Identity Foreclosure

26 years old, attending to my 3 children. Monterey Bay, California. 2006

26 years old, attending to my 3 children. 2006. Monterey Bay, Ca.

During my 12 years in college, I sat through many courses and took part in countless academic discussions. There are a handful of classes I remember quite vividly, including one particular child development course  during which I had a profound epiphany about my self-identity. I can recall the moment rather clearly, right down to the outfit I was wearing and the classmates who were sitting around me that morning. The course content we were reviewing was Erik Erickson’s developmental stages, which describe human development as it occurs throughout the lifespan. I was tired beyond belief that morning…my second son was suffering from yet another ear infection, and I had spent most of the night cradling him in an upright position, as that was the only way he was pacified.  That would have been fine, if I were a horse. But sleeping upright is not my normal mode of op, so by the time the alarm clock sounded, I was seriously hurting. Somehow I managed to drag myself out of of the house, assignments in hand, and drop my oldest off to kindergarten before battling the mess of morning traffic, darting across campus in search of the shortest coffee-house line, and into my seat at the lecture hall all before 9 a.m. One of my single, childless classmates began complaining to me about how hard it was for her to balance college social activities with school work and  I resisted the urge to drown myself in coffee to escape her petty complaints, or at the very least inhale  caffeine into my lungs to resuscitate me from my zombie state. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary because we immediately launched into a debate that brought me out of my sleep-deprived stupor. That morning, my professor introduced us to the concept of identity foreclosure. In short, people in identity foreclosure have committed to an identity too soon, without ever having thoroughly explored their other options. We usually think of identity foreclosure in a negative sense; as in, the person who has settled for less than they might have been. We assume that this clipping of the wings is something unnatural and restrictive. But that day, as I wiped the sleep from my eyes and glanced around the university campus, I realized that for me (at the time, anyway), foreclosure was my biggest asset. 

According to Erikson’s theory, my life was foreclosed upon the day my son was born. Gone were the days of normal adolescence, typical high school life, and the freedom of youth. I was a mother. And though I was also still daughter,  sister,  friend, and student, it was motherhood that consumed my every waking minute. There was no time for youthful exploration…heck, I could barely find the time to shower. And when I did get a moment of “me” time,  it just wasn’t the same. I realized this the first time I tried to leave my infant son at home and go for a girls night on the town. While everyone around me carelessly laughed the evening away, I found my thoughts were with my baby. Was he eating okay? Would he fall asleep without me? Did I pack him enough diapers? Did I remember to leave an extra set of clothes? During a bathroom break, the girls  around me were busying themselves in front of the mirror, reapplying lipstick and whatnot while I quietly dipped into a stall to make sure my nursing pads were still in place. I just couldn’t quite bridge the gap between normal “social” teen, and young parenthood. So I kinda skipped out on it altogether. The social teen thing, that is.

For the remainder of my high school years, and most of my undergraduate college life, I threw myself into role of mother, student, and significant other. There was little room for anything else. But you know what I realized that day in class? That wasn’t necessarily a negative thing.  It allowed me to focus strictly on my family & studies without being distracted by the enticing “what-ifs” we sometimes get caught up in when we allow ourselves to wonder what might have been. You see, unlike some people who have children later in life, I never struggled with the feeling that motherhood cramped my style. Motherhood WAS my style. I owned it. I thrived in it. and I’m certain my children have benefited because of it.

I was chatting with a couple of mothers the other day who had their children later in life, and they were reminiscing about “the good ol’ days,” you know, the ones where they got to sleep in till noon, take off on spontaneous weekend trips, never worrying about babysitters or child-imposed curfews. The days before the tiresome task of care-taking for little children became the center of their universe. My “good ol’ day” fantasies circulate around the years I had only ONE child to manage, as opposed to four. There were never any weekend whims or lazy mornings to look back on longingly.  Since 16 and on, my life was about compromising my needs to meet those of my child’s.  And for me, that’s okay. You see, when my other children came along, I never felt suffocated, or resentful, or nostalgic for easier times. Does that mean I never get stressed, or weary of the day-to-day demands, or frustrated when my kids do things like pee their pants in the middle of a crowded department store on the day that I happened to forget  to bring a spare change of clothes? Absolutely not. I’m human, after all, and parenthood is not for the weary. I have my moments of impatience, and exhaustion,  and maybe even the occasional meltdown. But it is always with the underlying understanding that this is who I am. This, is who I was meant to be.  Did I mention that my other job is that of teacher? Yeah. I’m in my element when I’m nurturing children.

