be a good mother, I also feel inept most of the time because I just never learned anything in college or anywhere that could properly prepare me for the life of a mom. As I drove home the other day I was actually thinking to myself how despite my abhorrence for stereotypes teaching Young Women(myself as one) to Cook, clean, and teach young children well, really would have been great knowledge! Unfortunately at the time I would rather have been chased by a ravenous tiger. No interest whatsoever. But now I find myself wishing I had those skills, only because it would enhance our lives, make things nicer. After 10 years of marriage, I only am beginning to feel like I am getting some hold on those tasks.
    And as to that "other" side of me, I try to take baby bites of everything so as to get a taste and it satisfies me enough that I can come back to being mommy and not feel resentful and feel happy a greateful for my season as a Mother of young children. I look at it seasonally, and I try to remind myself how quickly these years pass, and how I try to keep my eyes focused MORE on the eternal relationships of my life, than on the other good, yet secondary interests and desires. T
    I look at my life like a bufffet, if I take smaller portions of everything, I can fit more on my plate, and still get to taste it all!
    posted by Blogger Rachel H at 4/04/2006 08:39:00 PM  

  • I think expectations are usually far more subtle than pressure. I think sometimes, expectations are even communicated without pressure or judgement at all. And just because someone has an expectation of you, that doesn't mean they won't be supportive of your decision if it is contrary their expectation. I guess what I am saying is people who have expectations, don't always bring them with bad intentions. And I was speaking really generally about expectations, not just about work or motherhood - but everything - church callings, being a daughter, a wife, a woman, a friend. There are expectations in every aspect of our lives.

    I think part of the reason I sometimes feel paralyzed by them I can blame on my stubborn latina blood. Thanks dad!
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 4/04/2006 09:22:00 PM  

  • I agree with Carrie that I see my life as fluid rather than divided into compartments and that expectations can guide us. Problems arise in my ideology because my children do not have the same vision for me as their mommy or my parents do not have the same vision for me as their daughter. My relationships can create detours to my path, but I think there is always a chance to learn if I am humble at the time. The bottom line is that they need to see you in their hopes and expectations in you. I find it empowering and sometimes overwhelming to know that I have to not only follow my dreams, but also learn about their dreams for me as well and find balance between the two by listening to the spirit.
    posted by Blogger Tri Mama at 4/04/2006 10:11:00 PM  

  • My mom in a lot of ways put off being intellectual and professional while we were younger; she homeschooled us from the time she got custody of me in 7th grade (my sister, nine years younger, is a senior in high school now.) And my mom's about to graduate law school (next month,) after being president of the Federalist Society and editor of the Law Journal and all the rest of it. Putting something off, making it a secondary priority, or choosing not to do it right now isn't the same thing as throwing it away forever (unless, you know, it's some kind of time-limited thing.) Plus, judging from the women in the bloggernacle, I don't think that even being a full time mom shuts the brain down -- and I do think that experiences like grad school can help you be a good mother. There are all kinds of routes to being a fulfilled individual and good mom and good Mormon: one of the better moms (and Primary Presidents) I know had a whole career in the Army as an engineer.
    posted by Blogger Sarah at 4/05/2006 03:01:00 AM  

  • To clarify what Kage pointed out in my post regarding "TV flipping": No I don't think that's what mom's do all day. I don't get to do that all day when I'm doing the mom thing. What I was revealing (also very embarrassing on a blog with very competent, ambitious women) is that my dream job would be to sit on a couch and flip through the channels. People tell me I'd get bored quickly. But I've spent DECADES building up stamina, and I'm afraid I would be very good at it! BUT I suspect, that like any job, I would find it wasn't all couches and flipping; there would probably be plenty to complain about soon enough.

    Even on the days when I pretend that I could stay at home to be mother "full-time," I have to imagine a nanny. There's just too much to do as a mother to properly flip through channels:).
    posted by Blogger newmom at 4/05/2006 04:13:00 AM  

  • My 2 cents (for what it's worth :))is this:

    It doesn't matter whether a mom has been educated or not, had a career or not, or loves staying home or not, we will all have an identity crisis at some point. Those tiny children who depend on us for everything HAVE changed us in ways I'm sure none of us expected. I know that when I sit down sometimes and wonder who I am and what I've become, I tend to think to the past. Who WAS I? Instead, I should be looking forward...Who DO I want to be? I think if we focus too much on who we once were, it is detrimental to the responsibilites we have now --and can hinder the possibilities of what we can become. Hey, now I'm not saying that's easy! But probably better...
    posted by Blogger Cheryl at 4/05/2006 06:45:00 AM  

  • P.S. That's not to say it's wrong to remember that we are who we are because of what we once were --just dwelling on it could be harmful...
    posted by Blogger Cheryl at 4/05/2006 07:57:00 AM  

  • Loved all your comments! C Bushman's quote hit really close to home. I do feel like I have no place to really fit in, and that's lonely sometimes.

    I also love Marlise's point of agency and owning decisions and identity. Plus, Carrie's implication of a flexible view of identity that can change with time and circumstances (not something I'm good at--I like tried and true).

    Newmom--I would love to hear more about your experiences in academia and your thoughts on moving to new ground (getting out of the rut) when it's needed. I can also empathasize with your feelings on being a new mom with a small infant. For me, I found few rewarding aspects in the first few months. And the absolute worst part was the crying jags at certain times of the day. The transition to motherhood was a jarring and overwhelming experience for me, and I still don't feel entirely settled in it.
    posted by Blogger Michelle at 4/05/2006 10:21:00 AM  

  • For me, becoming a mother was culture shock -- changing from only worrying about my needs/wants to suddenly being responsible for the life of an innocent baby 24/7. It has been tough and I often wish for a day (hour?) off to just hang loose or not "be responsible", but in the end, I focus on this beautiful baby and think there's absolutely nothing more worthwhile I could do than help him grow and develop into his best self.

    Sometimes I'm not in the mood or just feel like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill. I'm often incompetent, but he depends on me. It's an exercise in selflessness that sometimes hurts, but makes me better, or at least allows me to somewhat try to be like Christ in a way.
    posted by Blogger Squiddy at 4/06/2006 08:35:00 AM  

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