It’s no secret that becoming a mother changes your life. In fact, the wordsIt’s gonna change everything! were perhaps the most often said to me while I was pregnant with my son and to which I developed a response that was a polite smile and nod disguising teeth set in annoyance. I know I know enough already! I was half irritated by the general disposition of people to tell pregnant women all about what it’s like to become a parent, as if they know exactly what you’re going through because they have a kid already or their sister had a baby last year or something. The other half of my irritation came from fear of this certainty of radical change in the makeup of my life and self, and the uncertainty that surrounded what would come next.
I didn’t want the change, at least not all of it. I wanted to become a mother and not let it change me without my consent. I wanted to have this baby and fit him right into my life. Sure, I knew I would have to carry diapers in my backpack alongside my journals and steel water bottle. I knew I would have to trade my cherished Datsun pickup for a car with working seat belts. But I could still do everything else the same, right? Yes, sort-of, and also not at all.
In the early spring of Joseph’s first year, I sat with my mother and my friend Rose on the in the window booth of an ice cream shop in Hot Springs, North Carolina where we were spending the weekend. It was still too cold for ice cream, really, but I had insisted. Rose and I reminisced through laughter about the nine months of my pregnancy. We had done a lot in that time: attending the earth-skills gathering Whippoorwill festival, visiting another friend at Wild Roots — an off-grid homestead in the mountains of North Carolina, riding in the annual 4th of July bike parade Freedom Thighsand starting a Bike Collective to name a few.
Rose congratulated me: Damn, you did a lot for a pregnant lady!
She didn’t want her life to change, my mom stated simply.
I said nothing and after a moment of silence promptly changed the subject.Don’t speak for me, I thought, My life hasn’t changed! Look at me, I’m in the mountains right now doing what I always do! I couldn’t have admitted it at that time, but I had an active resistance army building a fortress against the upheaval around and inside me, and I didn’t appreciate someone else pointing out what I wasn’t allowing even myself to see.
Many months later I knew that her analysis was spot-on. I didn’t want to lose my old life, so I sunk my teeth into it as deep as I could. Not knowing what could come after, I didn’t want to lose my identity and my community, which for much of my young adult years was defined by a decidedly not-kid-friendly lifestyle. We were a community because we rode cobbled together bicycles, because we went to punk shows and cooked for Food Not Bombs, because we ate food out of dumpsters, because we went into the woods with tarps and hand-me-down-camp-stoves, because we mended our socks and were vaguely reckless. None of us had kids, and for good reason.
In a certain kind of youth culture, “mom” is a derogatory term. As in the sarcastic Thanks, mom. Even as recently as a few weeks ago as I moved into a new one-bedroom apartment, a friend who helped me load boxes up the rickety staircase laughing said, You’re such a Mom, now! Look at you, you have a Subaru and an apartment and a grown-up job and everything! He was just teasing me in fun, and I didn’t take any offense, but he articulated an ideal that still exists in our community and, when I’m honest, in me. Mom means boring, means safe, means mainstream, means responsible, means grown-up, tepid, meaningless.
In my life, in times of sadness or deep turmoil, I take to the woods walking. My feet on the packed earth path is the only thing I have found that can hold me while I mourn, or while I search, or while I worry.
I spent a lot of time walking that first year of my son’s life, with his small body slung against my chest in the Ergo-baby, trying to understand what it meant to be the mother of this new life and be a person I can recognize at the same time.
Becoming never happens all at once. Becoming a mother doesn’t happen at the moment of birth, or at the moment of conception, it happens the first time you imagine yourself with a child in your arms. It grows the first time you look at your partner wondering if you could raise a child with them and think yea, maybe. It sparks at conception (you can feel it) and incubates right along with the baby (what kind of mother will I be?). You build a space for the child in your life. You buy diapers and blankets and onesies. The birth comes and you leap together across the threshold, jumping with both feet into the deep end, where there is no solid stone to be found anywhere.
It is like the riddle of the frog that leaps accidentally into a bucket, and as he treads the liquid he calls for help, but there is no one to hear him. Just as he thinks he is too tired to tread anymore and he thinks he will drown, he begins to feel something solid under his feet. He hops out of the bucket. The liquid was cream and he has churned it into butter.
This is how the early months of my child’s life felt to me, but months go by — you go back to work or you don’t, you learn the rhythm of the dance that soothes your baby best, you learn to leave the house with everything you need, to change a diaper on your lap. A new kind of normal emerges. You start to think you might make it after all. People say, You are such a good mother, and they are right.
The first time I had something solid to stand on and a moment to look around, it was easy to see that things in my self and life were different but mostly for the better. I had left my abusive partner, broken up destructive patterns of behavior, asserted boundaries, forged new friendships and restored old ones. I had to stop smoking and drinking and I even gave up coffee. I had a beautiful and safe place to live and a job that paid my bills.
Whew, I thought, glad that’s over. And part of it was. I had made space forMother alongside the rest of my identities, just like I made space for my son alongside the rest of my life. But between that first look around and the moment I am writing these words there were three moves and two job transitions ahead of me. I was and am clearly still in the throes of figuring out what it means to be the mother of this new life and be a person I can recognize at the same time, and suddenly I can see that this will probably be true for the rest of my life.
Unexpectedly, it was in writing a manifesto for an open-source, self-directed Artist In Residence In Motherhood that I was able to identify and name this new acceptance of the complex part of my life that I am in the middle of. I based my manifesto heavily on that written by Lenka Clayton, the multidisciplinary artist and founder of this residency. It reads:
Like all new mothers, the birth of my child ignited a process of transformation — both internal in my person and external in the structures of my life — that is ongoing still even as my son has crossed into his second year. Among the tectonic shifts has been in the way that I myself and others see my career as an artist. It is a commonly held perception that the serious artist and the good mother are mutually exclusive endeavors. I actively reject this notion and choose to instead present the idea that my work as an artist strengthens my capacities as a mother and my life as a mother deepens my work: that they inform one another. I undergo this self-imposed Artist Residency in order to fully experience the unique challenges and structures of being both a Working Artist and a Single Mother, to make the best use of the material and resources at hand, and to allow these circumstances to shape the direction of my work rather than doggedly attempting to work “despite” them.
I have been trying to live my old life despite my new identity and responsibilities, fearing to feel the pain and loss and look clearly at all that I am no longer able to do, the people I am no longer be able to relate to, but this resistance is the very thing that causes the pain. Hoping to live and work and be in the same ways as old days only serves to make me angry and resentful of what is in front of me, to see motherhood as a limit instead of as a catalyst.
Naming this acceptance of transformation as a strategy for my work as an artist shifted immediately my conception of my role as mother. I can now see the new potential that is available to me because of my son, not despite him; different from the old to be certain but no less and very likely more — new kinds of beauty that permeate every moment, deepness of experience that is new material for my work, raw nerve endings illuminate new knowings about the world without and within, demands on my time create new ways of working breaking up habits that no longer serve my process.
Perhaps most profoundly, and most terrifying of all, are the new capacities of self unearthed by the demands of mothering. Motherhood has brought me to my most vulnerable places, but it has also brought me face to face with how strong I can be, how big I can be, and the sorts of superhuman feats I am capable of pulling off on five hours of sleep and whole lot of coffee.