I’ve often read women of a certain age talking about how they ‘disappear’ in the eyes of society once they’re no longer young. I find you can achieve the same thing when you’re pushing a pram – at any age. But what about disappearing TO YOURSELF? The question certainly struck a chord with author, Kylie Ladd. She writes….
A strange thing happened when my first child was born. I disappeared. Not for good, but for a while. In fact, it’s only recently I feel that I’ve begun to reappear…
Nobody warns you about this in the ante-natal classes or the pregnancy manuals. No-one tells you that when you give birth you gain a child, but you lose yourself. Perhaps that’s just as well. Who would believe such a thing?
I certainly wouldn’t have myself. In the year before Declan was born my husband and I had just moved overseas. It was a wonderful time. I had two great jobs: helping to set up a brand new memory clinic, the first in Scotland, and lecturing psychology students at the University of Edinburgh. In between, we were loving exploring our new city: getting out to pubs, going to Festival events every night during summer, making new friends and slipping away to Europe as often as we could- which was quite a lot, given Paris was only a 45-minute flight away. Then I got pregnant, and we were delighted, and then I gave birth, and everything stopped.
I was never one of those women who swore blindly that a baby wasn’t going to change her life. I wasn’t stupid. I knew some alterations were inevitable, and handed in my notice at work. But I wasn’t expecting quite the degree of upheaval that occurred. I’d thought about losing the mental stimulation of work, but hadn’t realised that by leaving my jobs I’d be leaving my main circle of friends too. I knew I couldn’t take the baby to pubs or comedy shows, but hadn’t apprehended how lonely I’d feel when my husband continued to go to them a couple of nights a week- at my behest, admittedly. I had no idea how much a newborn needs of you. And I certainly hadn’t grasped how baby-unfriendly the city was- from the cobblestones that made pushing a pram a nightmare, to the cafes that didn’t allow children and the department stores without changing facilities, to the National Gallery, where I was asked to go outside while breastfeeding one snowy Boxing Day for fear that I was offending the other patrons.
The last straw came when I took Declan to the local health centre for his three month check-up. I was sitting waiting to be called when a young nurse came out, reading from the list of appointments. “Declan’s mum?” she called, “Declan’s mum?” It was all I could do not to cry. I didn’t even have a name anymore.
This is so narcissistic, isn’t it? Selfish, too. But it’s real, at least for some of us, and I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t, because that would only abet the disappearance. I suspect too that this loss of identity is felt most strongly by those of us who have delayed motherhood to our thirties or forties, who have travelled, become financially independent, enjoyed a good education and rewarding careers, who have bought into the idea that we can have it all.
“I went to a party,” recalls celebrated feminist and author Naomi Wolf, “and found myself chatting with a noted biographer.
‘What are you working on?’ he asked me.
‘Well, I’m at home with a newborn, and…’ Before I had finished the sentence he had tuned out. With scarcely a murmured excuse, he moved on to more promising social pastures.”
In her book Misconceptions, Wolf writes with feeling about the ‘social demotion’ experienced by mothers. British novelist Rachel Cusk chooses exactly the same word in her memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother: “The state of motherhood… is a demotion, a displacement, an opportunity to give up.” On the other side of the world, sociologist Susan Maushart agrees. “Many researchers have spoken of the transition to motherhood as a period of grieving for the ‘lost self’… the autonomous, centre-stage life which most childless women have enjoyed and taken for granted. With the drastic changes that motherhood entails, women feel their old selves have been somehow swallowed up or ensnared.”
Or just disappeared. “I look in the cupboard, and there’s my work bag and my heels and all these beautiful flirty dresses I used to wear to parties and functions, and I wonder whose they are,” a friend with a four month old baby told me recently. “They’re mine, but they seem like they belong to another me. I can’t imagine ever wearing them again.”
You will, I reassure her, but I can see she doesn’t believe me. At the moment, the self that wore those dresses and strode so confidently to work in those heels is gone, disappeared. Drowned in breast milk and the nappy bucket, misplaced somewhere between the midnight and four am feeds, re-moulded from her own independent person into Jessica’s mother. And when you disappear like that it feels as if you will stay lost forever.
But you won’t, not necessarily. Some women traverse this phase easily and emerge out the other side as if nothing has happened. Others take years to reappear, and are never quite the same. And others, hopefully, find something of themselves in the transition to make up for what is lost.
I was doing an interview a couple of years ago to promote my second book when the journalist asked me how long I had been writing for. I mumbled something vague and predictable about having always wanted to write… but thinking about it afterwards it dawned on me that I didn’t truly start writing until I had children. My first published piece appeared when Declan was five months old. Yes, I’d always loved words and reading, and yes, I’d always had this vague idea that I would write, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I actually sat down and did so. In terms of time and energy available, I couldn’t have chosen a worse possible moment. Looking back now though, I wonder if the writing wasn’t initiated by my trying to dig down and find the old me, to reclaim something of who I saw myself as.
Sometimes we disappear so that we can be reborn.
This post originally appeared here
Did you disappear when you had children? Publicly? Privately?