So here’s my latest realization: Someday my children will all be grown, and when I am retired, I will no longer be in the classroom with students. Which is why, I’ve just recently embarked on a new kind of soul-searching. One where I define myself apart from the role of mother, and teacher, and baby whisperer. It’s been a little over a year now, and I’m beginning to see glimpses of who I am during moments of quiet solitude. When I’m alone and free to do whatever I please. When no one is tugging at my pant leg begging for a juice box, or shouting across the playground, “MomMomMomWatchThisWatchThisWatchThisMooomAreYouWatching?!?”

I’m reveling in the fact that I’ve got a new lease on life, and the possibilities are endless. Whoops. Did I say lease?

What I meant was, I’m about to own this sh*t. 

 

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Battle Scars

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Our interaction was brief, no more than 2 minutes in a typical Saturday scheduled with events and appointments during which my children and I managed to squeeze in a visit to our neighborhood park. And I can’t stop thinking about her… a comment about the heatwave, a genuine smile directed at my daughter, a polite “maybe we’ll see you here again…” as she worked to buckle her cranky toddler into his stroller. And as she turned to wave to me, I saw a dark bruise on the underside of her arm, the size of a large thumbprint. My eyes trailed to her forearm, where there were a series of faint, linear cuts. Self- inflicted? By now her son was in full-blown fit mode, back arched and hollering, and she shushed him with the promise of ice cream and a chance to play video games with dad when they arrived home. And she was gone. But her image lingers in my mind.

Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of it…the faint trace of scar about a half-inch long, on my left wrist right under my ring finger. I hardly think of it now. It serves no purpose but to remind me of a period of youthful hopelessness during which I was somehow convinced that my worth was tied to the boys I was dating. This one’s name was Bryan. He was tall and fair-skinned with hazel-eyes and an inviting grin. The trace of freckles sprinkled across his nose gave off an appearance of innocence, when in reality he was anything but. At 15, he was already on a path of self-destruction that included run-ins with the cops, voluntary homelessness, and sadly, methamphetamines. Like several of the other boys I had dated, he made a habit of exerting power through hurtful phrases and a heavy hand, and he could literally destroy  & re-build my confidence all in one day. But I adored him. Our time together was short…it began in early autumn and ended before the last leaf touched down on the cold winter pavement. Thankfully. But as always, my hindsight offers me a much clearer picture of a disaster averted, though at the time of our parting I was devastated. I remember there was another girl (isn’t that often the story?), and she happened to be a friend of mine. I consoled myself with Jack Daniels and my friend’s word that she would never pursue a relationship with him. And in my stupor, I found relief in hurting myself. Hence, the scar. The first, and last time I ever took comfort from the endorphin rush of self-harm. I was 14 years old.

These are not easy memories for me to recall, though it’s interesting for me to look back and see how, by the age of 15, I had silently vowed to myself that I could never put up with regular overt violence in my relationships…although up until fairly recently I did learn to tolerate (and engage in) bouts of covert conflict marked with verbal taunts and emotional stalemates. I know this is a common enough story that I’m willing to bet many of you reading this are nodding your heads, perhaps remembering a time that your broken heart lead you to depression, or self-medication, or injury. Or maybe it was none of these. Maybe your heart lead you to remain in a destructive relationship, and convinced you that a familiar suffering was better than the unfamiliar fate you’d endure if you somehow managed to walk away.

     We acquire many scars in the name of love; some are emotional, some are hidden & self-inflicted, others are visible to all. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to remove yourself from a situation that you have grown accustomed to. Or to admit that you are locked in a destructive pattern of interaction, either emotionally, physically, or verbally. The statistics on abusive relationships and related trauma in our country are sobering. Several studies have noted a co-occurance between dating/domestic violence and self-injury. And many sources estimate that 1 in 3 women have at one time been a victim of dating/domestic abuse. One in THREE. Which basically makes violence against women one of the most pervasive human rights crises in the world.

 If you are trying in vain to hide the battle scars of your hidden war, know that you are not alone. Know that voicing your struggle is the first step toward freeing yourself from it. Realize that, even if you feel completely isolated, there are people waiting in the wings who will support you are you take your first steps on different path.

 I regret not having said something to her. Not to pry or ask questions. But to offer friendship. A phone number. A bridge into our neighborhood network of strong, supportive women, many of whom have experienced similar misfortune at one point in their lives. If we happen to cross paths again, I will not hesitate to reach out…

Sister, you are stronger than the weight of his words. You are whole even in the absence of his presence. You, are a work of art to be admired and protected from defacement—be it from the hands of others, or your own.

Mother, love is not allowing your wings to be unwillingly clipped, even if you convince yourself it’s for the sake of your children. If you live in constant conflict, your little ones may benefit more from seeing you in flight than watching you wither in captivity. True, a nuclear family is worth is weight in gold…but a peaceful home is priceless.

