Being ‘us’ is just too damn hard some days. We long for the transformation of motherhood, as much as for the delight of meeting our children. We are bored shitless of our inner worlds, of trying to ‘realise our potential’, tired of self-help books that promise to make it all better.
But without motherhood as our existential “Get out of Jail Free” card, we are thrown back onto ourselves and into what I think of as the lust for transformation. At its core, transformation, self-improvement and self-development all carry the same toxic message: “You’re not OK. There’s something wrong with you.”
Ten years ago, when I first came out of denial about the mess that my marriage was in, I read every self-help book I could lay my hands on. I’m a fast reader at the best of times, but that year, I must have read the A-Z of the genre. And I realised (rather smugly, I must confess) that most of them had, at their core, two messages: “Know Thyself” and “To Thine Own Self be True.” Well, that can’t be too hard, I thought.
But what these books also implied, and this is what made them books and not fridge magnets, was that there was something essentially wrong, dodgy and sub-standard about that ‘own self’ that needed fixing before it was really safe, wise or even legal to be ‘true’ to it. And so I bought the books, not the fridge-magnets, and launched onto an epic journey of self-development, of self-improvement.
We live in a capitalist culture that tells us that everything can be fixed. That if we make better decisions, try a bit harder, we’ll automatically have better outcomes. For those of us who’ve come up against the intractability of not having a family when you wanted one, we begin to realise that this ideology is bogus. That maybe the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes after all…
George Orwell wrote that “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” and sometimes it feels that in duping ourselves (individually and collectively) into believing that motherhood is the ‘answer’ to our problems we’ve swallowed a bit fat lie. And one that does disservice to all women. And that includes mothers, who aren’t meant to have any ‘problems’ as being a mother is so ‘fulfilling’.
It’s only since the pill became widely available in the mid-sixties that women were able to ‘think’ about becoming mothers, and delay that biological possibility whilst they pondered on it. And one of the inconvenient truths we’ve discovered is that creating a life of meaning is harder than it looks, whilst motherhood looks (from the outside) like a doozy.
Those of us who had tough childhoods and/or unhappy mothers may have thought “I don’t want that” and, unaware that we had the choice to be a different kind of mother, may have used careers, poor relationship choices and contraception as a way of avoiding the unprocessed disappointments and traumas of our youth. It takes turning 40 for many women to realise that they need to know where they stand on the whole ‘baby issue’. And what often comes up then is a fear of regret. Well, I’ll go further than that – an absolute terror of regret. A fear of a life that is going to consist of just ‘more of this’. More of the same. More of being ‘us’.
We long to belong, and we see that motherhood is a lifetime belonging sentence – it’s a decision that you can’t turn back from, and there’s a strange existential comfort in that. Once you’re a mother, you’re locked into your decision – which, if you’ve spent a long time vacillating about it, feels like a reassuringly restrictive freedom. Freedom from the eternal ‘what ifs’. Freedom from the freedom to wonder about it. Freedom from the fear of regret. Freedom from your inner dialogue. Ultimately freedom from yourself and from the human condition.
Well, that’s the rubbish we project onto it anyway. There is no freedom from the human condition. That’s why it’s called the human condition. Some mothers may be too busy ‘juggling’ to have time to think about the human condition, but they have a whole load of other things to worry about instead. And then their children leave home and they look back over the last 20 years of their life and think “what happened to ‘me’?”
And so, without motherhood, we are thrown back on ourselves. Our faulty, imperfect, dodgy and flawed selves that were responsible for all the crappy decisions that created the life we’re genuinely not that impressed with.
So, obviously, we need an upgrade. Because what else will we screw up otherwise?! So we buy some more books, start a new diet, give up this, start that and continue ‘working’ on ourselves. We go into therapy, join an ashram, go vegan, start internet dating, stop internet dating or just give up altogether and plan to spend the rest of our lives in our pajamas. Sometimes, checking out completely seems attractive, but what if that’s the wrong decision too? What if we get to spend an eternity wondering if we should have done something differently?!
Hang on a minute: what if there was a shocking, radical and counter-cultural way out of this? One that flies in the face of everything that the media tells us, everything that we have absorbed from the culture and made part of our inner world. One that fits on a fridge magnet:
So simple. But utterly radical.
I choose to accept my failures, my disappointments, my lack of clarity. I choose to accept my mistakes, my screw-ups, my regrets. I choose to accept my size 14 body, the muffin-top that generously embraces my waist, the lines on my face and the thread veins on my thighs. I choose to accept my divorce, my singleness, my low days and my failure to live up to my potential. I choose to accept myself in all my imperfect humanness.
And in choosing acceptance, something remarkable has happened and continues to happen. Blow me down if it’s not transformation by the back door!
- By accepting my failures, I am able to recognise my strengths (goodbye low self-esteem)
- By accepting my mistakes, I am able to seek and handle criticism (which has broadened my definition of myself and gives me new information when it comes to making decisions).
- By accepting my childlessness, I have been able to grieve for the dream of motherhood, and also to understand how much else was bound up in that goal that I didn’t want to take responsiblity for. I have grown up.
- By accepting that sadness and loneliness are part of life, not a personal failure, I’ve learned to enjoy my own company a lot more and meet and make new friends and connections
- By accepting that I don’t look like a supermodel in a bikini, I can finally be comfortable in my skin, which is a great feeling, and a pretty sexy one too.
- By accepting that some days it’s just all too much, I’ve discovered that self-care is not the same thing as self-indulgence
- By accepting my humanity, I can joyously and impishly celebrate the remarkableness of my individuality
We are the first generation of women who are discovering the space that not being a mother opens up. The childfree amongst of us chose this new way of life, whilst many of us are reluctant pioneers. Never before in the history of our civilization has our way of life been possible for so many women. It’s hardly surprising that there’s no road map, and precious few roads. It’s raw open country, a new territory. We are defining what it means to be a woman cut loose from the ties of biology. Our loving consciousness longs to find a home, but we have to build it first.
But before we can build a new house, we need to feel that we’re worth it. That we’re not failures. That our life is not a punishment for getting it wrong.