Daughter, as I held you tenderly during your most vulnerable times, so should he respond to you with gentle touch and soothing words. Never expect less. Never settle.

And most importantly; Sons, with your hands, exhibit kindness. With your eyes, respect. With your tongue, honor. With your heart, love. And seek out a partner who will do the same.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/VAWG-Dialogue-Ending-Violence-against-Women-Girls/224212490996337
 http://www.loveisrespect.org/
http://www.weaveinc.org/domestic-violence-information
http://selfinjuryfoundation.org/self-injurers.html
 

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Birthdays, Re-Birth, and Other Tales of Redemption

The Journey Begins: January 27, 1997.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of my oldest son’s birth. I have officially been a mother for 15 years now.  Truth is, if you had met me as a young teen,in my pre-parenthood days, there is a good chance you would not have liked me. I was rebellious, but not in a creative, productive way. My rebellion manifested itself in the form of showy mouthiness, disregard for authority, and of course, a tendancy to attend more parties than I did class. I remember being quite smug, thinking that my “me against the world” act would somehow mask the underlying issues that I didn’t want to face. Insecurities, selfishness,  & manipulation were constant themes in those days, and I really think I was on a self-destructive joy ride that had no definitive end until…it all came to a screeching halt. During those early days when I grappled with the daunting thought of bringing another life into my world, a world that was wrought with chaos & uncertainty, I recall a prayer spoken aloud in the wee hours of the morning, “God, send me an angel to tell me what to do!” The answer came instantly: “I already have.” My priorities changed literally overnight, and my old ways were quickly forgotten. This served us well, and though there were missteps and mishaps, I think I truly gave parenting my all. I wish I could say that with each subsequent addition to my family, I became a better person & parent. But that was not always the case. 
For some cultures, including our own, time is described as a highway stretched between past and future, and people travel along it like numbers across a number line. In other cultures, our lives are viewed as being stationary in time. Rather than marching in perfect evolutionary formation to a flawless end existence, the future advances toward us, instead of us toward it. And so it is with my life. I evolve, and regress, and then become inspired to evolve again. There is a Japanese proverb that wisely states, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” I assume that I will continue getting tripped up, and rising, until I leave this earth. 
After my first-born, time went on and my world expanded into a predictable circle of family gatherings, rewarding friendships, college, career, and other events. But a few years ago, I felt myself getting restless. I began wondering if my early journey into parenthood caused me to miss opportunities that I might have otherwise  enjoyed. I contemplated the possibilities that might have been. I wondered if it was too late to re-invent myself, as my 30th birthday was looming on the horizon. Developmental theorist Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis“, and describes a stage called foreclosure, in which a person has made a life commitment  without attempting identity exploration.  According to Erikson, a person must then undergo an identity crisis (also called moratorium) in order to achieve a genuine sense of self. My identity crisis came at age 30 in the form of -(drumroll please)- a positive pregnancy test. Again.
Prior to that, I had become quite comfortable with the thought of ending our family sentence with the birth of my 3rd son. Then life added one final exclamation mark, highlighted in pink. Enter: my daughter. I had literally JUST met with my OB to discuss more permanent methods of BC, when I found out I was expecting a fourth. To say I was ambivalent is an understatement. My youngest was getting ready to enter school in the upcoming year, and my husband I were becoming accustomed to a renewed  night life and the ability to sleep late (late being 8:00am- max) in the morning. Life felt somewhat spontaneous again. Then she arrived. A beautiful, humbling reminder of why it is crucial that we not become so tightly wrapped up in ourselves that we suffocate. Which is what I was doing by becoming consumed with the grass on the other side of the young parenthood fence. Regret, I learned, is a colossal waste of energy. You cannot build anything useful from it, but if you allow it to, it can tear down a strong foundation. I chose to let it go, and focus on the here and now. Here is the life we are living & now is the time to be grateful for it.
Life  has slowed down again. And it could not have come at a better time. These past two years I have enjoyed so many tender moments getting re-acquainted with the little things. Friday nights at home making forts, Sunday mornings sitting by the bay window with my early birds, watching the sun-rise and giggling over the comics… I want to thank my first-born, and my last-born, and all those born in-between,  for prompting me to reinvent myself, day after day. You little people inspire me, everyday, to evolve into a person who is worthy of being your Mommy. And of all the identities I have known in my 32 years- friend, student, teacher, wife, mentor- It is that of mother that has proved most rewarding, day after day after day…
 

An inscription from my mother, in the journal she gifted me 15 years ago